Early Hunter-Gatherers in the Americas: Perspectives from Central Brazil

By Kipnis, Renato | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Early Hunter-Gatherers in the Americas: Perspectives from Central Brazil


Kipnis, Renato, Antiquity


There is a preconception among American archaeologists that the late Pleistocene (c. 12,00010,000 b.p.) and early Holocene human occupation of the Americas would have had highly formalized and diagnostic technologies (Bryan 1986), as seen in bifacial fluted projectiles (Clovis and/or Folsom points(1)) or Palaeo-arctic microblades, This bias carries with it two presumptions which have no reason to exist:

* Clovis and related industries had to be diffused throughout the Americas; and

* there should be a 'big-game hunting' horizon in South America.

In short, the North American archetype is being used: if there is a late Pleistocene human occupation in South America, then it should look like the one in North America.

Although several archaeological sites in South America are of the same age as Clovis and Folsom, they do not show the characteristics typical of North American Palaeoindian occupation (Dillehay et al. 1992). Until very recently, a late Pleistocene human occupation in South America was not accepted by mainstream North American archaeologists (Fiedel 1996; West 1991). This can be explained by three factors:

* there was no undisputed pre-Clovis site in North America, as there should be if there were Clovis' contemporaneous occupations in South America and the migration went from north to south;

* the lack of discrete chronological horizon in South America, similar to Clovis period in North America; and

* scarcity of information about South American archaeology being done by South American archaeologists.

The recent publications of Monte Verde site reports (Dillehay 1989; 1997) and site visit by a group of archaeologists (Meltzer et al. 1997; Pedler & Adovasio 1997) put an end to the 'pre-Clovis' occupation debate with the indisputable evidence of human occupation in southern Chile c. 12,500 years b.p. Along with that we hope that more attention will be geared to other South American late Pleistocene sites, and more importantly, to the variability of early human adaptations in the Americas.

This article presents evidence of late Pleistocene human occupations at several sites in the eastern tropical lowlands of South America, specifically in central Brazil, that are not characterized by the presence of specialized 'big-game hunting' assemblages. The archaeological record from this region shows that until c. 3500 years b.p. the region was occupied continuously by egalitarian foraging groups subsisting entirely on wild animals and plants. Reviewing archaeological evidences of this early occupation, this article suggests that adaptation was based primarily on plants and small mammals, with an expedient lithic assemblage geared to manufacturing wood implements.

The fact that late Pleistocene lithic assemblages from South America are distinct from North America should not be a surprise. Clovis, Folsom, Lindenmeier and other North American late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods are specific adaptations to particular ecological context and subsistence strategy. When humans migrated to South America they encountered a very ecologically diverse land, and had to adapt and adjust to this new environment. From an ecological point of view, important once we deal with subsistence strategies, we are talking about local adaptation during a period of important palaeoclimatic changes. The variability found among human occupation in the Americas during late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods can be partially explained by regional adaptations of people facing environmental risk.

Theoretical framework

The human ecological approach to hunter-gatherer studies has shown those societies use a broad range of ways to mitigate risk, including mobility, storage, logistical collecting, exchange, communal sharing, intensification and diversification (e.g. Colson 1979; Goland 1991; Halstead & O'Shea 1989; Spielmann 1986; Wiessner 1982; Winterhalder 1990). …

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