Luzia’s skull is in pieces because the glue that held it together melted under the heat, but the damage was less than expected.

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Recovery of famous treasures raises hopes of more finds in Brazilian museum’s ashes

From the scorched rubble of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, scientists have recovered one of the museum’s most prized possessions: the skull of Luzia, believed to be one of the oldest sets of human remains in the Americas. Researchers recovered it last week from inside the metal case and metal cabinet where it was kept—broken and scarred, but in good enough shape to be reconstructed. “It was like a member of the family coming back to us,” says archaeologist Claudia Carvalho, who is overseeing recovery efforts at the museum.

A famous meteorite called Angra dos Reis, dating back 4.5 billion years to the beginning of the solar system, was also recovered from a metal cabinet.

The two finds offer scientists a glimmer of hope that more treasures may be recovered from the remains of the museum, which was almost entirely destroyed by a fire on 2 September. A complete damage assessment and recovery operation is expected to begin next year, after the structural integrity of the building is secured. Scientists are allowed inside only briefly now, to accompany the construction teams that are reinforcing the walls and federal police offices who are still investigating the cause of the fire.

“We are only collecting in places where they have to clear the ground to anchor the walls,” said museum Director Alexander Kellner. The status of the paleontological collection, which contains several reference specimens of dinosaurs and pterosaurs—Kellner’s specialty—is still undetermined. Some collections that were kept in adjacent buildings, such as plants, mammals, and marine invertebrates, were not affected.

Believed to be about 11,500 years old, Luzia’s skull was discovered in 1975 by a team of French-Brazilian archaeologists in a cavern of Minas Gerais state, known as the Red Cave. It was a celebrity in the museum’s 20-million-item collection. The skull is in pieces now because the glue that held it together melted in the heat of the fire. Some parts were broken, but the damage was “less than expected,” Carvalho said. For safety reasons, the skull and a piece of Luzia’s femur were kept isolated on the ground floor, separated from the rest of the anthropology collection on the third floor, which collapsed completely. The status of this remaining material is unknown.

We are not giving up on our collections. We want them to be reborn, even if it take decades.

Claudia Carvalho, National Museum of Brazil

Founded 200 years ago, in June 1818, the National Museum held vast archaeological and natural history collections, including zoology, botany, paleontology, and mineralogy. Scientists had been warning for years that the building—a historical palace that served as a residence for the royal families that ruled Brazil in imperial times—was deteriorating and vulnerable to fire. But the museum, maintained by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, lacked funds to make the necessary adjustments. The fire completely gutted the inside of the museum, leaving only the outside walls standing.

“Although we lost a significant part of our collections, we didn’t lose our capacity to generate knowledge,” Kellner wrote in a letter he released last week, addressed to Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, the two presidential candidates in Brazil’s runoff election on 28 October. Keller asked both to “commit to the reconstruction of the museum” and ensure that the necessary funds are available in 2019. “Unfortunately, I haven’t heard back from either of them,” he says.

The assessment and recovery process will essentially be an archaeological dig, to salvage not only the artifacts, but also the information and history associated with them. “We are not giving up on our collections,” Carvalho says. “We want them to be reborn, even if it take decades.”