Issue of September, 22, 2003
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Pre-Columbian Society Found in the Amazon
By Mario Osava

Brazilian Carlos Fausto, member of the team that made the discovery, tells Tierramérica how the new archeological evidence debunks the myth that the Amazon was an uncivilized area prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century.

RIO DE JANEIRO, (Tierramérica).- A study published last week by the U.S. journal Science concludes that the pre-Columbian societies modified one of the least-known areas of the Amazon Basin, the upper Xingú River, in the north of Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, along the Amazon region's southeast edge.

The study, directed by archeologist Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida, belies the notion that the Amazon was a virgin forest when the Europeans reached the Americas and that the barren soils made massive human settlements impossible.

The Upper Xingú was settled by Kuikuro Indians in the 9th and 10th centuries, according to evidence in ceramics, organic materials and other objects that archeologists have found.

The discoveries indicate the existence of "large villages, surrounded by ditches and palisades, forming a defensive structures" during the 14th and 15th centuries and the early 16th century, Brazilian ethnologist Carlos Fausto, a member of the research team, told Tierramérica.

The team has uncovered an "astonishing plan" of 19 pre-Columbian villages linked to small settlements around them.

"The villages were always three to five kilometers apart and connected by remarkably straight roads," which measured up to 35 meters wide, according to the Science article.

This suggests that it was not a concentration of many people living in a village and then moving to another, but that all were populated simultaneously and maintained regular communication, Fausto explained.

The defensive structure was not intended to protect one village from the others, because then the wide roads would not have been justified.

"This really blew us away," Heckenberger said, quoted in the Science article. The network of villages, apparently "built from a similar blueprint," suggests a society "much larger and more complex than any in the Amazon today," says the report.

But the extension of this network has so far been difficult to determine.

Based on tests of ceramic fragments found in the area, the boundaries of the villages and the density of houses in the most recent villages, the team estimates that each cluster of settlements was home to 2,500 to 5,000 people.

Over the past two decades, archeologists have gathered evidence that parts of the Amazon were more densely populated before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, and that these peoples significantly modified their surroundings.

But scientists assumed that the more complex societies were concentrated in the floodplains. That was until a different picture began to emerge in the Upper Xingú.

Heckenberger's team found an area that had been "widely transformed over the past 1,000 years by a dense population of farmers living in a highly planned network of villages."

Covering an area of 1,000 square kilometers, initially working with machetes and later with Global Positioning System receivers, they found canals, ponds, and roads -- now overgrown with vegetation.

The research team is an unusual mix of experts from different disciplines. In addition to Fausto, of the National Anthropology Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, are linguistic anthropologist Bruna Franchetto, expert in indigenous languages, and two leaders of the Kuikuro peoples.

Satellite images and aerial photos show how the Kuikuro used the surrounding forests. These forests are not virgin or primary, but rather were cultivated gardens and orchards, tended by the population, said Fausto.

"That doesn't mean there was destruction of the forest, but rather there was sustainable exploitation, according to the data we have. But more research is needed," he added.

The alterations of the forest indicate long-term use, but with techniques very different from mechanized cultivation.

"They are practices used today by the Kuikuro, leaving areas of forest intact and creating orchards, in which they planted 'pequi'" a native tree that produces an oily, aromatic fruit that is used as a condiment for rice and to make liquors.

"There are around 15 varieties of pequi in the area studied, suggesting a process of domestication -- a hypothesis to be proved," Fausto said.

The sites that were village plazas, for example, are covered with grass, and certain types of trees were planted along the old roads and the abandoned fields.

"The point is that in 1492, human influence had spread to essentially the entire area. None of the area was natural," Heckenberger told Science.

Linguistic data contribute to the hypothesis of how the Upper Xingú was populated, forming an arc of migrations extending from the Caribbean Sea, through Venezuela, Guyana, the Rio Negro in the extreme northwest of Brazil, Peru and the Bolivian plains, until reaching what today is Mato Grosso.

"The cultural profile of the current population is similar to what it was in the 9th century. The villages are smaller versions of those that existed before the arrival of the whites (Europeans). Just like the roads, now two to four meters wide, and one or two km long," said Fausto.

Evidence indicates that other areas of the Amazon could have been highly populated before the colonial era. This hypothesis had long been denied with the argument that the Amazon forests were a relatively barren environment, difficult to farm, and therefore limiting the size of the local population.

But the Amazon valley is fertile, says Fausto. The seasonal floods leave nutrients in the soil, which could have served as the basis for large-scale agriculture, at least along the riverbanks.

The Vilasboas brothers (Orlando, Claudio, Leonardo and Alvaro), indigenous experts, led expeditions to the region in 1940 and 1950, and in 1961 founded the National Xingú Park, a vast area reserved for several indigenous communities, including the Kuikuro.

Thirteen more archeological sites have been identified in the area, but only four are being intensely studied.

"The problem is that archeology in Brazil suffers lack of information and resources. Perhaps the impact of the article published in Science will open new doors," said Fausto.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.

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