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Letter from the Editor | 247

A visit to prehistoric Brazil

The fascination with death is quite possibly humanity’s most timeless characteristic.  One way man comes to grips with his own demise is understanding how previous generations took care of their dead, which in turn means understanding how they lived and viewed the world.

Recent studies based on excavations still in progress at the Lapa do Santo archeological site in the Lagoa Santa region of Minas Gerais offer a broad representation of the funerary customs of people who lived in the region some 12,000 to 8,000 years ago.  The period, which was once considered homogenous in terms of human occupation, has been shown to be divided into three rather distinct cultures.  Each one presented complex burial patterns in which the death rituals followed precise rules, as described in the cover story of this issue.

The archeological richness of the Lagoa Santa sites has been studied in response to the many questions formulated over the years.  The multidisciplinary project now underway at Lapa do Santo seeks to help understand how these populations lived.  We’ve known of the region’s potential since the 19th century when Danish naturalist Peter Lund discovered human bones in association with those of large animals.  The problem then involved the possible coexistence of hominids with the megafauna that inhabited the continent.  Later, excavation findings were used to try to understand the process by which the Americas were populated.  The 11,000-year-old skull of Luzia, excavated at Lapa Vermelha back in the 1970s by a French-Brazilian mission, enabled USP bioanthropologist Walter Neves to propose that the continent was once occupied by not one, but two different waves of people: one whose morphology was more similar to Africans and Australian aborigines and the other that was more like Asians, ancestors of today’s indigenous peoples.

Archeology’s main interest is material culture.  For example, the variety of decorations on excavated remnants of ceramics reveals a great deal about the lives of its owners.  The various modes of living result in different ways of seeing the world and are thus represented in rites and objects, the principal evidence of ancient peoples to which we have access.  In the tropics, organic artifacts such as straw and wood may not survive to become objects of study.  At the Lapa do Santo site, the complex rituals associated with burials are not accompanied by decorations or sophisticated objects.  Did they decompose over time or never exist?  This is one of the many questions current and future teams will try to answer.

It was the objects and food remains left by ancient coastal inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro in a period a bit more recent (5,000 years ago) that has allowed researchers to gain an understanding of the food habits of these Amerindians.  The sambaquis, archeological vestiges also related to funerary practices, that serve as a record of the diets of those inhabitants.  Research reported beginning on page 22 shows that these pre-colonial fisher-gatherers engaged in well-developed and diversified fishing practices.  Evidence of the excessive fishing or the gathering of very young fish specimens such as whitemouth croaker and shark suggests that the practice may have represented the first significant threat to the natural reserves of these sea populations.