The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Rancho La Brea Woman: a new 3D analysis of a 9,000-year-old Paleoamerican cranium from southern California


Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara

Saturday Afternoon, Council Suite Add to calendar

The Rancho La Brea Woman is the only human skeleton ever excavated from the La Brea Tar Pits in southern California. Dating to approximately 9,000 years BP, La Brea Woman is included in a rare group of skeletons, called Paleoamericans, who are distinguished by their considerable antiquity and distinctive cranial features. In 1962 Alfred Kroeber wrote that the La Brea Woman showed morphological similarities to prehistoric groups from Santa Barbara, California. Using the worldwide Howells database that employs linear cranial measurements to compare populations, researchers have recently demonstrated that La Brea Woman shows both similarities and differences to recent Native Americans and to other Paleoamericans. Given these varied results, and sophisticated new 3D techniques that allow for more detailed analyses, this study reexamines the La Brea cranium to determine if she differs from recent Native Americans. Female crania from nine of the earliest archaeological sites in California were scanned using a high definition 3D laser scanner. Cranial landmarks were recorded as x, y, z coordinates and subjected to geometric morphometric techniques. Cranial landmarks were superimposed to remove variation in position, scale, and orientation. Principal components analysis and cluster analyses (using both UPGMA and Ward’s methods) show that La Brea Woman differs little from other females from the southern and central California regions. The computed Mahalanobis distances indicate that La Brea Woman is most similar to females from the Phelps Mound and Tranquillity archaeological sites in central California. These results have important implications for the early demographic history of prehistoric California.

This study was funded by a University of California Pacific Rim Research Grant (#SB100012).

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