When Denise Cavalcante Gomes, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, returned from holiday on Monday, she was faced with any researcher’s worst nightmare — her entire project had gone up in flames when a huge fire gutted Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on 2 September.
She had been preparing new data for publication on ancient pottery and stone tools excavated near Santarém, in the Brazilian state of Pará, as part of her research into complex prehistoric societies in the area.
“What was in my room is all gone — not only the materials we excavated, but drawings, field journals, data on my computer,” she says.
Gomes and her colleagues are still trying to come to terms with the scale of the loss at the National Museum, Brazil’s oldest scientific institution, founded 200 years ago by the Portuguese royal house that fled from Napoleon and set up court in Rio de Janeiro.
The fire — now largely extinguished — destroyed nearly all the museum's exhibits, and swept through the palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, mineralogy and invertebrate collections. Museum officials think roughly 10% of the collection in the building survived.
As the country comes to grips with what's been described in the media as a national tragedy, hope remains that some of the archaeological and palaeontological material survived. The specimens represent unique records of prehistory and evolution, say researchers.
Many archaeological and palaeontological artifacts were stored in ‘compactors’ — small, metal storage cabinets — in the back of the building, one of the last places reached by the fire. If they were properly closed, the units could have protected the items inside, although the contents might have endured some damage from the heat, says Gomes.
“At first, people were just saying, ‘Everything is lost’. Now we are not so sure,” says Gomes.
At the time of writing, scientists and technicians had not yet received permission to perform a thorough search of the wreckage because of the danger of structural damage that could topple the walls.
Despite hope that some collections survived, the losses are likely to hit some research projects hard, especially those related to South American biodiversity.
The museum housed about 5 million insect specimens alongside important samples of crustaceans and molluscs. Many of them were holotypes — reference specimens used to formally define a species — or even potentially new species waiting to be officially described.
The museum is also a powerhouse of palaeontology. Its collection included the only known fossils of Santanaraptor, a roughly 110-million-year-old juvenile theropod dinosaur.
Palaeontologist Taissa Rodrigues, who worked at the museum from 2005 to 2011 before moving to the Federal University of Espirito Santo in Vitória, Brazil, fears that the remains of this carnivorous dinosaur, which had bits of preserved muscle and skin, have been destroyed.
“Even if people find more specimens someday, it’s nearly certain they won’t come close to the holotype in terms of preservation,” she says.
Skeletal remains of Brazil’s earliest human inhabitants — among the oldest across the Americas — might also have been lost.
These remains include the iconic Luzia, a 12,000-year-old woman whose reconstructed facial features resembled people from Australia and Melanesia. The similarities surprised researchers, raising the possibility of an unknown migration of people to the Americas — a controversial idea that received some genetic support in a 2015 paper in Nature1.
Mercedes Okumura, a bioanthropologist at the University of São Paulo who worked in the National Museum until June, says that Luzia’s famed skull was just the tip of the iceberg in the anthropological collection.
The museum also housed skulls of the Botocudo, an indigenous group killed off by the European colonists in the 18th century. “The Botocudo collection was truly unique. No other museums in Brazil had any remains from that group,” Okumura says. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA had revealed a potential link between them and the Polynesians, she adds. “With the advent and popularization of ancient genomics, such a model could have been better explored.”
Loss of trust?
The news wires have reported that the museum's building had been in a bad shape for a while, and did not have a functioning sprinkler system. In the past few years, it has also faced budget cuts.
The situation echoes a 2010 fire at another ageing Brazilian museum, the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, which destroyed an important zoological collection.
Rodrigues is concerned that these events will damage Brazil’s reputation when it comes to preserving scientifically important collections.
“We have to think about the message this kind of tragedy conveys to the world,” says Rodrigues. “Science thrives on international collaboration and, in the case of biodiversity research, in the exchange of materials between museums. Will our colleagues abroad trust us with their specimens after this?”