Continuities and Discontinuities: Archaeology and Ethnoarchaeology in the Heart of the Eastern Bororo Territory, Mato Grosso, Brazil

By Wust, Irmhild | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Continuities and Discontinuities: Archaeology and Ethnoarchaeology in the Heart of the Eastern Bororo Territory, Mato Grosso, Brazil


Wust, Irmhild, Antiquity


Bororo and cultural continuity

Cultural continuity and discontinuity is a fascinating issue in archaeological investigation, especially in regions where native populations are still present, as in the case of southeastern Mato Grosso. Since there is no necessary correlation between archaeological cultures and self-conscious ethnic groups (Hodder 1978; 1982; Jones 1997), research in areas where a link between ethnographically and/or ethnohistorically known groups and the archaeological record can be established presents a significant challenge for the study of processes involved in cultural continuities, ruptures, and the maintenance or abandonment of stylistic boundaries. This is especially true in a context of colonial impact on native populations, as in the case of the Bororo society.

Despite considerable ethnological investigations of the indigenous population of Central Brazil (Nimuendaju 1942; 1946; Maybury-Lewis 1979), misconceived ideas about these societies are still perpetuated in public opinion and teaching in order to justify the expansion of Brazilian society, even in areas still occupied by native groups. These explicitly involve the questionable idea that the present native populations are legitimate representatives of their pre-contact ancestors, and that they are characterized by a subsistence strategy based on nomadic hunting and gathering, low population density, small villages and even cultural and ethnic homogeneity.

Linguistic, biological and ethnohistoric research has demonstrated that the present native societies in Brazil underwent significant territorial re-allocations, cultural changes and complex processes of splitting and fusion even between ethnically differentiated social groups as a consequence of direct and indirect contact with Brazilian society (Castro & Cunha 1993; Cunha 1992; Neves 1991; Ramos 1980). These remnant societies should not be considered as fossilized images of the pre-colonial period, as sometimes still portrayed by some archaeologists (Miller et al. 1992; Meggers 1991; 1995). Using analogies with recent ethnographic data, these authors explain the ceramic variability of the large archaeological sites in Amazonia as resulting from several reoccupations; they consequently reject the possibility of any major population aggregations or multi-functional village spaces(1) existing in the periods prior to conquest.

Archaeological research on pre-colonial ceramic agriculturalists carried out in the past 25 years in Central Brazil (Mato Grosso and Goias) changes some of these misconceived ideas (Heckenberger 1996; Schmitz et al. 1982; Wrist 1983; 1990; Wrist & Carvalho 1996). Nonetheless, a theoretical framework, predominantly rooted in concepts of culture history and a normative idea of culture has oriented most archaeological investigations. We find in the archaeological literature of Central Brazil frequent correlations between ceramic phases and ethnographically known societies (see especially Schmitz et al. 1982), interpretations based solely on vague spatial congruencies between archaeological cultures and Nimuendaju's (1981) geographical distribution of indigenous groups. Yet no evidence is provided of cultural continuity between the contexts. With study of the chronological and spatial distributions of archaeological cultures dominating, our knowledge about economic, social and political aspects - the inner and outer dynamics of these past societies not feasible to the ethnologist - remains slight.

Archaeological and ethnohistorical data related to Bororo villages illuminates cultural continuities and discontinuities with implications for the history of living indigenous peoples. From these data I argue:

1 Correlations between specific ethnic groups and material culture are only reliable when we can establish a clear continuity between the archaeological past and ethnographic present.

2 Even different ceramic traditions may be related to people who participated in forming new ethnic groups and who may be considered their authentic ancestors from an emic point of view.

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Continuities and Discontinuities: Archaeology and Ethnoarchaeology in the Heart of the Eastern Bororo Territory, Mato Grosso, Brazil
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