15 February 2009

In Country: Pedra Pintada


Our goal for traveling to Monte Alegre was to meet up with a guide and a driver who would take us to visit a series of caves in the region. Excavated over a span of three years by the prominent archaeologist Anna C. Roosevelt, the caves are significant because they contain the "oldest firmly dated examples of art in the Western Hemisphere" (Wilford). Roosevelt lived in Monte Alegre while she worked at Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Cave of the Painted Rock), the most well-known of the four caves we visited.

Early Friday morning we met our guide and his driver, Nesli and Carlos, who picked us up in a sturdy green diesel 4-wheel Toyota pick up. The trip to the caves took about an hour and consisted of driving along dirt and sand tracks through the jungle.

A couple of times we saw evidence of deforestation, in the form of recently burned tracts of land adjacent to an individual farmer's thatched roof house. It was clear that the land was being cleared either for crops such as corn or soy, or to make room for the ubiquitous herds of cow (and in this case, water buffalo) that we encountered several times along the way.

















We also saw evidence of human intervention with the landscape. Notice the rectangular shape carved out of the jungle in the middle of this photo frame. While not as noticeable when on the ground, this view from a rocky outcrop above the jungle canopy vividly displays the ways in which humans manipulate the land to meet human needs. It's this last point that Roosevelt postulates so controversively as a result of her excavation at Pedra Pintada. In a 2000 interview with the Society for California Archaeology, she claims that "indigenous peoples have access to the knowledge that their interaction with environments is a kind of co-evolution . . . People adapt to environments but they also change them. There are no virgin environments on earth in areas where people lived." If Roosevelt's theory is correct, then the popular idea that the Americas -- north and south -- were pristine wildernesses prior to European colonization is merely Euro-centric mythmaking. This makes Roosevelt a diffusionist of the first order.

But Roosevelt's challenge to conventional thinking about pre-contact land use does not stop here. She also claims that the indigenous people of the Lower Amazon basin were interacting with the very ground on which they walked. In other words, the people were performing a complicated gardening technique whereby they were creating a unique type of soil known as terra preta (black earth). Perhaps the best way to describe her idea is to consider the backyard compost pile. By adding coffee grounds, egg shells and other organic matter to the ground in your own backyard, you can create a new soil which is full of nutrients and very fertile. This rich, new soil can be added to your garden to enhance plant growth. In short, it's a home grown fertilizer.

This, then, is what Roosevelt claims the people of this region were doing: terraforming their environment to enhance a naturally weak and unstable jungle soil in order to maximize cultivation. And her evidence is compelling. Throughout most of Brasil we have encountered red earth. Indeed the road on which we traveled was mostly red, as evidenced by the photo with the water buffaloes. However when we arrived in the vicinity of the caves where the earliest inhabitants lived, the soil changed. It was black, loose and seemingly very fertile. The ground was unlike any I have seen in any other part of this region or the country, for that matter.

So, who were the people of Pedra Pintada? Based on the Carbon 14 dating of the objects excavated at the caves, the people definitively lived here between 10,500 - 10,300 BCE. It is likely that they were here before and after those dates too, but the science pegs the material record to this 300 year range. According to Roosevelt, they "gathered nuts and fruits, fished and collected shellfish, turtles, tortoises, and frogs and caught small animals, not big game." This point, too, is important. Traditionally, mainstream archaeology claims that the Clovis model (big game hunters who lived about 11,000 years ago) were the only human inhabitants of the Americas. Yet the evidence from this region refutes this theory. In the words of Roosevelt, Pedra Pintada "showed a different and somewhat unexpected type of terminal Pleistocene culture" which was a "much more heterogeneous Paleoindian culture than envisioned in the Clovis model." Apparently the inhabitants were seasonal residents who used the caves for cooking meals, sharpening stones, sorting seeds and painting their world view. Rather than being the descendants of Clovis "they were contemporaries, with their own distinctive stone technology and art and a foraging way of life suited to their forest and riverine habitat" (Wilford). Some of the paintings they made are of clearly recognizeable shapes: birds, people, fish. Obviously they depicted the every day objects of the world in which they lived. Other images are zoomorphic and other worldly, with likely spiritual meanings and originations.


Nelsi, our guide, suggested that the image above is a calendar. It contains 51 boxes, which roughly corresponds to weeks of the year. On the rock adjacent to this image is the photo above it, which Nelsi claims depicts 9 planets and a shooting star. The human form to the left of the constellation is a woman giving birth. There were several child birthing images at three of the four cave sites. This suggests to me the importance of a woman's role in ensuring the survival of the species.



David, field lecturing on the attributes of Paleolithic art.




Maureen, sweaty and happy in the jungle.














Nelsi, our guide. Apparently he was the one who brought Anna Roosevelt to the caves when she first arrived in the region in 1991.










Sources:
Wilford, John Noble. "Scientist at Work: Anna C. Roosevelt; Sharp and To the Point In Amazonia." New York Times. April 23, 1996. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E07EFD91F39F930A15757C0A960958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1

Interview with Anna C. Roosevelt, 2000. Society for California Archaeology. http://scahome.org/about_ca_archaeology/2000_Roosevelt.html

4 comments:

mika said...

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Neil Duncan said...

Dear Maureen

The picture on the cave wall which I have seen referred to as a woman giving birth. I think is something else.

I believe that the picture is upside down, it is an animal, with its tail up and head down. It could be a monkey or a camelion? Or something other creature from 11,000 years ago.

I don't know if I am right, or if it is significant at all.

Yours

Neil Duncan

Mark Rahner said...

Wonderful pictures. In my opinion, Neil is right about the pictogram showing something like a camelion rather than a woman giving birth. The articulation of the limbs, the very distinctive grippers, and the curled tail all add up to something that is very camelion like. I wouldn't say that the pictogram is upside down though, rather that it's a view from above of an animal facing the viewer or a view of an animal climbing down a vertical surface. It would be interesting to see pictures of the other birthing pictograms to consider what light they shed on this interpretation.

Mark Rahner said...

Wonderful pictures. In my opinion, Neil is right about the pictogram showing something like a chamelion rather than a woman giving birth. The articulation of the limbs, the very distinctive grippers, and the curled tail all add up to something that is very chamelion like. I wouldn't say that the pictogram is upside down though, rather that it's a view from above of an animal facing the viewer or a view of an animal climbing down a vertical surface. It would be interesting to see pictures of the other birthing pictograms to consider what light they shed on this interpretation.