“She peeks out of the picture as a short, spry-looking woman with slightly graying hair”.
This is how the AP described the widely reported reconstruction based on the 10,000 year old skeleton of a woman, recovered by archaeologists in northeastern Yucatan, Mexico.
As I read the multiple news stories and blog posts inspired by the reconstructive sculpture, included in a current museum exhibit in Mexico, I found myself thinking that this reconstruction of a past person– called “La mujer de Las Palmas” after the site where her remains were found– should be clear fodder for this blog.
And yet– something bothered me about the coverage, and prevented my adding my two cents to the flood of discussion.
Here’s the basic facts:
In 2007, Mexican archaeologists publicized results of carbon-14 dating of three sets of human remains found in underwater caves near Tulum, the late prehispanic fortified coastal town in Yucatan. The three individuals dated were of antiquity unprecedented in Yucatan: bodies of two women and a man, dating to between 12,500 BC and 8000 BC.
The caves near Tulum were inundated as sea levels rose with the melting of glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Also found in these caves were remains of extinct animals including ancient horses, camelids, giant armadillos, and animals related to modern elephants. These circumstances support the dates obtained and help persuade even skeptics that these were early Palaeoindian inhabitants of the area.
The original reports lent themselves to thinking about the recovered remains as those of individual people whose lives we might be able to reconstruct. One of the women was estimated to have died between ages 20 and 30; another between 44 and 50 years old; and a man was estimated to have died between 25 and 30 years old. In 2007, the archaeologists said that there would be studies of the pathologies suffered by these individuals and their causes of death, the kind of work that bioarchaeologists carry out that can contribute to osteobiographies.
While that work is likely continuing, it is not what has attracted the attention of the press: instead, we are offered inferences about the peopling of the Americas based on the reconstruction, which depicts facial features that are said to indicate a southeast Asian origin, perhaps in Indonesia, rather than the more orthodox northeast Asian origin that features centrally in the canonical story of first inhabitants of the Americas striding across the Bering land bridge.
And this helps identify what has been bothering me with the new wave of coverage of the Tulum-area early skeletons.
The original find should have been a big deal. Having such well-preserved skeletons discovered at all is newsworthy. Having such early skeletons show up in an area previously thought not to have been occupied at such an early date is exceptionally important.
Indeed, within a year, the National Geographic was covering the find, describing one woman as “Naharon Eve” (after the local name of the cave where this skeleton was found)
But there appears to have been a collective yawn in the English language press, despite the lure of the National Geographic’s headline “Oldest Skeleton in Americas Found in Underwater Cave?”.
Until now. Now that the reconstruction has been released.
What it is doing, apparently, is allowing journalists (and thus the readers for whom they act as filters) to envisage the the living person behind the skeleton.
That is what was intended by the naming of one skeleton “Naharon Eve”: personalizing the question of migration and origin, placing on the shoulders of one of these individuals the weight of being the mother who founded a population.
But even with that act of naming, the original story did not take fire. The more neutral “woman of Las Palmas” has dramatized the story because of her particularities. It is unlikely that most viewers fascinated by her are attracted by the prospect of deciding for themselves if she looks like an ancestral Indonesian.
What grabs our attention is the slightly bent pose, the strands of grey hair, the whole person.
So why does she have to be pressed into service in an artificial controversy about the peopling of the Americas?
As archaeologist Susan Gillespie of the University of Florida is quoted as saying in the AP article
the situation is messier than the straightforward scenario … of big-game hunters chasing woolly mammoths over the exposed `Bering bridge’ to Alaska….Recently there has been more serious inquiry into the various origins of migrants, modes of transportation, and dates of when they got here.
Wherever her ancestors came from, and whatever route they followed to reach Yucatan, the woman of Las Palmas is not telling. What she is showing us, courtesy of forensic reconstruction techniques, is what one of the earliest known women in the Americas might have looked like:
“a short, spry-looking woman with slightly graying hair.”