Life—and death—have not been easy for Luzia.
The hunter-gatherer died after suffering a deadly accident or animal attack when she was only in her twenties.
Her peaceful resting place in a cave in southern Brazil was disrupted over 11,000 years later by a group of scientists, who discovered her buried beneath 40 feet of mineral deposits and rock debris.
They celebrated their find and then unceremoniously re-interred her—this time in storage at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Luzia—who was named after Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old fossil found in Africa—finally got her due when researchers began to study her skull and discovered that she was a more incredible find than anyone had realized.
Luzia was not just any fossil, she was the oldest set of human remains ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere. Not only that, but she changed our understanding of early human migration to South America.
These uncovered secrets earned Luzia an honored perch in Brazil’s National Museum, one of the largest museums in the world and the most important in the country.
But on Sunday evening, that all changed when a devastating fire raged out of control and consumed the main building.
Photos of the blaze show a scene from a horror movie as the massive former palace is entirely lit from within by bright orange flames. It took 80 firefighters over four hours to extinguish the inferno, and experts speculate that around 90 percent of the collection has been lost.
In a tweet, Marina Silva, who is currently running for president of Brazil, characterized the “catastrophe” as “equivalent to a lobotomy in Brazilian memory.”
“It’s as if the Metropolitan Museum of Art burned down,” David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard, told The New York Times.
It’s too early for a definitive list of what was lost. Even Luzia’s fate remains unknown. While it is feared that she was destroyed or heavily damaged, firemen have discovered some bone fragments in the rubble that give hope that some of her remains may have survived. But what is known is the overwhelming scale of the tragedy.
“It was usually the first museum that the people here visit when they were children,” Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University told Slate’s Culture Gabfest. “So the feeling is that it’s not just that we lost something that’s very important to our culture, but also a part of our childhood is gone because of the fire. So, it’s very personal for many Brazilians, what happened this week.”
The extent of the damage is not just in the loss to the collections, but also in the destruction of the building that housed them, which has played its own part in over 200 years of Brazilian history.
The National Museum was founded on June 6, 1818, by John VI, the prince regent of Portugal, who fled to Brazil in 1808 to escape Napoleon’s European rampage. His family took up residence in a country home gifted to them by a Brazilian merchant.
While the gift was generous, it was a little, er, lacking in royal dignity. According to one 19th-century spectator-cum-budding architecture critic, the home was “perfectly plain, without any pretensions of elegance… It might, indeed, be mistaken for a manufactory, in consequence of the windows being so crowded together, and particularly at night, when it is lighted up.”
Over the course of the next few decades, a few design tweaks were made here, a sprinkle of renovations there… and some massive expansions throughout to turn the former villa into a verified royal palace. Paço de São Cristóvão was born.
In the meantime, John’s son Pedro declared the Kingdom of Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822 and, naturally, installed himself as the emperor of the new country. Seventy-seven years later, Pedro II—you guessed it, son of Pedro I—was ousted in a coup.
In 1892, Paço de São Cristóvão, the palace that had been witness to the early years of Brazilian independence, became home to the National Museum of Brazil. It was a Russian doll-situation of national treasures—the historically important home now housed the country’s most important artifacts and archeological discoveries.
Over the years, the National Museum built up a significant natural history and anthropology collection that included two million artifacts.
In May, this achievement was honored as the museum celebrated its 200th anniversary. But just over three months later, the museum has said that it cannot yet confirm what has survived the devastating fire.
Among those collections feared lost are the museum’s entire entomology and arachnology troves, which include a collection of South American lace bugs, many of which are now extinct and examples of which were only in the National Museum, and a collection of five million butterfly specimens.
Several full dinosaur fossils were housed in the building, as well as a crew of their contemporaries, the pterosaurs. “We may have lost dozens of the best preserved pterosaurs in the world. There really is no collection comparable,” paleontologist Mark Witton told The Atlantic.
The museum also housed frescoes from Pompeii, the largest collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts in South America, and geological samples, not to mention the research of the many students, professors, and scientists who worked out of the museum.
“In terms of [my] life-long research agenda, I'm pretty much lost,” Marcus Guidoti, a Brazilian entomologist who studies lace bugs told National Geographic.
But by far some of the most significant treasures at the National Museum were those that told the story of humans in South America.
Lucia may have been the most important of these anthropological gems, but she was just one of the many noteworthy artifacts from cultures that pr-dated the European arrival.
Tools and weapons, wedding and funerary accessories, ceramics, clothing, and even mummies from early indigenous peoples were gathered at the museum and helped to paint a fuller picture of the history of the region beyond that which was for so long dominated by the European narrative.
The museum also contained an audio collection of indigenous languages, some of which were the last remaining evidence from tongues that are now extinct.
“I have no words to say how horrible this is,” British anthropologist Mariana Françozo told National Geographic. “The indigenous collections are a tremendous loss… we can no longer study them, we can no longer understand what our ancestors did. It’s heartbreaking.”
Amid this tragedy, there were a few stories of hope. One group of scientists led by a professor of zoology, Paulo Backup, ran into the burning building to save as much of the mollusk collection as they could, trying “to identify in the dark the most irreplaceable objects,” according to TIME.
But they were only able to save a fraction of the collection before the danger became too great.
There is also the story of the nearly 12,000-pound meteorite, the largest to be found in Brazil, that was widely photographed in the aftermath of the fire sitting seemingly unscathed upon its pedestal in the midst of the fire-ravaged rubble.
It was originally discovered in 1784 by a young local, and it took over 100 years to figure out how to transport the massive object out of its remote location and, eventually, into the museum.
While the cause of the fire is not yet known, a game of political finger pointing is already underway.
Those on the side of the museum are blaming the tragedy on the right wing-led government, who cut funding to the museum and failed to provide for much needed improvements while they were spending crisis-inducing amounts on new facilities for the Olympics and the World Cup.
The National Museum was in dire need of updates and repairs and wasn’t even equipped with a sprinkler system.
Those on the side of the government are blaming the museum and the left-leaning university that runs it, saying that poor management led to this crisis. Regardless of whose fault it is, it is clear that the loss to history and science is devastating.