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Fragments of the past

Indian ceramics reveal that the heart of the Amazon, today a demographic void, once housed vast and complex communities before the Europeans arrived

JOSÉ CALDAS / PETROBRÁSVase made by the ‘manacapuru’ cultureJOSÉ CALDAS / PETROBRÁS

from Manaus*

The Indian communities that inhabited the Central Amazon region almost two thousand years before the Europeans arrived consisted of groups that lived, for decades to hundreds of years, on the banks of the rivers and spent little time wandering through the forest in search of food. Using a rudimentary form of agriculture they grew cassava, corn and possibly other domesticated plants in the Amazon, such as pineapples or peach palms. They also fished and hunted the small animals that lived at the tops of trees; even today animals at the forest ground level are rare. With quite brief interruptions, groups belonging to four Indian cultures succeeded each other in communities that, in their more prosperous periods,  comprised of several thousand people.

At the time (about which we have no historical records) the degree of social organization of Indian groups was fairly variable, as can be inferred from the excavations that were begun in 1995 by Eduardo Góes Neves’ team from the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of the University of São Paulo (USP). There is no doubt that the pre-colonial cultures that lived between 500 and 2,300 years ago in the Central Amazon region, which covers the main tributaries of the Solimões River in the State of Amazonas, never achieved the structure and sophistication of other contemporary civilizations such as the Mayas and the Aztecs in Central America, or the Incas in the Andean chain, which were decimated by the Spanish conquerors and by the diseases they brought with them to the Americas. In the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, Indian communities were not always constituted according to a pattern of growing complexity (bands, tribes, several groups with a tribal chief and civilizations), as was suggested more than 50 years ago by a North American branch of anthropology, called neo-evolutionism, which saw the highest degree of development in western civilization.

“There are signs that in these two millennia there were tribes living in these parts and  possibly chiefs, who would exercise power over several villages”, says Neves. In the Central Amazon region this complexity varied according to the period. Some groups grew and reached a certain degree of organization, but roughly at the time the colonizers arrived they began to decrease until they almost disappeared. “It’s a very much more complex picture than one had imagined and that’s the beauty of the Amazon”, comments Neves, who until recently worked with North American archaeologists Michael Heckenberger, from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and James Petersen, who died in 2005 during a hold-up near Manaus.

One should not wonder at such variety; after all, the Amazon is a world of complexity. Anyone who takes a plane from Brasília to Manaus flies for more than two hours over dense vegetation that spreads as far as the eye can see in every direction. From 11,000 meters up one gets a more accurate idea of the vastness of the forest: this is 7 million sq. km of dense vegetation that only lets 10% of the sunlight reach the forest floor. Half of this territory is Brazilian (it covers more than one third of the country) and is being voraciously eaten away at its edges by pasture-land and soybean plantations that are driving the clandestine loggers deep into the forest. From up above it seems to be unique and homogenous, but what science has already discovered shows that it is not like that at all. Like almost everything in Brazil, the Amazon is multiple. There are various forest formations, which sometimes absorb more carbon than they release into the atmosphere and sometimes return more than they take for themselves. As Neves’ research reveals, the distribution of the Amazon’s animals and the fertility of its soil are also diverse, just as the pattern of human occupation of the forest was varied before the arrival of the Europeans.

In 12 years working in an area of 900 sq. km close to Manaus, the group of archaeologists from USP have been helping rewrite the history of the pre-colonial Amazon region; or, at least, casting doubt upon the concepts that have prevailed for more than half a century in archaeological and anthropological circles in Brazil and abroad. Based on what he has found, Neves can now visualize with substantial detail what life was like between 500 and 2,300 years ago in the middle of the Amazon, more precisely in the area between the turbulent River Solimões and the calm River Negro that has been investigated in depth for the first time.

This new information should help archaeologists begin to see the past of the Brazilian Amazon region, which includes the States of Rondônia, Roraima, Amapá, Acre, Pará and parts of Mato Grosso and Tocantins, as a mosaic of cultures with varying degrees of evolution, and no longer as a gigantic homogenous block. For a long time, opposing views about the first human groups that lived there prevailed. According to one of these views, ancestral Amazon communities never had more than a few dozen individuals. Although the forest is rich in plant and animal diversity, it is an environment where there is very little readily available food and one that does not favor agriculture because the soil is nutrient poor, as North American, Betty Meggers, a pioneer in excavations in the Amazon, has been arguing since the 1950’s.


It was this scarcity of food that prevented ancestral communities from growing and becoming numerous to the point where people start assuming different social roles and developing a more sophisticated culture  capable of producing richly decorated pottery. Betty Meggers, one of the main authorities on Amazon prehistory, drew her conclusions from what she observed on the Island of Marajó, in Pará, nearly 2,000 km away from Manaus. For Meggers, the Marajoaran Indians, makers of elaborate colored ceramics, descended from a culture that came from Colombia or from Ecuador and are the exception that proves the rule.

In the 1970’s, another American archaeologist, Donald Lathrap, suggested the opposite. Without ever having set foot even once on Brazilian soil, he compared the pottery produced in the Andes with that being made by people of the Amazon people. He suggested that the Central Amazon region was the main center of South American cultural innovation and even had an influence over the development of the first Andean civilizations, as well as having been the cradle of agriculture in this part of the continent.

The generalizations of Meggers and Lathrap generated panoramic models for the occupation of the Amazon, but disregarded important details. “We still know very little about the Amazon’s past”, Neves recognizes. “What is said about the region is based on work done in Pará, Amapá, Mato Grosso and more recently in Amazonas.”

Black earth
This debate, one of the most heated in national archaeology, led Neves, Heckenberger and Petersen to turn their eyes to the heart of the Amazon region. On a trip to Manaus in 1994, Heckenberger asked a boatman to show him what geologists and archaeologists call black earth. This blackish gray soil, which stands out from the sandy, brownish soil of the Amazon, is very fertile and normally indicates areas of former human occupation. Some minutes by boat up the River Negro, Heckenberger saw an immense stain of blackish soil, covered with banana and cassava plantations. The following year, the trio started exploring this area, close to the Açutuba stream.

Over the next two months they mapped out the Açutuba site, a stretch of land 3,000 meters long and 300 meters wide, the size of 90 city blocks. Since then they have identified almost 100 archaeological sites of varying dimensions (the smallest are the size of four blocks) and so far they have systematically excavated ten of them.

Layers of black earth, which vary in thickness between 70 cm and 2 meters, have preserved vases, funeral urns and fragments of pottery manufactured by people who lived there hundreds and even thousands of years ago, and in some places for up to 300 years at a time. The analysis of a little more than 100 samples using the carbon 14 dating technique, which allows a material’s age to be estimated to within a few dozen years, reveals that human presence in the Central Amazon region is old and not continuous. A spear head carved from flint, a very hard reddish yellow rock, is nearly 7,700 years old, but the traces of Indian communities disappear and only reappear 5,000 years later, when fairly elaborate ceramic pieces occur, painted red, black and white and with incisions close to their edges, which is typical of a people that Neves’ team called the ?açutuba? culture, which lived in the region for almost ten centuries, until 1,600 years ago.

The appearance of humans in the Central Amazon region coincides with a period in which the planet’s temperature increased and the Amazon started expanding again after having shrunk for thousands of years. “In this period the rivers rose, possibly hiding older areas of occupation”, says Neves.

EDUARDO GÓES NEVES / USPTime tunnel: Archaeologist excavates a tomb built with pottery shardsEDUARDO GÓES NEVES / USP

At the same time as the signs of the “açutuba” culture became rarer, pottery attributed to the “manacapuru” culture started to appear on the sites with increasing frequency. This culture lasted until 1,100 years ago and set color aside, decorating their work only with geometric designs. At almost the same time, a people who made colorless vases and urns, but with reinforced edges and overlays in the shape of humans or animals, occupied the Central Amazon region for 700 years until they were apparently expelled from the region by the people who produced a fourth type of pottery called “guarita”, decorated in black, white and red, similar to the pottery of the Marajoarans. Shards of “guarita” pottery indicate that around 1,800 years ago this people migrated from a region in Pará, located nearly 300 km east of Manaus in the direction of the Colombian Amazon area, in the extreme west. On the way they chased away those they came across.

In the opinion of Neves, the “guarita” Indians may have seen in the black earth (formed from the deposits of food scraps, excrement and other organic compounds from the three cultures that lived there before them) the ideal spot to plant their temporary vegetable plots. In three of the sites excavated he found signs that there may have been a conflict between the cultures that lived in the region: moats 2 ft deep and up to 150 meters long, protected the villages. Two of these ditches still have indications of a stockade, made of sharpened posts.

Taken as a whole the remains of the region indicate human presence for long periods of time, the peak being between 800 and 1,400 years ago. At the time, some of these communities could have housed thousands of people, and there might even have been social differentiation – tombs constructed from broken pottery suggest a division of labor, which is common where there is a power hierarchy.

The USP researcher is the first to recognize the limitations of his own work. “It’s very risky to make these statements for such a vast region as the Central Amazon based on the findings of just ten archaeological sites.” But it is the most precise thing that is known at the moment. “We’re helping build knowledge that might change ten to twenty years from now.”

Neves hopes to check his hypothesis of the so-called “guarita” expansion in another area of the Central Amazon region where he started working more recently. In 2002 he was invited by the Federal University of Amazonas (Ufam) and by the Petrobras oil and gas company to monitor the installation of a 400 km gas pipeline linking Brazil’s biggest reserve of on-shore oil, in the municipality of Coari, to Manaus. When they started working in Coari teams from Petrobras found traces of an archaeological site. Since then a further 41 areas occupied by ancient peoples of the Amazon region have been identified and are being studied by a group coordinated by Neves, under the auspices of the program Potential Environmental Impacts and Risks in the Oil and Gas Industry in Amazonas (Piatam), conducted by Ufam and Petrobras with the aim of reducing any possible environmental impact as a result of the transportation of oil in the Amazon.

If Neves is right, the arrival of the “guaritas” wiped out the other communities from a substantail part of the Central Amazon region 300 years before the discovery of the Americas. When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, in the service of the Spanish Crown, some 2 to 4 million native South Americans lived in the Amazon. Today the Indian communities in the region number around 170,000 people: most of them live in areas close to Venezuela, in the north, or close to Mato Grosso, in the south, while a third are concentrated in Manaus.

The Project
Regional chronology, gaps and a lack of continuity in the pre-colonial history of the Amazon (nº 05/60603-4); Modality: Thematic Project; Coordinator: Eduardo Góes Neves – MAE/USP; Investment:
R$ 735,437.12 (FAPESP)