On a Pleistocene Human Occupation at Pedra Furada, Brazil

Article excerpt

Introduction and caveats

In a review of the problems and controversy surrounding the peopling of the Americas, Guidon & Arnaud (1991: 177) very rightly suggest, 'Working parties, meetings of specialists on site, and formal debates, should take place regularly if we are to establish an agreed basis for evaluating evidence.' It was in that spirit an invitation was graciously extended to us to visit Toca do Boqueirao da Pedra Furada and participate in the Reuniao Internacional Sobre o Povoamento das Americas in Sao Raimundo Nonato, Brazil, in December 1993. It was also in that spirit we accepted the invitation.

While we returned from Brazil greatly impressed by the scope of the work at Pedra Furada, we also returned without having been convinced of the site's claims for a Pleistocene human antiquity. This is not, we hasten to add, a final judgement about the site; that must await the appearance of Parenti's unpublished dissertation on the material remains (Parenti 1993b), and the summary monograph(s) on the site. It does, however, reflect concerns we have about the chronology, geology, artefacts, features, and related aspects of the purported Pleistocene human occupation at Pedra Furada.

Of course, we are not experts on the data and evidence recovered from Pedra Furada; our knowledge of the site is based on presentations we heard at the Conference, two site visits (and visits to six other apparent Pleistocene sites in the region), and a cursory inspection of the recovered material, supplemented by a reading of the available site literature. Nor do we expect our opinions will be shared by our colleagues (even those who viewed the site with us); we understand only too well how other individuals or groups may see the same evidence differently.

We are also well aware of the potential appearance of bias on our part from two of us having our own pre-Clovis candidates. We will let our paper speak for itself in this regard, but trust the issue of bias will be found to be groundless. After all, we have nothing to gain by showing Pedra Furada is -- or is not -- as old as it is claimed to be. This is not a competition in which only one site can 'win' and others must 'lose'. Each pre-Clovis claim is independent; the age of one has no bearing on the age of another (Meltzer 1989). It matters not to us whether the first Americans arrived 11,000, 20,000 or 50,000 years ago, or whether one or all of these sites are accepted. What matters is understanding the virtually unprecedented migration of modern humans across a rich, empty and dynamic Pleistocene landscape, of which solving the question of when it occurred is but the first step toward that understanding (for a discussion of these larger issues, see the papers in Dillehay & Meltzer 1991).

We would like to contribute towards that solution, for we consider ourselves to have a useful knowledge of the difficulties encountered in the excavation of potentially early records, especially in caves and rock-shelters, and in the identification of unifacial stone tool industries and possible human-made features. Adovasio and Dillehay have confronted such matters before at Meadowcroft and Monte Verde. All of us, further, are acutely aware of the long and complicated history of evaluating these sometimes controversy-laden records. Thus, our views and comments might be of some interest to our colleagues and, perhaps, of some value.

Ours is not the first commentary to be offered on this site. Several (mostly) brief assessments have appeared: some pro, some con, others withholding judgement until more first-hand information is available (e.g. Ardila Calderon & Politis 1989; Bahn 1991; 1993; Bednarik 1989; Fagan 1990; Lynch 1990; Schmitz 1987); the more partisan of these have sparked testy exchanges (e.g. Bahn & Muller Beck 1991; Fagan 1991). We have deliberately steered clear of this literature, and will neither summarize nor take sides on it. …