Considerations of the Sambaquis of the Brazilian Coast

By Gaspar, Maria Dulce | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Considerations of the Sambaquis of the Brazilian Coast


Gaspar, Maria Dulce, Antiquity


Sambaqui is the name given to a certain type of archaeological evidence left by fisher/hunter/gatherer groups who inhabited large expanses of the Brazilian coast. The word is of Tupi etymology, tamba meaning shellfish and ki a piling-up (Prous 1991: 204). The Tupi were a horticultural/potter group who lived on the Brazilian coast at the time of the first European arrivals; they coined the term which describes the main characteristic of the sites - the accumulation of great quantities of mollusc shells [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

The sambaquis are made up of faunal remains such as shells and fish bones related to the diet of their builders. Whole arefacts (bone arrowheads, perforated teeth, polished stone axe-blades, hammers and manes, grinders, stone flakes, shell scrapers), remains from the manufacture of artefacts (cut bones, quartz flakes) and fragments of used objects are also found in them. There are numerous burials, hearths and occasional habitation structures. The layers of shells are many times composed of different species of molluscs, and charcoal from the hearths and burials mix in the stratigraphy to form a complex mosaic. The sambaquis have often been considered as places for habitation and as burial grounds, because of the presence of these different elements.

Scientific research on the sambaquis

The site logs filed in the Institute de Patrimonio Historico Nacional report the existence of 958 sambaquis. This is certainly a very low number when we consider the great number of sites that must have existed along the Brazilian coast. Large coastal cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador used lime burnt from the shells of the sambaquis for colonial buildings. The growth of cities, especially along the coast, completed the total destruction of what remained of many sites.

Sambaquis can be found along a significant stretch of the Brazilian coast-line - from the state of Rio Grande do Sul to Bahia and from Maranhao to Para state - but the small number of sites researched in the north and northeastern regions makes it impossible to include them in this analysis. The very existence of this complex of sites in the north of the country brings up interesting questions; despite a spatial discontinuity (the non-existence of sites between the coast of Bahia and Maranhao) pottery is found in the sites and they are considered to belong to the same archaeological tradition (Simoes 1981).

Radiocarbon datings indicate that the more ancient sites are to be found in the state of Parana - Ramal sambaqui, 6540[+ or -]105 (Rauth 1971) and Porto Mauricio 6030[+ or -]130 years b.p. (Rauth 1971) - and that from this point the sambaqui builders would have followed two routes of migration along the coast, one to the south and the other to the north (Schmitz 1981). There has been no systematic research related to initial occupation of the coast, and it is considered that the more ancient sites were probably destroyed by the fluctuation in sea levels. Nor there are studies of the period when the sambaquis stopped being built; a probable cause may have been the expansion of horticultural/potter groups that began to settle along the coast around the beginning of the Christian era.

The sambaqui is the site most studied by Brazilian archaeologists: 91 works on them have been published, and 231 radiocarbon dates are available for a total of 121 sites. Many advances have been made in the study of dietary remains and artefacts, of the spatial distribution of the sites and of the biological characteristics of the population, among other topics. As we are speaking of a great number of sites, spread over a large region and distributed over a wide interval of time, the different characteristics pertaining to different sites are probably related to temporal and regional variations. This has led to many theories regarding the relations between the different sites, and to different denominations - 'sambaqui sensu stricto', 'dirty sambaquis', 'gathering camps', 'Macae phase/tradition', 'Itaipu tradition', 'phases A and B', etc. …

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