The skull of Luzia, possibly the oldest skeleton in the Americas, who has facial features distinctive of Australian Aborigines.
Cranial features distinctive to Australian Aborigines are present in hundreds of skulls that have been uncovered in Central and South America, some dating back to over 11,000 years ago.
Evolutionary biologist Walter Neves of the University of São Paulo, whose findings are reported in a cover story in the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, has examined these skeletons and recovered others, and argues that there is now a mass of evidence indicating that at least two different populations colonised the Americas.
He and colleagues in the United States, Germany and Chile argue that first population was closely related to the Australian Aborigines and arrived more than 11,000 years ago.
The second population to arrive was of humans of ‘Mongoloid’ appearance – a cranial morphology distinctive of people of East and North Asian origin – who entered the Americas from Siberia and founded most (if not all) modern Native American populations, he argues.
“The results suggest a clear biological affinity between the early South Americans and the South Pacific population. This association allowed for the conclusion that the Americas were occupied before the spreading of the classical Mongoloid morphology in Asia,” Neves says.
Until about a decade ago, the dominant theory in American archaeology circles was that the ‘Clovis people’ – whose culture is defined by the stone tools they used to kill megafauna such as mammoths – was the first population to arrive in the Americas.