Human Fossils Found in the Americas

We usually talk about fossils of other species here on this blog, either prehistoric mammals or dinosaurs, but today we’re going to explore some human fossils, specifically some of the oldest human fossil recorded in the Americas.  We are going to talk about some of the challenges faced when dealing with human fossil finds and the benefits of having an understanding of the culture in which the person lived.


Map Former Lake Texcoco AreaTepexpan man, found on the shore of Lake Texcoco, a lake which no longer exists, was found in 1947 by the archaeologist Helmut de Terra. To give a little geographic perspective, Lake Texcoco is the location where the Aztecs established Tenochtitlan.  This city was located on an island in Lake Texcoco.  The fact that the remains were near mammoth fossils can tell us a number of things (potentially, I’ll discuss the reasons for doubt later) about who the man was, how he died, and how long ago he lived. The proximity to the mammoth fossils leads many to believe that he could be as much as 10,000-8,000 years old. Tepexpan man could have been a hunter, and injuries to his legs indicate that he was either killed accidentally by a fellow hunter or was killed by a mammoth he was fighting with. These theories are supported by the fact that the skeleton is arranged in the fetal position, as though he had just been injured before he died and was in pain.

Skull and Reconstructed Face Ancient HumanThere is some reason to cast doubt on all of these conclusions, however. Radio-carbon dating has placed the skeleton at roughly 5,000 years old, and some scientists believe that they could have lived as recently as 2,000 years ago. The radio-carbon dating may have been affected by radiation from the ground surrounding the fossil remains which comes from dramatic shifts in the lake’s composition as a result of volcanic activity. This could have been happening during the life of Tepexpan man. Another theory is that he lived much more recently and was buried among older sediments.

Scientists have found that the lime around the vertebrae means that the individual likely suffered from arthritis. Studies of the skull and the fusion of bones has led to the conclusion that the man was around 40 at the age of his death. Tepexpan man also had suffered a lot of damage to his mouth during his lifetime, as he only had three teeth remaining on the upper jaw and had lost all of his molars on the lower jaw. Scientists can tell that they were lost during his lifetime because the mandible (the jawbone) has been healed over. His remaining teeth, though, seem to be in fine condition.  It is interesting to note when reading about this fossil find that we can tell a great deal of information about the physical condition of his life however the why questions are much harder to answer.


Adult Mammoth Skeleton
Mammoth fossils found at La Brea Tar Pits, California

La Brea Woman is named for the La Brea Tar Pits in California (where a great deal of fossil evidence has been found, especially about Dire wolves) and is the only human to be found there.  Wolves, mammoths, and many other animals unfortunate enough to have been trapped in the tar pits have provided scientists with a supply of fossils to analyze.   With the use of radio-carbon dating, scientists have shown La Brea Woman to be from roughly 10,000 years ago. At the time of her death, she was a young adult, perhaps around 20 years old. It is believed that she was buried their ceremonially because of her proximity to a domestic dog who was believed to be buried alongside her. However, much more recent discoveries have concluded that the dog was in fact buried only 3,000 years ago. This could throw uncertainty onto whether or not she herself was deliberately buried or not.  Again the why questions are very difficult to answer and educated guesses are what can be made at this point.


View of San Miguel Island
San Miguel Island, California

Tuqan Man leaves little room to wonder about ceremonial burial.  Tuqan Man is a 10,000 year old skeleton from San Miguel Island in California. This fossils were found in 2005, alongside a variety of artifacts. Radio-carbon dating determined that these objects are from the same time as Tuqan Man. Analysis of his skeleton has showed that he was roughly 40 when he died. Unlike Tepexpan Man and La Brea Woman, we know of the culture that Tuqan Man lived in which is a huge help to scientists. His people lived on the island as well as on the mainland, which would have been somewhat connected during his lifetime. Regardless of this, they also had boat technology and were fishers. They were also avid traders with their neighbors. Their living descendants today are the Chumash people, who have reclaimed Tuqan Man’s remains to rebury on their land. Tuqan is the name of San Miguel Island in their language.  The why questions are much easier to answer with Tuqan Man since we have an understanding of his culture and the Chumash people’s traditions.

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