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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Las Palmas woman and sloppy anthropometry

I read today that some authors are casting controversy on the origin of Native Americans on the grounds of a tentative reconstruction of the Las Palmas woman, a quite complete skeleton found in 2002 at Tulum (Quintana Roo, Mexico) dating to c. 12,000 years ago.

The woman, who died in her 40s, is said to be more related by phenotype to modern inhabitants of SE Asia than to those of NE Asia or Siberia. However some of the descriptions I read of the details appear totally meaningless, for instance (cited at The Guardian and Yahoo News from AP):

Her body structure, skin and eyes are similar to the population of Southeast Asia.

Hold on! Her skin?! How on earth can they know absolutely anything about her skin?! It's plainly impossible. And what about the eyes: the only thing they can know about the eyes refers to the eye sockets, nothing else: they can't know eye color, intensity of epicantic fold, etc.

So what do we have left? Body structure. And there is not even a single link to any paper dealing with the matter, so we can ponder how serious and well pondered is this claim (it doesn't look very serious considering context, right?)

Whatever the case, this is the reconstruction made in Paris following the patterns given by Mexican anthropogists of the Las Palmas woman:

And this is the original skull when it was still laying in the inundated cave of Las Palmas:

I'm not really sure if a woman in her 40s would look so elderly, with grayed eye and all, nor much less that her skin would be so white, considering what is common today among Native Americans but whatever.

One good point is made by Susan Gillespie (cited at Red Orbit):

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?

Anyhow, let's assume for a moment that the speculation is correct, cannot it be that the SE Asian phenotype range actually reflects an older type, let's call it proto-Mongoloid, once widespread in all Eastern Asia and only later evolved into/displaced by the modern Mongoloid archetype somewhat common now in NE Asia? I am pretty much for that explanation because in my humble opinion some Amerindians do resemble more some non-central East Asians than archetypal Mongoloids from around Beijing. Not only SE Asians (also) but sometimes peripheral Central Asian populations like Tibetans too.

Of course, the phenotype variability among Native Americans is so wide that it's not like we can consider any single unique phenotype. Some are big nosed with angular heads (typical of the Andes for instance) not reminding at all of the usual Mongoloid archetype, others instead are pretty close to the Mongoloid standard and many indeed give a SE Asian vibe while yet others are intermediate between these and other categories, even with some cases of extreme short size tendencies only comparable to Pygmies in this aspect (some Maya groups). There is not any unique Native American phenotype nor there is any unique East Asian phenotype either, even if there are often elements of convergence between the various groups and individuals.

And of course we have only a very limited sample of ancient individual phenotypes, which can at best give us with a most diffuse impression of how Paleolithic East Asian and Native Americans might have looked.

So please... let's be very cautious.

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