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The light that the white man put out

Contrary to what used to be said, Brazil had complex societies before the arrival of the Europeans

WAGNER SILVA and MIGUEL BOYAYANFlintstone spearhead 7,700 years old and fragments of potteryWAGNER SILVA and MIGUEL BOYAYAN

At school, the history books teach us, rapidly, there were three indigenous groups with advanced societies in pre-Columbian America, before 1492: the Aztecs and Mayas above the equator, and the Incas here in the Andes. Displaying cities erected in stone, with a rich architecture, mastery of agriculture, social hierarchy and some scientific knowledge, these peoples, each its own way and with its own peculiarities, are usually lumped together in the column of the “civilizations” conquered – perhaps destroyed would be a better term – by the firearms and diseases brought by the first Europeans in the 16th century. They are the light that was put out with the arrival of the white man. The other Amerindian peoples, including those from Brazil, likewise victims of the disembarkation of the new masters coming from the Old World, were left with the image of being primitive societies, from the darkness, without any cultural refinement or marked class distinctions, made up of small villages isolated from each other, where nomadism reigned. In short, they stood for backwardness – compared with the imperial splendor of their Andean and Central American contemporaries.

Recent archeological discoveries in at least two different spots of Brazilian Amazonia suggest that the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas were not the only ones to have a monopoly of complex societies at the time Christopher Columbus the navigator disembarked. In the last few years, intensive field work carried out by Brazilian and foreign researchers in the Upper Xingu, in the north of Mato Grosso, and at the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers, some 30 kilometers from Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, indicates the existence of great and refined human settlements, inhabited simultaneously by several thousands of persons in these areas, 500 years ago, or even before that. The most spectacular evidence of occupations ofthis magnitude – a feat only possible following the adoption of a sedentary life style and of practices that altered the native forest and made possible the adoption of a reasonably productive agriculture – came out of prehistoric sites located on land inhabited today by the Kuikuro people, inside the Xingu indigenous reserve, and materialized on the pages of the September 19 issue of the American magazine Science, one of the publications with most weight amongst scientists.

In a four-page article, illustrated by six satellite images, a rather unusual team of authors – three from the University of Florida, two from the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro and two Kuikuro Indians – describes the structure of the kind of society that there was at this point of Amazonia between 1200 and 1600 AD: a group of 19 villages in a circular format, the larger ones protected by ditches of up to 5 meters in depth and palisades, interconnected by a broad and extensive network of compacted earth roads. The researchers estimate that between 2,500 and 5,000 persons used to live in the larger villages. The refinement and precision with which the roads were conceived and executed are impressive. They were extremely rectilinear, between 10 and 50 meters in width and 3 to 5 kilometers in length. “The roads are a work of engineering that moved an enormous quantity of earth on the horizontal plane”, explains archeologist Michael Heckenberger, from the University of Florida, the main author of the text inScience, a 41-year-old American who speaks Portuguese fluently, having lived seven years in Brazil, one and a half of them inside the Xingu.

Traces of squares, bridges, dams and canals and of the growing of cassava and other plants were also found at the archeological site, which comprises an area of 400 square meters, equivalent to one third of the territory of the city of Rio de Janeiro, not very far away from the three contemporary villages of the Kuikuros. “Building these structures in the forest may perhaps not have been more complicated than making pyramids, but it stands for another form of monumentality”, likens Heckenberger. “This people had a horizontal monumentality”, says anthropologist Carlos Fausto, from the National Museum, another author of the study.

“The function of the roads was more esthetic than practical.” According to Fausto, the Indians did not carry anything so big between the villages as to justify opening up a road of at least 10 meters in width, easily wide enough for two automobiles. The broad paths carved out in the forest could have been connected with the tradition of performing collective rituals between tribes, symbolizing the union between the villages. If this hypothesis is right, between the 13th and 16th centuries, while the Incas where showing off their knowledge by building cities of stone in the highlands of the Andes, the members of this ancient people from the Xingu, established in a flat area of tropical forest, were setting up a majestic road network on the fringes of Amazonia, perhaps their most surprising architectural legacy.

The vestiges of the Xingu “city” were dated by the carbon-14 method, and the course of the roads, which was based on the movements of the Sun and denoted some knowledge of astronomy, were mapped with the help of a high-precision GPS. Capable of providing the precise location of a geographical point with the assistance of satellites, the version of the device used in the Xingu had a margin of error of 1 meter. The instrument was of great value for the two Indians who also signed the article in Science, Afukaká Kuikuro and Urissapá Tabata Kuikuro. “They are great at finding the course of the roads and archeological sites”, Heckenberger says. Stretches of the roads opened up by the inhabitants of the ancient settlements are often to be found nowadays taken by the forest. At these spots, it is difficult to locate the salient curbs that were formed at the edges of the roads and that could reach a height of 1 meter.

The authors of the study believe that, in its core aspects, the pre-colonial settlement was an expanded version of the way of life of the less than 600 Kuikuros present today in the Xingu, who also open up roads and make clearings. In the old villages of a more residential nature, the houses, probably put up with a wooden structure and covered with thatch, like the present-day dwellings, would surround the central square. The difference is that there is now only one ring of dwellings. At the time of the discovery of America, there must have been several. There is, however, no certainty that the Indians who lived there 500 years ago really were ancestors of the Kuikuro of today. The hypothesis is far from being an absurd one, although it has not been proven. “But as there has been cultural continuity over more than a thousand years of history of the peoples of the Xingu, one can think out the past by means of the present”, says Fausto. “It is very possible that several aspects of the current Xingu culture were already present amongst the populations that built and lived in the ancient large villages.” Amongst them, the adoption of a political hierarchy, which makes a distinction of the Indians, between chiefs and non-chiefs, and of some intertribal rituals, similar to the famous Quarup, the festival in homage of the dead leaders.

The Indians of the precolonial era lived in perfect harmony with the untouched forest, right? Well, it is believed that they lived in peace with the environment. But the forest – one is forced to admit – was no longer virgin. To construct a society of such complexity, with roads connecting fortified villages and with agricultural belts around them, the ancient Kuikuros brought about alterations to the natural landscape – just as the Kuikuro of today do. But the researchers hasten to say that these were not improper aggressions against natural resources. “Some studies of ethnobotany show that the indigenous handling of the environment, in a conscious or unconscious way, tends to produce greater biodiversity than if the forest were really ‘virgin'”, Fausto explains. More radical, romantic ecologists may have seen the work of the Brazilian and Americans in Science as a stimulus for clearing the forest. It is not a question of this. Provocatively intitled “Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or CulturalParkland?”, the text suggest that what the majority of people look at as “virgin forest” is in actually a product of an age-old interaction between the indigenous population and the ecosystem. And that human interference in the environment did not degrade the local soil.

Black earth
Many kilometers above the ancient settlements in the area of the Kuikuro, more vestiges of complex societies at the time of the discovery are coming out of a tropical mini-Mesopotamia, 30 kilometers away from Manaus, and they seem to confirm the discoveries in the Upper Xingu. In a portion of land located at the confluence of the Solimões and Negro rivers, the team led by Eduardo Góes Neves, from the Archeology and Ethnology Museum of the University of São Paulo (MAE/USP) identified 70 archeological sites with evidence of human presence and carried out 71 carbon-14 datings to determine their approximate age. The oldest sites go back 8,000 years. In one of them, for example, a spearhead made of 7,700 year old flintstone was discovered. The newer archeological areas, where the greater part of the work done so far has been concentrated, have sites with an age between 2,500 and 500 years. Five of these more recent sites have now been excavated and digitally mapped: Açutuba, Osvaldo, Lago Grande, Hatahara and Dona Stella. The study material in these places may even be less spectacular than the ancient roads of the Upper Xingu. But not less eloquent.

In this region, close to the outskirts of the capital of Amazonas, parts of human skeletons were found, arranged directly in the ground or in urns, as well as countless fragments of pottery, trenches excavated at the back end of some sites, remnants of palisades – and a lot of black earth. Extremely fertile, rich in nutrients and full of pieces of pottery, this kind of organic soil is usually interpreted as a mark produced by large and prolonged settlements in a given region. In some places, the black earth was used by the pre-Columbian peoples, together with hundred bits of pottery, as raw material for building little mounds of 1 or 2 meters in height that had the function of tombs. Excavating these little mounds, the researchers sometimes came across funeral urns. “All these elements indicate that the presence of the Amerindian was continuous in some spots of Central Amazonia”, says Neves, whose project is funded by FAPESP. “Certain sites were inhabited for decades running, perhaps for over a hundred years without any interruption, by a few thousands of people.”

How is this set of findings from the past interpreted, to serve as a basis for the theory of the existence of complex societies in pre-colonial Amazonia? The little mounds built with black earth and potsherds, like the ten found in the Hataraha site, located in a raised area adjoining the alluvial plain of the Solimões, are an indication that there may have been a certain division of labor – and, as a consequence, hierarchical differences – amongst the Amerindian peoples of the forest. “Someone in command needs to coordinate the efforts of several men to succeed in getting this kind of funeral tomb”, comments Neves, who until last month was recovering from a bout of malaria, caught on his last trip to Amazonia. The discovery of the trenches in the rear of the areas where there has been human occupation denotes a concern of the inhabitants of a village to defend themselves from the attacks of other settlements. In Açutuba, the largest site identified by Neves’ project, with an area of 90 hectares,the researchers located two ditches to the rear of its terrain.

The dimensions of the cavities are significant: 150 meters in length and 2 meters deep. Close to these trenches, vestiges were also found of palisades, ancient wooden fences, which reinforces the idea that the Indians wanted to protect the rearguard at Açutuba. “If there was a concern to protect the back end of a village, it is because there was a risk of wars between tribes”, the archeologist from USP deduces. The same line of thinking goes for the fortified villages of the Kuikuros in the Upper Xingu.

Present in the majority of the sites located at the confluence of the Solimões and Negro rivers (and also in the area of the Kuikuros and in other parts of the Amazon basin), the black earth is one of the key elements for sustaining the theses that the precolonial inhabitants already led a more elaborate life style than used to be thought. In other words, it is an indication that the pre-Columbian peoples (or at least some bevies of them) fixed themselves at some points of the Amazon basin, put up perennial villages of significant size, where they practiced some form of farming. With the passage of time, the waste produced by this continuous occupation of an area – the carcass of animals hunted in the forest, the leftovers of fish caught in theneighboring rivers, pieces of plants gathered or cultivated, human excrement, the wood used for building the dwellings – they all ended up giving rise to the black earth. In Amazonia, the majority of the archeological sites that show this geological formation are between 2,500 and 500 years old. Right in the center of Manaus, in Dom Pedro square, laborers who were working on a project to revitalize the public spaces unwittingly discovered, last August, three funeral urns in a layer of black earth of an age estimated at between 1,000 and 1,200 years.

According to Neves’ interpretation, the black earth becomes more common some two and a half thousand years ago because, at that point of time of prehistory, there must have been a demographic explosion – and in sedentary living – amongst the Amerindian tribes. When, about five centuries back, the size of the indigenous populations shows signs of decline, because of the weapons and the diseases brought by the Europeans, the formation of this kind of soil begins to dwindle. Until the decade of the 1980’s, there was no consensus that the black earth was a result of the action of man. Some scholars even imagined that this kind of dark soil which, when it surfaces, is used nowadays for farming, could have been formed from matter originating from Andean volcanoes, brought by the wind, or sediments coming from lakes. “Today, almost everybody accepts the idea that the black earth is the fruit of the intervention of man in the landscape of the region”, avers the archeologist from USP. The question still open is toknow how long it takes for the black earth to be originated. “Some authors think that 1 centimeter of black earth takes ten years to be formed. Personally, I believe that this process is quicker and has more to do with the dimensions of the settlements than with the time they last”, explains Neves. In Açutuba, for example, 3,000 Indians may have lived there at the same time, according to his estimates.

When they avail themselves of the expression “complex society”, archeologists, anthropologists and other scholars imagine a people that has left behind – or relegated to a secondary plane – the nomadic life of hunters and gatherers of the bounties of the native fauna and flora. A group of persons who had settled on a piece of land and developed some form of farming. A settlement with some degree of sedentary life, endowed with villages with some hundreds or perhaps thousands of persons, with a social hierarchy and division of labor. The hypothesis is that there were cultures with these characteristics in pre-colonial Amazonia clashes with the traditional and still dominant view of archeology, much influenced, from the decade of the 1950’s onwards, by the fieldwork and articles of Betty Meggers, from America.

For the veteran researcher, still active at the age of 81 and faithful to her theses of decades ago, the natural conditions of the humid tropics – poor soils and little food available at ground level – were adverse to a large scale human presence and would only make it possible to form small villages, with less than a hundred persons, which would occupy areas of a few hectares. When the food came to an end, the small villages would be remade elsewhere, which would happen frequently. A common criticism made by Meggers of the work of her colleagues who say they have discovered vestiges of large human settlements in Amazonia is that these researchers have actually fact found remnants of small villages that were never contemporary. In the case of the area of the Kuikuros, it is difficult to believe that the Indians would have built a network of roads so big and wide to connect villages that existed in different epochs.

Alternative theories to the idea that Amazonia was an exclusive dwelling of pre-colonial peoples without anelaborate political and social organization are not exactly a novelty produced in the 21st century by researchers like Heckenberger, Fausto, Neves and others. In some measure, European chroniclers of the 16th century who passed through the equatorial forest, for example, made references to organized societies in the Amazon basin. The problem is that one of the most famous allusions of this kind is nor more than a legend, the saga of the Amazon warriors.

In the last few decades, some scholars have started to look for more concrete evidence that might contradict the ideas of the followers of Meggers. But the thesis that there could have been complex societies in the tropics at the time of the discovery was never consolidated, due to the lack of hard evidence proof to sustain it. The discovery of great roads and pre-colonial villages in the Upper Xingu and of ancient and dense settlements in the environs of Manaus are beginning to fill this gap. The peoples of the forest may even not have been as sophisticated as their neighbors in the Andes or in Central America, but neither were they all that “primitive”. “They were not an Inca or Maya empire. They were complex, though, with an Amazonian structure”, Heckenberger sums up.

The Projects
1. Social Complexity in the Late Prehistory of Amazonia (Upper Xingu); Coordinator; Michael Heckenberger – University of Florida; Investment: US$ 150,100 (National Science Foundation, USA)
2. Archeological survey of the area of the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers: continuity of excavations, analysis of the chemical composition and setting up a system of geographical information; Coordinator: Eduardo Góes Neves – MAE/USP; Investment: R$ 209,968.18 (FAPESP)