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National Museum of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro (screenshot via Vimeo)

On October 19, officials from Brazil’s National Museum announced positive news for the first time since a fire devastated the institution last month.

“Today we present the skull of Luzia, rescued from inside the building of the National Museum,” tweeted the museum in a shocking reveal. The remains of the 12,000-year-old human female fossil were thought to have been incinerated in the scorched ruins of the natural history museum. Alexander Kellner, the director of the 200-year-old museum, now says that salvagers have recovered nearly 80 percent of Luzia from the site. Staff are reportedly confident that the remaining pieces will be found and that the skull can be reassembled.

Today, the museum also announced the salvaging of their Angra dos Reis meteorite by their technicians and researchers.

“They’ve suffered alterations, damage, but we’re very optimistic at the find and all it represents,” the archaeologist Claudia Rodrigues told the AFP. The pieces of skull had been stored in a metal box that helped them resist the damage of the fire.

The National Museum was arguably one of the most comprehensive natural history museums in the Western Hemisphere when the September 2 blaze obliterated nearly 90% of its collection of over 20 million artifacts. Investigators are still researching the cause of the fire. Among the spared items are books from the museum’s central library, a meteorite, and a part of the zoology exhibit.

The rediscovery of Luzia in the ashes of the National Museum is a major find for officials looking to build a new institution in the former’s shadow. Excavated by the French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire from a cave in Brazil in 1975, the bones of a woman dating to the Upper Paleolithic period are the oldest human remains found in the Americas. The skeleton was nicknamed Luzia as a nod to the oldest-ever human fossil discovered in Ethiopia the previous year, named Lucy after the Beatles hit, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” That fossil is 3.2 million-years-old.

Discussing the fire’s cause last month, Deputy Director Cristina Serejo told the press that smoke detectors in the building had not been working and that investigations were underway to figure out what caused the fire. Officials speculate it could have been a paper balloon that carried a small flame or a short circuit in a laboratory. Watchmen on duty that night reportedly saw a flash of light coming from the first floor before the fire began to consume the building at 7pm.

The museum had been scraping by on minimal funding for several years — according to El País, the expected funding for 2018 was 205,821 reais (~$50,000).  A 2015 article from the local newspaper Globo said that the museum had shut down because it could no longer afford to pay for cleaning and security services. The situation was reportedly so critical that the museum’s own employees had gotten together to cover the cleaning staff’s salaries. A video posted five months ago features Kellner promoting a crowdfunding campaign to revive one of the museum’s exhibits, which was no longer functioning due to budgetary constraints.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...