Regional Pottery-Making Groups in Southern Brazil

By Gonzales, Erika Marion Robrahn | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Regional Pottery-Making Groups in Southern Brazil


Gonzales, Erika Marion Robrahn, Antiquity


At the beginning of the Christian era, pottery-making groups started occupying the southern region of Brazil (the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]), their origins closely related to former inhabitants, mainly hunters and gatherers. Two major groups are recognized, from the hundreds of identified sites. Vestiges of the first, dispersed in settlements in the southernmost area and in the low savanna landscape, show that settlers of mounds - cerritos - were nomadic, their economy based on hunting, fishing and gathering. In the second, dispersed in the plateau and along adjacent coastal plains, settlers depended on gathering; at least in a few areas and in more recent periods they were sedentary, with the rudiments of more complex social and political patterns. The two settlement systems are in very different environmental, cultural and temporal contexts. Current research takes a normative view of culture, in which pottery has a place of honour and is classified by archaeological 'traditions' and 'phases'. Yet both groups present pottery industries rather matched in time and space, obscuring evidence of internal differentiation or cultural change processes.

Southern Brazilian potters cannot be discussed independently from neighbouring Argentina and Uruguay, where occupation of sites is continuous. In Uruguay, where researches in the cerrito sites, with more recent theoretical and methodological perspectives, have raised important issues - seasonality, function of sites, and patterns of supply. Implementation of the Southern Cone Market (Mercosul) agreements will favour the exchange of information and joint research work.

The cerritos in the low savanna: first occurrence of regional pottery

Hundreds of cerrito sites exist in the low savannas and steppes of southernmost Brazil, as well as in Uruguay and Argentina. Located in flooded lowlands close to lagoons and riverbanks, these have been linked to the Vieira tradition in Brazil, to the Salto Grande tradition of the middle Uruguay, and to the Ibicuena tradition of the lower Uruguay, the Parana and along the banks of the Plata [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] (Lopez 1994-5; Femenias 1995-6; Rodriguez 1992; Bracco 1992; Schmitz et al. 1991; Femenias et al. 1990; Schmitz & Baeza 1982; Ruthschilling 1989; Astigarraga 1995-6; Moehlecke Cope 1985; Caggiano 1984; 1995).

Cerritos are earth-mounds of circular or elliptical shape, roughly 100 m in diameter, that rise up to 7 m above the regularly flooded surrounding area [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. They appear in groups of tens or even hundreds, where large amounts of food remains, vestiges of fire, and post-holes can be found. Lithic, bone or shell artefacts occur throughout, and a great number of human burials, especially in Uruguayan sites. Most sites have pottery, chiefly small, thick-walled, badly finished and ill-fired pots, bearing straw impressions and rarely any plastic decoration [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED]. Recent studies of the internal distribution of these vestiges and of the cerritos formation in differentiated layers of earth have shown that the site structures follow specific and complex cultural patterns (Lopez 1996; Montana et el. 1996).

The origins of these groups, linked to the hunters and gatherers that formerly inhabited the region, probably relates to adaptation from the barren period, 2400-1700 b.p. The oldest cerritos date back to 2450 b.p., although pottery is only seen c. 1950 b.p., without indication of cultural breakdown. The hypothesis of local invention, supported by Brochado's (1991) view of an old date for Argentinian Palo Blanco pottery, is much discussed (Rodriguez 1992: 207).

The arising of pottery can be linked to changing site distribution, probably coupled to changing supply strategies. Geochronological models point to occupation first of the highlands at a periods when pottery had not arisen, replaced by the lowland occupation some 1000 years later. …

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