The First American Was... an Australian?

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Those Aussies are everywhere. In a discovery that may rewrite ancient history, a group of Brazilian researchers has some anthropologists believing that the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere may have been blacks from Australia rather than Mongoloids from Northeast Asia. Research presented this week portrays a people who traveled by sea from Australia to South America 13,000 years ago. Anthropologists have long reasoned that the Americas' first inhabitants were Mongoloid hunters who followed large game across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, formed between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago when glaciers melted. Over the centuries, the theory goes, these Asians migrated from Anchorage to Buenos Aires.

But a group led by Brazilian researcher Ventura Santos produced evidence that a skull found in central Brazil not only has Negroid features similar to Australian aborigines, but predates — by almost 2,000 years — the oldest previously known human remains found in the Americas. This suggests that a race originating in Southeast Asia, not the North Asia of the Mongoloids, inhabited the Americas first. The researchers believe that an advanced group of skilled seafarers originally traveled from Asia to Australia, and, after several millennia, an offshoot of this population set sail again, this time for South American shores.

While many find fault with this hypothesis — the skull is a lone example and does not contain the correct matter for carbon-dating — anthropologists around the world agree that decisive evidence of the skull's geographic ancestry will be produced by testing its DNA and comparing it to that of other Negroid peoples, such as Australian aborigines and Africans. The remains of the woman who's spawning the debate, nicknamed Luzia, were found in 1975 outside Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third largest city, and were in storage in a Rio museum for a quarter of a century. That sound you hear is the typing of "X-Files" writers: Australian aborigines as an ancient clan of seafaring aliens.