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Illustrated Prehistory

Paintings and engravings reveal the diversity of shapes and styles of Brazilian rock art

Five men are rounding up a huge animal. They are armed, bow and arrows in their hands. The robust animal, perhaps a deer, seems to stand its hind paws on the ground, while the front ones flail thin air. Surrounded, the deer attempts flight, while each member of the quintet steadies his aim. From the combat, there will come only one winner – or five (see the image on the right). But we will never know which. That does not matter. What does matter is that the hunting scene has been preserved for thousands of years and is just part of the immense rock painting of the Toca do Estevo III, one of the more than 700 prehistoric sites found in the Serra da Capivara National Park, created in 1979 in São Raimundo Nonato, a city n the semi-arid southeast of the state of Piauí.

Faces, faces and faces. Enigmatic. Laughing. With a serious look. With hair, or would it be a feather headdress. Some accompanied by trunk and members. Others loose in the air, without any body. All expressive, although not interacting amongst themselves. The succession of heads forms more a mosaic than a scene. There are apparently no animals nearby. Who knows, at the most, a stylized fish next to a happy face. After all, the Cajueiro river, one of the tributaries of the Amazon, flows alongside. It is difficult to interpret the rock engravings of Boa Vista, one of the seven prehistoric sites of Prainha, a municipality in the northwest of state of Pará.

Written in a simple language, accessible to non-specialists, two recent books, from which from which the images described above have been extracted, give Brazilian rock art the treatment of a leading role. In other works, this kind of archeological vestige rarely goes beyond the condition of playing a supporting role to fossils of even more ancient animals, to artifacts, or even to skeletons of Homo sapiens.

The first scene, a painting full of movement and color, is part of Imagens da Pré-história – Parque Nacional Serra da Capivara [Images from Prehistory – Serra da Capivara National Park], a work by Frenchwoman Anne-Marie Pessis, a professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) and the scientific director of the Museum of American Man Foundation (Fumdham), a non-profit research entity that administers the federal park, along with the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama). The second, a more static engraving without any painting, is part of the work Arte rupestre na Amazônia – Pará [Rock Art in the Amazon – Pará], by Edithe Pereira, a researcher from the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará, in Belém.

The publications show the diversity of techniques, forms and themes exhibited by the prehistoric graphic activity in two areas of the national territory, the Northeast and in the Amazon. “The rock paintings are a gateway to a knowledge of life in Prehistory, but they should be observed with a look that makes it possible to go beyond what is shown, without unfounded interpretations”, writes Anne-Marie. “The great themes of concern for present-day society are, in part, the same that concerned the populations in prehistoric eras.” Published at the end of last year by Fumdham, with sponsorship from Petrobras, the book about the archeological sites of Serra da Capivara is an abundantly illustrated trilingual journey – written in Portuguese, French and English – to the lost world of the ancient inhabitants that, one day, occupied the 130,000 hectares of the park.

Issued in April this year, the title about rock art in the Amazon is a co-production of the Goeldi Museum and the publishing house of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), with sponsorship from Mineração Rio do Norte. In the work, 111 sites in Pará with rupestral art, in particular engravings, are inventoried. Not bad for a state (pre)historically associated with the production of ceramics, like that from the Marajó island. “In the light of the beauty of ceramics from Pará, its rock art was left aside by many researchers, who did not even mention their existence in any work”, says Edithe, who, after concluding the book, obtained information about another 15 sites with prehistoric paintings and engravings in Pará.

The graphic activity in the early days of humanity, basically drawings painted or engraved on rock by peoples from the distant past, is present in all the continents, with the exception of icy Antarctica. The target both of studies of researchers and of the curiosity of tourists, the caves of Lascaux, in France, and of Altamira, in Spain, are famous world-wide for housing this kind of cultural heritage of humanity.

The cave at Chauvet, also in France, discovered only in 1994, shows paintings of horses done 30,000 years ago. They are the oldest drawings that one has news of. Of an almost continental dimension, Brazil is rich in cave art, from north to south, and from east to west. “The sites with prehistoric art accompany the adaptation of man to the milieu and vary with it”, says Pedro Ignácio Schmitz, from the Vale do Rio dos Sinos University (Unisinos), in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul. “They appear in Brazilian territory since it started to be occupied.”

Heritage of humanity
Besides the Amazon and the Northeast, there are prehistoric graphemes in the in the regions of the South and the Center-West, as is attested by paintings and engravings found, for example, in Serranópolis and Caiapônia (Goiás) and in São Pedro do Sul (Rio Grande do Sul). In the Southeast, this kind of archeological vestige is common only in Minas Gerais – São Paulo is poor in prehistoric art. In spite of the abundance of graphemes, it was only two or three decades ago that the country started to look with more affection and scientific rigor to the primitive traces left by its remotest ancestors. In national territory, the largest known concentration of this ancient cultural manifestation is to be found inside the Serra da Capivara National Park, regarded as World Heritage by Unesco (a body of the United Nations dedicated to culture) since 1991. It is estimated that there are about 60,000 painted (or engraved) figures in the park.

In a region inserted in the so-called Polygon of Drought, where the scrubland (caatinga) meets the savanna and there is no lack of tablelands, the conservation unit is home to over 700 archeological sites. “In about 600, there is rock art, paintings in particular”, says archeologist Niède Guidon, the director-president of Fumdham, which faces constant financial difficulties to maintain the park and develop the region. “There are thousands of figures that formed a graphic communication system, one of the first to be created in the world.” The major part of the cave art of São Raimundo Nonato is to be found in shelters on top of rocks, places with walls that are relatively protected from bad weather. This characteristic, added to the semi-arid climate, has acted in favor of the preservation of the marks left by the first inhabitants of the region.

Archeologists usually group together prehistoric paintings and engravings with similar style and theme, often done with the same technique, in an artistic unit called tradition. The most ancient and complex tradition of Brazilian rock art is from the Northeast, characterized by paintings of scenes and happenings that suggest movement, with men (of 15 centimeters at the most) interacting amongst themselves or with animals. It is a kind of painting with a high narrative charge. They are usually drawings in red tones, sometimes with some yellow and occasionally other colors, which portray scenes of hunting, of dancing, and of sex. One classic representation of the tradition of the Northeast is of a group of men around a tree, as if they were revering the plant.

According to some researchers, this, shall we say, pictorial school, arose 23,000 years ago, perhaps before, and was practiced up until at least 6,000 years ago. Its epicenter was the area occupied today by the Serra da Capivara National Park, whence it radiated to other states of the Northeast and portions of the Center-West and part of the Southeast. “The traditions do not obey the present-day administrative boundaries”, explains researcher André Prous, from the Natural History Museum of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), who studies rupestral art in several regions of Minas, such as Serra do Cipó, Diamantina and Lagoa Santa, and in other states.

In spite of being predominant, the Northeast tradition is not the only one present in Serra da Capivara. Another important tradition, also shown in the pages of Imagens da Pré-história, is the Agrestic, with a probably more recent origin, of 9,000 years ago. In some sites of the park, such as the Toca da Entrada of the Baixão da Vaca and the Tocas da Fumaça I, II and III, drawings of this school overlap those of the Northeast artistic tradition. In the Agrestic tradition, less refined that that of the Northeast, there are almost no narrative scenes, and the figures, in general men, are larger and static. The only happenings portrayed that denote some movement are paintings of hunts. This less refined school of rock art probably arose on the Pernambuco bank of the São Francisco river, a place with a milder climate than the backlands of Piauí.

The researchers believe that this line of painting disappeared 2,000 years ago. Another tradition found sporadically in the park is the Geometric one, which, as thename suggests, produces more abstract graphemes, usually with dotted lines, and could have originated from Bahia. Naming authors of rock art is virtually impossible. The drawings are collective, communitarian and anonymous productions.

They may have been carried out by members of one or various cultures that inhabited a region, concomitantly or otherwise. So what does the presence of two styles of rock art at one and the same site mean? That two distinct peoples, with different graphic skills, lived there at different moments of the remote past? Or that several generations of the same culture ended up developing new forms of using mineral pigments (dissolved or not in water) to draw on the rocks? It is difficult to say. A tradition may be the expression of one ethnic group, but also of various”, Prous ponders.

More tortuous still is the search for the meaning of the drawings from Prehistory. In Arte rupestre na Amazônia – Pará, Edithe Pereira recalls the first attempts to analyze the rock art of the North region carried out by researchers and a few travelers. Between the 17th century and the end of the 19th , this form of cultural manifestation in Amazon territory was the target of more curiosity adventurers than of the rigorous exegesis of scientists. In the 20th century, some more serious specialists, but prejudiced or full of fantasy, explored new archeological sites and opined on the theme.

Indigenous idleness
After covering the Negro river and observing its engravings, the German ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg sentenced, in a work written in 1907, that the graphemes did not mean anything. “He said that it was the result, solely and exclusively, of the indigenous idleness”, says the researcher from the Emílio Goeldi Museum. Prehistoric drawings found in other parts of the globe have also been a target for this kind of comment. In the 1930’s, a partisan of the idea that Greeks and Phoenicians had established colonies in Brazil and in South America, Bernardo de Azevedo da Silva Ramos, “translated” into Portuguese a series of signs “written” on rock engravings and paintings. Silva Ramos compared the traces present in the prehistoric art with the letters of the ancient alphabet and thus “deciphered” the voice sculpted on the rocks.

From the 1950’s, the interest in the Amazon rock art reflected in favor of works that began to explore the spectacular ceramics from Marajó and Tapajós. But when she began to study the graphic activity of the prehistoric peoples in Amazonia, at the end of the 1980’s, Edithe realized that there was a lot to be researched in Pará.

After rummage through the literature on the theme, undertaking journeys to sites already known and discovering new places with ancient pictorial representations, the archeologist gathered together information on 111 points in the state where the Indians of Prehistory had left their marks. There are 77 sites with engravings, 29 with paintings, 4 with painted engravings, and only 1 with engravings and paintings. The major part of the graphemes produced in Pará is not to be found in caves or shelters in the rocks, as happens in the Northeast and in other parts of the country. It is located on rocks that arise along the watercourses, places that at times remain under the waters for six months a year. The largest concentration of sites – 37 with engravings and 2 with paintings – is in the basin of the Trombetas river, in the northwest of the state.

In stylistic terms, rock art in Pará, in particular in its north-northwestern portion, above the Amazon river, has little to do with the paintings and engravings from other parts of Brazil. The human figures, and less frequently those of animals, are represented almost always in a static manner, without it being possible to identify the representation of scenes. “The rupestral engravings of this region are more similar to those that we find in the other Amazon countries”, Edithe explains. There is a predominance of human figures, of about 50 centimeters in size, sometimes only the head, in others there is the body as well. Some engraved faces appear with expressions of happiness or sadness.

There are also engravings of women, apparently pregnant. To this date, it is a challenge to locate these representations in time. In Pará, only one prehistoric site has been a target for dating. At the beginning of the 1990’s, the American economist Anna Roosevelt estimated at 11,200 years the rupestral paintings of Gruta do Pilão, also called Gruta da Pedra Pintada, in the region of Monte Alegre, in the lower Amazonas. The age of the site, too old according to some researchers, is the target of polemics up until today.

Indeed, there is no lack of controversy when the subject is determining the age of samples of rock art. Backed dating done with the carbon 14 and thermoluminescence methods, Niède Guidon’s team sustains that some paintings from the Serra da Capivara, in Piauí, were done 48,000 years ago. Alongside the remains of prehistoric bonfires, equally ancient, according to Niède, the rock art of the Northeast may be the proof that man arrived in America before one thinks. It is a claim that clashes with one of the most widely-held ideas of traditional archeology, that Homo sapiens reached America about 12,000 years ago. “The Europeans accept these datings”, says Fumdham’s director-president. “Some Americans do not.” As can be seen, in America, rock art may be more than a form of primitive writing of the prehistoric peoples, more than one of the first cultural legacies of humanity. It may be the key for finding out when man set foot on the last continent colonized by our species.

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