Human and Natural Agency: Some Comments on Pedra Furada

Article excerpt

In the December 1994 issue, we published a view by Meltzer, Adovasio & Dillehay of Pedra Furada, the large cave-shelter in northeast Brazil whose deposits may show a precocious human occupation of the New World. This further comment addresses natural and human agencies there, and how the research community can choose between several interpretations becoming available.

The case of Pedra Furada highlights the subject of verification of archaeological claims. I agree that visiting sites is important, but I cannot subscribe to the canon of 'officialization' of sites by having specialists examining the controversial ones (all expenses paid by excavators, as it usually goes). In relation to the international meeting at Pedra Furada, and after sustaining the notion 'there is now solid evidence for a human presence in the New World tens of thousands of years ago', Paul G. Bahn wrote that 'seeing may then be believing' (1993: 115). There is a point at which this strategy amounts to authority appeal. Will the archaeological community accept or reject a site because one or more well-known archaeologists say 'yes' or 'no'? Detailed publications, with complete stratigraphic diagrams, are needed: in other words, evidence that may be accessible to everyone in the archaeological community.

On the other hand, there is much to gain from the visit of specialists, in the form of insights that can be offered by researchers working with similar problems. This is a very different approach, in that it is not an appeal to authority to produce confirmation (Guidon & Arnaud 1991: 172), but it is the requirement of advice about ways of doing research. It is in that sense that the paper by Meltzer et al. should be used by researchers in Pedra Furada, since they offer useful and necessary advice. As for verification, it should be confined to transmissible evidence in the archaeological literature. If that medium is not sufficient, then the existence of some problem must be presumed. It is in that vein that I will offer a few comments.

As for Pedra Furada itself, the thorough review by Meltzer et al. is impressive, and is honestly pointed towards what should be clarified in forthcoming publications. Given French standards, it is remarkable to see the lack of 'attention to any internal stratification' in the Pedra Furada research design (Meltzer et al. 1994: 704). This, together with changes of assignation of radiocarbon determinations from one sub-phase to another, or even in the number of sub-phases, point to arbitrariness and problems in the organization of strata, materials and dates. This situation is not recognized by Guidon & Arnaud (1991: 169): 'after discovering a mass of fallen rocks almost directly in contact with the rocky floor . . . we were able to understand how the site had been formed. This basic discovery allowed the certainty that we had primary archaeological layers which had not been disturbed by erosion. …