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Rock art in a semi-arid zone

First excavations in the Serra das Confusões [Confusões Hills] reveal a singular pattern of prehistoric paintings

Fumdham archiveSerra das Confusões: 150 new prehistoric sitesFumdham archive

The first exploratory work in the Serra das Confusões National Park, in southwest Piauí, suggests that this area of 526,000 hectares of semi-arid land may have a wealth of archeology that is as rich as its famous neighbor, the Serra das Capivara National Park, where more than 1,300 pre-historic sites have been discovered since the 1970’s. Over a period of two years researchers from the American Museum of Man Foundation (Fumdham) excavated recently discovered pre-historic sites in the Serra das Confusões and found rock paintings and human graves, some estimated as being as old as 6000 years, with characteristics that are different from those found in the Serra da Capivara.  “These are extraordinary results”, says archeologist, Niède Guidon, who has been working for more than 30 years in Piauí and is the president of Fumdham. “There’s work in the Serra das Confusões for at least two generations of researchers, but we have to hurry. Many sites are being destroyed even before they’re discovered.”  A scientific entity, with its headquarters in São Raimundo Nonato in Piaui, Fumdham is responsible for preserving and protecting the archeological sites of the conservation unit in the Serra da Capivara, while the Serra das Confusões’ unit is directly supported by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).

Despite the fact that the distance between the two parks is relatively small, some 80 km, the new research front seems to have the potential to reveal previously unknown details about the prehistoric people who lived in the region. In the Toca do Enoque, one of the sites explored in the Serra das Confusões researchers located two graves, one individual, with just one human skeleton, and another collective. In the common grave they found 13 heaps of bones. The skeletons of adults were found in the high part of the burial site and the children were lower down. “Almost all the skeletons had a lot of ornaments, like necklaces and shells, and their chests were painted with ochre”, says archeologist, Fátima Luz, who since the end of last year has been excavating at Toca do Enoque. “I’ve never seen a burial pattern like this one at Capivara.” It’s not been possible to date the human remains using the carbon 14 method because there was not much collagen in the bones, the protein that is essential for carrying out the test. However, the dating of charcoal found close to the individual grave pointed to an age of approximately 6200 years, an indication that the skeletons may also be from this time.

On another site in Toca do Alto do Capim, the work is concentrated on a sandstone cliff which has a crevice formed by erosion, some 5 meters above ground level. With the help of a ladder it is possible to enter this space and enter a cave that is some 12 meters long and 5 meters wide. Close to the opening in the cliff the compartment is more or less the height of a person, and close to the back it becomes lower and narrower. Its walls and roof are covered with paintings, most of them comprising just drawings, done above all in straight lines and in some cases having circular shapes.  “About 80% of the paintings are geometric and 20% involve human figures and animals”, comments archeologist, Gisele Daltrini, who is excavating the Toca do Alto do Capim. “The pattern of these drawings is precisely the opposite of what we found in sites in the Serra da Capivara.” In a layer of sediment that is a little more than a meter thick, formed by the sand that falls as the roof flakes, the researchers also found the remains of fires (pieces of charcoal), pieces of human and animal bone and stone artifacts. Dating of the charcoal found in the deepest part of the sediment, which also contained fragments of human bones and a block of stone with engravings, shows that it is 6210 years old.

Fumdham archivePainting in the Toca do Alto do Capim: predominance of geometric shapesFumdham archive

If this initial estimate is confirmed by more findings, it is possible to speculate that human occupation in the Serra das Confusões occurred after the arrival of Homo sapiens in the Serra da Capivara, where there are older records of human presence. “Apparently, man first reached the Serra da Capivara and then the Serra das Confusões”, is the opinion of Niède Guidon, who in the past has tried unsuccessfully to unify the area of the two parks. But more data are necessary so that the archeologists can formulate a consistent hypothesis. For the time being, it is not possible to state with any degree of certainty whether even the prehistoric people who became established on one of the ranges of hills are the same as on the other. The information obtained from the first sites that were explored in the Serra das Confusões suggests that there were different cultural aspects there from those normally found in the Serra da Capivara.  But, these particular aspects are not enough to prove the existence of two different groups of people in the region’s remote past. After all, people from the same culture may also produce drawings and carry out burials that have totally dissimilar features.

Arrival in the Americas
Although controversial, Niède Guidon’s studies in the semi-arid Northeast of Brazil, defend the idea that prehistoric man set foot in the country tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps as many as 100,000 years. The researcher believes that H. sapiens left Africa and landed in Piauí by sea, having crossed the Atlantic at an historic moment in time when a great drought on that particular continent led man to the sea in search of food. As the level of the ocean was 140 meters lower than it is today, there were many more islands and the distance between the two continents was less, says the archeologist. This set of factors made the crossing possible. Undoubtedly, the researcher’s theory is controversial, but if one day it is proved the whole history of the colonization of the Americas will change. “These data were always accepted by the Europeans and by some North Americans”, comments Niède. “Today, with the results obtained in Mexico by an English team, the oldest settlement in the Americas has been proved beyond doubt.” But the traditional view, still held by many North American researchers, accepts the hypothesis that man arrived in the Americas around 13,000 years ago, coming from Asia via the Bering Strait. As can be seen, the topic generates heated discussions among researchers – and the historic sites in the Serra das Confusões are new pieces in this archeological jigsaw puzzle.