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The dream of an Amazonian Eldorado

Brazilian archeology and the eternal quest for hidden civilizations in the Amazon Forest

Reproduction from the book Legendes, croyances et talismans des indiens de l’Amazone/illustration by V. de Rego Monteiro Upon finding in a cave a papyrus with a humanized figure of the sun and indigenous writing, Doctor Benignus decides to look for lost worlds in a dangerous expedition across the hinterlands of Brazil. After a series of wild adventures, the document leads him to a mysterious island, where he decides to create a “civilization” combining all peoples and capable of ridding Brazilians “of indolence and barbarism.” All the effort put into solving the enigma proves worthwhile, because, the naturalist assured us, “Brazil is an inexhaustible source of  the history of mankind’s early times!” Unfortunately, the poor scientist discovers that he had been chasing after a false utopia, because the said papyrus was a fake produced by his servant, who wanted to draw him out of the sadness he had plunged into in the face of the country’s reality, somewhat lacking in glory. It is no coincidence that the first work of science fiction produced in Brazil, Doctor Benignus (1875), by Emilio Zaluar (1826-1882), was an “archeological novel about lost worlds.” Looking for monuments hidden in the dense forests may seem laughable, but under a different plumage the dilemma of whether we were an “inferno or Eldorado” remains, to this day, one of the main discussions among archeologists, as is revealed by the work Cotidiano e poder na Amazônia pré-colonial [Daily life and power in pre-colonial Amazonia] (240 pages, R$ 92), by Denise Cavalcante Gomes, from the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, now released by the Edusp publishing house.

In the research conducted in the state of Pará, the archeologist picks holes in the theories that attempt to explain the occupation of the Amazon Region; an academic “squabble” that does not hide the ideological differences that exist. The first, that of the “illusory paradise,” is advocated by american archeologist Betty Meggers, according to whom the environment of the region’s nutrient-poor soils prevented intensive farming and, hence, the formation of major advanced populations. Her rival preaches the existence of an “almost real Eldorado,” as stated by the followers of another American archeologist, Anna Roosevelt, who disregard Meggers? “environmentally deterministic” hypotheses as “imperialistic” and interested in enhancing “the degeneration of the native Indians.” This group prefers to work with the hypothesis that, in pre-colonial times, the Amazon Region was home to developed tribes led by chieftains, tribes with “a  level of  sophistication in their lifestyles that rivaled or even exceeded the European one,” to use the words of anthropologist Neil Whitehead, from the University of Wisconsin.

“After three centuries, the Eldorado myth is being revived by archeologists. Insisting on the “myth of Amazonian empires” not only keeps researchers from reconstructing the region’s pre-history, but also turns them into accomplices in speeding up the environmental deterioration process, as they fan the belief that it is possible to exploit the forest’s ecosystem,” stated Meggers in her article The continuing quest for El Dorado: round two. Indeed, in a book recently released in the United States, The lost city of Z (to be released in Brazil in July by the Companhia das Letras publishing house), by David Grann, the story of the ill-fated expedition of British Colonel Percy Fawcett (1867-1925) to the Xingu region in the search for the lost civilization of “Z”, archeologist Michael Heckenberger, from the University of Florida and one of Meggers’ main critics further strengthens the myth. “There was, in this region, an esthetic culture geared toward monumentality and the Indians liked to have fine roads and squares and bridges. Their monuments were not pyramids, hence the fact that it is difficult to find them, but, rather, horizontal creations that were no less extraordinary,” states the researcher, a member of a team that states that they have found archeological evidence of advanced civilizations led by chieftains in the Amazon Region. “Fawcett was sure that the wild forest hid the vestiges of at least one advanced civilization. He studied the Eldorado legends and heard from the Indians’ descriptions of large towns with many streets, places where the environment was not a problem and where food was plentiful,” states Grann. “The colonel used to get irritated by his detractors, the “men of science”, who had also ridiculed the notion of major pre-Columbian civilizations or the existence of Troy. He invariably talked about his vision of a majestic culture in the Amazon Region, one that spread to distant areas but that, finally, was engulfed by the forest.” The same fate awaited the Colonel, who disappeared that very year in the Xingu area. “He may have been an amateur and easily disregarded as being “crazy”, but in a way he saw matters more clearly than a lot of erudite professional archeologists,” comments Heckenberger.

Reproduction from the book Legendes, croyances et talismans des indiens de l’Amazone/illustration by V. de Rego Monteiro The researcher makes it clear that he is not pursuing “Eldorados,” although it is difficult not to think about them (and about Fawcett), given the recent discovery of vestiges of pre-colonial chiefdoms, the interpretation of which, Denise alerts us, contributes dangerously “to the construction of a grandiose image of the Amazonian past, restated in academic syntheses.” Indeed, archeology is one of the sciences that most affects western imagination. It is not without reason that it was (and still is) a source of novels and popular movies. Fawcett’s ideas, for example, inspired Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to write The lost world (1912), the first novel to use Amazonia as its setting for a “lost world novel.” From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, this sub-genre predominated, to the detriment of the so-called “planetary romance” (futuristic space adventures) as the core theme of incipient domestic science fiction. “There is a lack of “planetary novels,” amongst us, which are so fashionable abroad. The “lost world,” in particular the Amazonian one, had more of an impact, thanks to the exoticism and vastness that we saw in our own territory, which made us think of Brazil as a “planetary novel,” a vast world whose ecology evoked mystery and disquiet,” analyzes Roberto de Sousa Causo, the author of Ficção científica, fantasia and horror no Brasil [Science fiction, fantasy and horror in Brazil] (1875-1950), a study published by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). “The untamed territory lent to our conscience a colonial landscape that occupied the mental niche of a rich and unexplored empire, that would help us to stand out in the rest of the world. Except that, here, unlike the colonialist “lost world” of the foreign writers, it was an expression of a domestic imperialism, the projection of colonialist strategies upon unexplored regions of the country itself,” he assesses. There are works for all tastes, from A Amazônia misteriosa [The mysterious Amazon Region] (1925), by Gastão Cruls, who describes meetings with Amazonian female warriors, to A República 3000 ou a filha do inca [The 3000 Republic or the Inca?s daughter] (1927), by Menotti del Picchia, a cocktail of Inca princesses, Cretan civilizations, Brazilian tropical rainforests, and eugenic and racist utopias, which talked about the degeneration of the Indians and mestizos [mixed blood individuals] and about European superiority.

This literature that jumbled up “science,” politics, ideology and exoticism, however, was not influenced only by reading Rider Haggard and his King Solomon’s Mines, but also reflected an entire history of serious discussions by doctors from IHGB, the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute, the National Museum and other serious institutions. Like the melancholic Doctor Benignus, for quite a while the  flesh and bone learned men from the country suffered from the same disease and dreamt, like him, of finding lost civilizations that might prove the innate grandeur of the young nation. Since 1838, when it was created, with the full support of the imperial administration, the IHGV, whose core line commended “seeking vestiges of the past, forgotten relics in the country’s soil,” expeditions were organized to reveal the glorious past to be recovered through the embryonic national archeology. After all, the Brazilian Empire could not lag behind the neighboring Latin American republics and it needed to come up with ruins of civilizations on a par with the Aztecs, the Incas and the Mayas.

“The 1840’s were the height of the Brazilian monarchy’s attempt to recover monumental remains, relating national history to outstanding civilizations, like Atlantis or the Phoenicians or the Vikings. It stands to reason that the year in which Dom Pedro II was crowned was the year in which the main expeditions in search of the “lost city” in the Bahia hinterlands were carried out,” explains historian Johnni Langer, from the Federal University of Maranhão, author of the doctoral thesis Ruínas and mito: a arqueologia no Brasil Império. Archeology was being born as a “science of the State,” called upon to help create a “myth of origin” for the new nation. “The lost cities’ myth became a paradigmatic value, a reference model of the country’s past: the advanced lost civilization that left traces all over the country, to be tracked down later by archeology,” notes the researcher. “The role of archeology and of the museums were aligned with narratives that brought together the national States and major civilizations, naturalizing the feeling of belonging to a nation,” analyzes historian Lucio Menezes Ferreira, from the Federal University of Pelotas, who has just completed his post-doctorate on the subject at the Unicamp Strategic Studies Center (2008).

“Vestiges of Mediterranean civilizations camouflaged under tropical forests and Semitic scribbles on cave walls gradually invaded literary imagination, when working on them “as science” carried the risk of exposing those who studied such matters to derision,” explains Ferreira. Previously, however, imagination was the driving force behind archeology. In 1839, at a meeting of the institute, the men of erudition were alerted to the presence, on the Gávea rock [in Rio de Janeiro] of “an inscription in Phoenician characters that appear to be very ancient,” leading to the conclusion that “Brazil had been visited by nations that were knowledgeable about navigation before the Portuguese.” An expedition was then dispatched and returned somewhat disappointed, because the finding might have been merely “produced by nature.” This did not stand in the way of statements, in the concluding report, to the effect that this was a discovery “of  importance comparable to that of the great constructions of archeology, such as the great monuments of Egypt and the Mesopotamian towns, capable of leading to a revolution in our history and  opening a luminous road from the past to the future.” They clamored for a “Brazilian Champollion,” that could change knowledge about domestic history, devoid of outstanding facts or monuments. “It was necessary to place the future Brazil side by side with  large nations and empires, proud of their ancient ruins. As of 1840, the acceptance of the existence of a “lost generation,” an advanced domestic civilization that had disappeared, shows the amalgamation of myth and history, revealing an ideal of ‘how Brazil must have been in olden times,’ even without concrete evidence,” states Langer.

Reproduction from the book Legendes, croyances et talismans des indiens de l’Amazone/illustration by V. de Rego Monteiro After all, no one less than the famous Von Martius, in Como se deve escrever a história do Brasil [How one should write the history of Brazil] (1845), a booklet that earned an IHGB prize and whose ideas are likely to have provided guidance for that institution, stated that “it is not unbelievable that one might find ancient monuments in Brazil’s forests, especially if one considers that up to now they are not known or accessible, other than to a small degree.” For the German naturalist, the site of such precious vestiges would be the Amazon Forest, a mysterious area where the vegetation might hide them, which would demand direct observation by means of scientific expeditions, such as the quest for the “lost city in Bahia,” initiated in 1830, at the Institute’s request, by Canon Benigno Carvalho. One year before, a researcher had found an anonymous manuscript, Relação historica de uma occulta, e grande povoação antiquissima sem moradores [Historical narration of a huge old hidden town with no inhabitants],supposedly told by pioneers about how they had found a deserted village that, among other marvels, had a “black stone column of extraordinary grandeur, and atop it the statue of an ordinary man, with one hand on his left hip, and the right arm extended, pointing toward the North Pole with the index finger; in each corner of the aforementioned Square there is a Needle, an imitation of those that the Romans used.” Now known as Manuscript 512 (the same that Fawcett used as a “guide” for his expedition), this vision of a “classic” civilization in the middle of Bahia awakened the imagination not only of Brazilian scholars, but of several international institutions. Nothing was found, but this did not keep IHGB from insisting on conducting research, in the Brazilian hinterlands, into menhirs, rune inscriptions that might bear witness to the passage of Nordic men in the tropics, other lost cities and even narratives of the discovery of a “fragment of a marble statue contemporary with the most brilliant period of Greek art,” in 1887, in the Amazon Region. The information was false, as were the inscriptions engraved on a stone sent to Ladislau Neto, from the National Museum, who translated them and stated that they were a narrative of the journey of Phoenicians from the town of Sidon to Brazil.

Macunaíma, author Mario de Andrade’s anti-hero, in his almost archeological search for the muiraquitã stone of the Amazons, was also impressed, in his search, with “incarnate letterings of Phoenician people” and, digging in Manaus, “found the remains of the god Mars, a Greek statue found back in the time of the Monarchy and on the first of April last, at Alencar Araripe, by the newspaper Comércio das Amazonas [Trade of the Amazon].” This irony of Andrade’s directly attacks the so-called “nobility archeology” that was then conducted and which, like the Parnassians, had its feet in Brazil and its eyes turned to Europe,” observes Ferreira. According to the researcher, for the IHGB’s political and intellectual elite, it was a quest that aimed at producing a social position to be taken up by the native Indians within the genealogical rationale of the imperial State. “By establishing noble forebears (Phoenicians, Greek or European) for the indigenous peoples it became possible to represent them on the grid of civilized nations. In a society that handed out nobility titles and where the native past should model itself in a pleasant mirror reflecting the “white race,” the fossilized races should also be “noble”, even if this “nobility” had been lost in virtually immemorial times,” notes the historian. It was necessary to prove that the nature of the Indian forebears was different from that of the “degenerate” contemporary Indians, “ruins of peoples,” as Martius called them, insisting on the notion of the “grandiose generation” that had become extinct. “Thus, they had first been creators, members of an ancient civilization to be reconstructed through the nobility of an empire, in an archeology that overlaps with heraldry and that is a nobility-oriented archeology centered on the genealogy of the nation’ If there were no ruins in the forest, the fault lay with the hostile environment that destroyed them. The Indian, nevertheless, was “a nude Greek.” The primitive mirror, with new colors, reinforced the “glow of civilization.”

“He may have been a barbarian in his current state, but perhaps still recoverable for the nation’s history, provided that the other side of the coin contained symbols from an elaborate culture,” notes the researcher. However, according to Ferreira, the pursuit of vestiges of civilization was not only a mythological fantasy, the resurrection of antique myths in the scientific imagination. “Discovering monuments in the Brazilian forest also addressed the specific interests of the imperial political project: to take civilization to the inner areas of the country and civilize the indigenous populations. “Archeological journeys” not only looked for ruins, but also aimed at mapping out the areas, discovering mineral riches, detailing everything that was regarded as the antithesis of civilization.” Archeological research, since the period of the Empire, therefore, sought to institute an “internal colonialism.” “They talked about a native past and showed that, somehow, it survived in the present. Thus, the country was peppered by peoples whose “cultural inferiority” clamored for civilizing missions, pacifying projects and, later, for the revitalization of settlements, in line with global science. Archeology and colonialism sought to promote the geographic and geopolitical expansion of the national State,” explains Ferreira. After all, native Indians would be the elements of Brazil’s future work force. “They should be civilized in the settlements, populate the hinterlands and await the arrival of the “white” immigrants with whom they would mix, thereby recomposing the fiber of the domestic population.” By classifying the Indians as degenerate peoples, IHGB (through personages such as Von Martius and Varnhagen), highly admired by the Emperor, made this “internal colonialism” legitimate,  just as the “lost world novels” of our science fiction would do later, being broadly publicized by the press and widely accessible by the lay public, for whom Indians had created a civilization that the inhospitable Amazon Region had degenerated. Others, whether laymen or men of learning, chose to regard them as the fruit of the expansion of Andean civilization in Brazil, which the domestic ecology, the “environmental determinism,” likewise allegedly degenerated.

When sad reality challenges the “archeology of the fantastic” model, researchers turn to the “archeology of the primitive,” as dictated by the studies of Peter Lund and his Lagoa Santa findings. “As from 1865, one could even imagine “European civilizations” getting to America, provided one dug up archeological sites to check whether the artifacts found had any legible signs of civilization or not. It is not enough, as the “archeology of nobility” used to do, to identify fortuitous findings. Now the order of the day was to excavate and recover the remains of “primitive races” and the “relics” of civilization in order to establish the origin of the archeological sites and of the native Indians,” states the historian. Darwin had got to Brazil, as one could see in Lund’s statement, for whom nature always proceeds “from the imperfect toward the perfect.” IHGB was losing ground, although, until the twentieth century, there were some who continued to pursue “lost civilizations,” besides poor Fawcett. “Brazil became supposedly not only the oldest continent, but the cradle of civilization in Middle America, holding in its forests, over prehistoric roots, a small island of civilization, the island of Marajó.” Score one for Doctor Benignus.

Reproduction from the book Legendes, croyances et talismans des indiens de l’Amazone/illustration by V. de Rego Monteiro “The archeology of the primitive not only looked for records of primitiveness and civilization in the sambaquis [mounds containing the traces of indigenous people’s daily lives], but lent weight to the theory of the antiquity of  “Brazilian” space.” As had previously been the case with the archeology of nobility, the type that focused on the primitive generated hypotheses about the population of the country. The “planet’s most ancient continent,” and the cradle of  civilization in the Americas, derived from a primitive race that expanded from the plateaus of Minas Gerais toward the Andes: everything guaranteed a new geopolitical boundary, now with sound archeological bases.” Science continued to be courted by politics and by ideology or to accept these willingly. Hence, comments Ferreira, the persistence of the theory of the degeneration of the indigenous peoples that spilled into the work of Betty Meggers, who was responsible, as of 1964 and along with Clifford Evans, for training an entire generation of Brazilian archeologists through Pronapa, the National Archeological Research Program financed by the Smithsonian Institution Actually, this presumably drove historians to associate the project (and theories) of Meggers (who was accused of working for the CIA) to an alleged link between the military dictatorship and Washington. “One needs no official documents to show the colonialist foundations of Meggers’ representations. They reside in the axioms of “environmental determinism”, which she crystallized and matured during the course of her research studies in the 1950s. According to these, the Amazon Forest, with its ruthless environment, caused degeneration to the indigenous populations, getting in the way of evolution,” notes Ferreira. According to him, the conclusions that ensue from this are worrisome, because, for Meggers, “advanced civilizations” spring up in the soil in areas that she referred to as “nuclear.” The closer to these, the greater the group’s evolution. Far from the core groups, the degeneration of degraded environments would be at play. “It’s an allegory for the present day, because the focus of any civilizing light, now the core, is transferred to North America, whereas Amazonia appears as a maelstrom of civilizations, even though, as Meggers stated, it nurtured dreams of Eldorado. Indeed, she clarifies our dreamy illusions. Thus, the regional inequalities of the American continent come to be justified.”

Devoid of lost cities or the superiority derived from being the oldest in the club, Brazil was also included in the so-called pristine myth (as defined in the classic text by William M. Denevan on the overview of the Americas in 1492) or the “myth of original purity” of the pre-Columbian land. “The natives would not have had the requisite rationality to till their lands and, thus, the European conquerors emerged as the source of reason and enlightening innovation in the vacuum that made up the colonies prior to the arrival of these Europeans. According to this line of thinking, they are the ones who presumably “shaped” the landscape of the New World,” explains Andrew Sluyter, a geographer from the University of Pennsylvania and author of Colonialism and landscape. “The implication of this is that pre-colonial landscapes lacked a dense population because they were supposedly incapable of making use of the land. This notion continued to be employed by the recent post-colonialists in order to promote the categorization of the world into a rationally progressive West versus an irrationally traditional “non-West”, a practice maintained to this day via the perverse dissemination of knowledge and technologies from one to another.” The colonizers’ merit would have been to transform the “pristine” landscape of the pre-colonial world substantially, and for the better, into the productive landscape of the post-1492 age. This, however, has been refuted by the continuous discovery of “black soil” in the Amazon Region (something already pointed out by Anna Roosevelt in Marajó), the fertile soil that it is believed was produced by human action. “At least 10% of the Amazon Region is covered by “black soil.” Therefore, it is untrue that the rains have drained all the nutrients from the soil and therefore stood in the way of the progress of farming. This type of soil is not affected by rain and even reacts positively too it. Furthermore, everything indicates that the “black soil” was deliberately created by the Amazonian peoples to modify the soil and improve it for cultivation,” states geographer William Woods, from Southern Illinois University.

According to him, the original inhabitants of the area planted crops that transformed unfertile land into soil that is suitable for cultivating many species, thereby ensuring an ample supply of food for larger populations. “The native Indians literally created the soil under their feet and part of the forest is anthropogenic, believes Woods, which jeopardizes both the pristine myth and Meggers’ theses. This, however, might explain the American’s reactions, whose criticism of this new model states that she is fearful for the future of the Amazon region if the possibility of commercially exploiting the forest’s soil becomes common sense. So we find ourselves back at the same dilemma we faced at the start: inferno or Eldorado: Roosevelt or Meggers’ With a new element: what is best for the future of the Amazon Region: “The theory based on socio-evolutionistic typologies is unsuitable for reconstructing the landscape of pre-colonial Amazonia. But the model of complex societies put forward by Roosevelt must be regarded merely as a preliminary attempt to understand the available data about the social organization of these societies. “It’s certainly not a definitive interpretation,” assesses Denise Gomes. The country that needs “lost civilizations” is an unfortunate one; after all, as Doctor Benignus’s servant explains at the end of the novel, upon confessing that he was the papyrus’s author, what mattered was his boss facing up to everything in his quest for the truth; and even if he failed to find it, he discovered other utopias. “One need not fear failure,” wrote Fawcett in his last letter, shortly before vanishing in the forest and turning into a myth himself (which he would have loved.)