History Files


Prehistoric Americas

First Americans were Australian

Edited from BBC News, 26 August 1999

Evidence was presented in 1999 that the first Americans were descended from Australian aborigines.

The evidence was to be included in a new BBC documentary entitled Ancient Voices.

It would show that the dimensions of prehistoric skulls which had been found in Brazil matched those of the aboriginal peoples of Australia and Melanesia. Other evidence suggested that these first Americans were later massacred by invaders from Asia - the ancestors of all later native Americans.

Asian migrants used the ice age land bridge between Siberia and Alaska to reach North America, from where they could migrated further across the whole of the two continents. With the ending of the ice age, the land bridge was gradually flooded until it was cut off entirely.

However, the new evidence showed that these people did not arrive into an empty wilderness. Stone tools and charcoal from the site in Brazil showed evidence of human habitation as long ago as 50,000 years.

The site was at Serra Da Capivara in remote north-eastern Brazil. This area is now inhabited by the descendants of European settlers and African slaves who arrived just five hundred years ago. But cave paintings found here provided the first clue to the existence of a much older people.

Ancient animals

Images of giant armadillos, which died out before the last ice age, show that the artists who drew them lived here before the Asian-descended natives who greeted the Europeans. The Asian descendants have facial features which have been described as mongoloid. However, skulls dug from a depth which equates to dates between 10,000-7000 BC are very different.

Walter Neves, an archaeologist from the University of Sao Paolo, took extensive skull measurements from dozens of skulls, including the oldest, a young woman who was named Lucia. The next step was to reconstruct a face from Lucia's skull. First, a CAT scan of the skull was carried out to allow an accurate working model to be made.

Then a forensic artist, Richard Neave from the University of Manchester, UK, created a face for Lucia. The result was surprising - it had all the features of a negroid face.

Boat people

The skull dimensions and facial features matched most closely to the native people of Australia and Melanesia. These people date back at least 60,000 years, and were themselves descended from the first humans to leave Africa in a permanent migratory wave, around 70,000-80,000 years ago.

But how could the early Australians have travelled more than 13,500 kilometres at that time? The answer came from more cave paintings, this time from the Kimberley, a region at the northern tip of Western Australia. Here, Grahame Walsh, an expert on Australian rock art, found the oldest painting of a boat anywhere in the world. The style of the art meant that it was at least 17,000 years old, but could be much older.

The crucial detail was in the high prow of the boat. This would have been unnecessary for boats used in calm, inland waters. The design suggests that it was used on the open ocean. Archaeologists speculated that such an incredible sea voyage, from Australia to Brazil, would not have been undertaken knowingly but was instead accidental.

In 1996, five African fishermen were caught in a storm and a few weeks later were washed up on the shores of South America. Two of the fishermen died, but three made it alive - more than enough to prove that such a voyage was possible.


But if the first Americans had drifted from Australia, where are their descendants now? Again, the skulls suggested an answer.

The shape of the skulls changed between 7,000 BC and 5,000 BC from being exclusively negroid to exclusively mongoloid. Combined with rock art evidence of increasing violence at this time, it appears that the mongoloid (Asian) people from the north invaded and wiped out the original Americans.

The only evidence of any survivors comes from Terra del Fuego, the islands at the remotest southern tip of South America. The pre-European Fuegeans, who lived stone age-style lives until the twentieth century, show hybrid skull features which could have resulted from intermarrying between mongoloid and negroid peoples. Their rituals and traditions also bear some resemblance to the ancient rock art in Brazil.

The identity of the first Americans is an emotive and controversial question. But the evidence from Brazil, and a handful of people who still live at the very tip of South America, suggests that the Americas have been home to a greater diversity of humans than previously thought - and for much longer.



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