8 of the most fascinating items that were housed in Brazil's National Museum

8 of the most fascinating items that were housed in Brazil's National Museum

The fire nearly burned the 200-year-old museum to the ground, and destroyed one of the world’s largest anthropology and history collections

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The ruins of the burned-out National Museum in Rio, Brazil, that housed a trove of treasures from the past and all over the world.
Photo: Reuters

Brazil's National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was gutted by a fire on September 2, 2018. The nation is still reeling from the loss of ancient artefacts and specimens of creatures, along with a huge store of knowledge. Statues, ceramics, works of art were all destroyed. But among the inventory, which is by no means completed were some curious exhibits. Here are eight of the strangest:

The Luzia Woman

This combination photo shows the skull of Luzia Woman and a reconstruction of her face.
Photo: Associated Press

Luzia Woman was is the oldest human fossil in the Americas. The Paleo-Indian woman's remains were found in cave in 1975, outside of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, by archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire.  Her remains had been in storage for twenty years. Luzia was given her name to pay homage to Lucy, the famous 3.2-million-year-old remains found in Africa. Luzia was alive some 11,500 years ago, and scientists have worked out she was in her 20s when she died. No other human remains were found in the Vermelha Cave.

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The terrifying flying snake

Jequitiranabóias cicadas are beautiful, but pretty scary, too.
Photo: Associated Press

Before you panic, this is a cicada - you know those bugs we have in Hong Kong that make that very loud buzz-humming sound - not an actual snake that can fly!

However, the Jequitiranabóia is pretty big, and can grow up to 9 cm in length. If you think, "oh, that isn't too big", keep in mind that's not big for an animal; we're talking about an insect here! When its wings are spread, the huge eye-markings will scare away any predator- just about anyone really. 

Jequitiranabóias cicada from the side.

Photo: Shutterstock

But fulgora laternaria, the huge cicadas' Latin name, also has a set of false eyes on its very large head. Known as a "flying snake", a "peanut-head", or "peanut bug", it is extra scary to locals who think its bite is deadly. Some people in Ecauador believe that if a man is bitten by machaca, he must have sex with a virgin within 24 hours or die. 

The bug with the huge teeth

The sabertooth longhorn beetle is one of the biggest beetles in the world.
Photo: Associated Press

A sabertooth longhorn beetle is not only beautiful but is mostly made up of teeth. Well, only two, and yes, obviously there are other parts to it, but they are huge. The macrodontia cervicornis (big tooth deer horn) can grow to be around 17cm long. If the deer-horn shaped teeth are excluded, males can grow up to 14cm long. Oddly enough, this bug spends most of its life, up to 10 years, as a larvae. And boy are those gurbs huge too! Some of them are as long as 21cm and rather than the usual white, they are brown. They only last a few months as an adult.

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The odd mummy

A home-grown mummy that defied time and weather before being consumed by the fire.
Photo: Associated Press

Mummification can natually happen when bodies are left in very dry places, cold places or somewhere where they are not exposed to air. So, it's not common that one would exist. The one in the museum was found in a cave in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais in the 19th century. The woman, who was about 25 years old when she died, had been around for 600 years before Europeans arrived on the continent. Two children were found with her.

A mummy of a Chilean man, thought to be at least 3,500 years old, was also in the museum. Scientists learned from him that people of that time were buried in a seated position, with their knees drawn up under their chins.

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The mummy cat

A mummified cat from Egypt.
Photo: Associated Press

We know the Egyptians worshipped cats, and they mummified them too. This cat was also among the items in the museum. 

Luckily, however, it had been scanned and so a 3D replica can be printed.

 

 

 

 

Not your normal butterfly

Top - bottom: The diaethria clymena janeira butterfly from above, and then from below.
Photo: Associated Press

This butterfly, called the diaethria clymena janeira, is beautiful when you look at it from above, and it's even more amazing when viewed from below. The underside of its wings have "88" marked on them. It's like someone is pranking us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Straight out of a nightmare

The giant potoo is kind of like a strange owl.
Photo: Associated Press

Yes, it's real! This was a museum after all, and this is a cuter version of a great potoo. (We didn't want to traumatise you, Google at your own risk.) They are kind of like owls, but only eat insects, thank heavens. We're betting the taxidermist really had to work hard so that this bird didn't scare young visitors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shrunken head

A mummified head made by the Jivaro of the Amazon jungle in Ecuador.
Photo: Associated Press

In the western Amazon a local tribe believed that if they killed an enemy, shrinking and drying that person's head would allow them to harness the power of the deceased's spirit. When Europeans arrived in the area they were fascinated by this gruesome ritual, and liked the idea of having heads as curiosities for themselves. This created a market for shrunken heads, and around the 1930s, shrunken heads were being sold for around US$25 (approximately HK$3,600 today). 

The governments of Peru and Ecuador united to put an end to this trade, but heads were not just coming from these two countries. Folks in Panama and Colombia had found out there was money to be made, and took heads from mortuaries - often those of women - or use animals to make shrunken heads to sell. Later, with better testing techniques, scientists could tell up to 80 per cent of shrunken heads were fake - in that they were not the head of a warrior from that particular part of the Amazon.

In 1999 museums began returning heads to the countries of origin, and most countries banned the trade. Today, though, tourists can buy replicas as souvenirs.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Precious objects go up in flames

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