Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
9 treasures of history lost in Brazil's tragic National Museum blaze
On Sept. 2, a fire spread through Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, devouring the historic building and most of its 20 million culturally and scientifically important items. We look at nine priceless artifacts and collections likely lost in the blaze.
Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum, Brazil’s most important historic and scientific museum, went up in flames Sunday night. Firefighters fought the fierce blaze through the night, but because the two nearest hydrants were dry, workers had to bring in water from a nearby lake, giving the fire ample time to devour the 200-year-old building. While no one was hurt or injured, an untold number of the museums 20 million artifacts are at risk of being lost to us forever.
“It was the biggest natural history museum in Latin America,” Cristiana Serejo, one of the museum’s vice-directors, said. “We have invaluable collections. Collections that are over 100 years old.”
It is still unknown how the fire began, but several have laid blame on the Brazilian government’s austerity policies and its financial mismanagement, decisions that diverted even basic maintenance funds from the institution—funds that many claim could have fixed the nearby hydrants and building’s sprinkler system.
On Monday, outraged protesters clashed with police as they tried to gain access to the building, and indigenous peoples openly criticized the government for neglecting a building that housed their priceless artifacts, while simultaneously securing the funds to build a brand-new museum.
In light of this tragedy, we take stock of some of the artifacts that may not have survived, and remind ourselves why institutions like Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum are historically, culturally, and scientifically invaluable to us.
12,000-year-old Luzia woman, the oldest human skeleton found in this part of the world. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Luzia woman is the nickname given to a nearly 12,000-year-old skeleton, the oldest human fossils found in the Americas. Found in 1975 at Lapa Vermelha, Brazil, Luzia woman was a Paleo-Indian woman from the Paleolithic period, and some archaeologists believe she was among the first wave of immigrants to South America. Her remains are likely unsalvageable.
Ancient mummies—both human and not
The sarcophagus of Sha-amun-in-su, dated to 750 B.C, and an example of mummified cats from the Louvre in Paris. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The museum housed an expansive collection of Egyptian artifacts, about 700 items according to its Egyptological laboratory website. Among the items was the sarcophagus of Sha-amun-in-su, a present offered to Dom Pedro II by the Khedive of Egypt in 1876. Dating back to 750 BCE, the unopened coffin housed a mummy who belonged to a special group of women that assisted the Amun’s wife during the rituals enacted at the great temple of Amun in Thebes. X-rays also shows amulets buried with her. Other artifacts likely lost include statues, stelae, canopic jars, and mummified cats.
Brazil's very own titan
Many fossils and other paleontological finds made their way to the National Museum, but the most popular was probably Maxakalisaurus topai, a late Cretaceous-era uniquely Brazilian sauropod whose life-sized replica stood large in visitors’ imaginations. This species represents one of several titanosaurs discovered in Brazil and was one of South America’s largest dinosaur finds.
Art that survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
Drone view of Rio de Janeiro's treasured National Museum, one of Brazil's oldest, on September 3, 2018, a day after a massive fire ripped through the building. (Photo: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images)
Like the museum’s Egyptian collection, its Greco-Roman collection consisted of more than 700 items. Most of the items came to Brazil between 1853 and 1859, thanks to Empress Teresa Cristina Maria’s fascination with archeology and her desire to spread Mediterranean culture to the country. Among the collection’s pieces were Italian ceramics from the 4th century BCE and a pair of frescos from the Temple of Isis in Pompei that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Overview of the central plaza of the Mayan city of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The pre-Columbian artifacts engulfed by the fires spanned not only centuries but also cultures. The museum housed renowned artifacts from the Inca, Chimu, Moche, Chancay, and Lambayeque cultures. The spectrum spanned textiles, tools, pottery, and ceremonial objects. It even housed the mummified remains of a prehistoric man from the Atacama Desert. Thanks to salts found in the desert’s soil, his body was preserved in excellent condition, allowing scientists to study South American life in those ancient days.
Indigenous languages, lost
Mayan woman. (Credit: Murray Foubister/Wikimedia Commons)
It isn’t just irreplaceable objects that have been lost to us, but also files and important documents. The museum stored audio recordings of many Brazilian indigenous languages. Some of these languages are no longer spoken and may no longer be heard again.
“I have no words to say how horrible this is,” Brazilian 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.”
The museum’s Department of Entomology maintained a collection of more than five million arthropod species, the largest in Latin America. The collection focused on neotropical fauna and was considered invaluable thanks to its scope and diversity, which allowed entomologists to study rare and vulnerable species.
Birds that taught the world
Beautiful blue-and-yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna) in the Brazilian wetland. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Like its insect collection, the museum’s avian collection played an incalculable role in educating the public on the richness of biodiversity in Brazil’s bird species. Collected over nearly 200 years, the collection contained representatives of each of the orders of Brazilian birds.
The National Museum itself
A police officer prevents people from getting near the building as a massive fire engulfs the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil's oldest, on September 2, 2018.(Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)
The building didn’t simply hold world history; it was a piece of that history. The former Imperial Palace housed the Portuguese royal family after they fled to Rio de Janeiro to escape Napoleon, and Brazil’s post-independence emperors used it as a palace until 1889. Collections were transferred to the building in 1902.
Thin silver linings
As workers continue to sift through the smoldering shell, we still don’t know just how extensive the damage is, but it seems some artifacts have survived.
The Bendegó meteorite, an 11,600 lb iron-nickel meteorite, weathered the inferno. A report on Twitter claimed that some of the museum’s 40,000 mollusk specimens made it through, and the museum’s library, herbarium, and fish and reptile species are thought to be intact, thanks to separate housing. Some metal storage cabinets seemed to have survived, but the condition of the specimens they contain is unknown.
Even so, these are thin silver linings to an otherwise dark cloud that hangs over Rio de Janeiro and many fields of research.
“It is a loss for the world,” a former museum director told NBC News. “It can never be recovered.”
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.