August 30, 2010

The Face of Ancient Mexico

She is known as La Mujer de las Palmas (the Lady of the Palms) and she made her home near Tulum, on the Riviera Maya. Not as a legendary creature, but as a living, breathing human being. Only she was there between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, and that is changing a lot of what historians took for granted.

La Mujer's remainsLa Mujer's skeletal remains were discovered, in the Las Palmas cenote, in 2008. It is uncertain how she died, though it's unlikely that the water was the cause. The Yucatan Peninsula was a desert-like prairie at the time, so the sinkhole would not have been flooded.

However, it is now known what she looked like. The hyper-realistic reconstruction, pictured above, was created by Atelier Daynes, a company based in Paris, France. By taking casts of La Mujer's skull and skeleton, these experts were able to use state-of-the-art techniques and sculpture, alongside the latest paleo-anthropological knowledge, to determine precisely how she would have looked in life.

La Mujer de las Palmas was aged between 44 and 50, at the time of her death. She weighed around 128lbs (9 stone) and stood at 1.6 meters (5.1 ft). What has really surprised those coming face to face with her is her race. She doesn't look like any of the indigenious people of Mexico nor the rest of the Americas, as they were supposed to be at the time. Atelier Daynes wrote, in their report, "Her body structure, skin and eyes are similar to the population of Southeast Asia."

Dr Alejandro Terrazas, an anthropologist at the University of Mexico, explained that, until now, it was believed that Mexico was populated through one or two waves of migration, crossing the Bering Strait from North Asia. La Mujer has changed that view. "History is not that simple, there were a lot of movements."

“What Mujer de las Palmas reveals is that there were more migrations from Southern and Central Asia, that resulted in a local evolution in America," he continued, "producing a great diversity of populations, which already existed when the Clovis Culture developed."

Americas migration
Image Copyright Mark Hubbe

This idea, that the Americas were an ethnic melting pot from the very dawn of its human population, has also gained credence with Prof Susan Gillespie, at the University of Florida. However, she cautions against us comparing La Mujer de Las Palmas with the modern-day inhabitants of South Asia. These were not necessarily the same people who were there 10,000 years ago.

"You have to find skeletons of the same time period in Asia, or use genetic reconstructions, to make a strong connection, and cannot rely on modern populations. Do we have any empirical data on what Southeast Asian women looked like ... 10,000 years ago?"

The reconstruction of La Mujer de las Palmas is currently on display, in the 'Altered Planet: Climate Change and Mexico' exhibition, in Silao, Guanajuato. It is part of an Expo being held to mark the Bicentennial of Mexican Independence and will continue until November 20th, 2010.

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