Monumental Burials and Memorial Feasting: An Example from the Southern Brazilian Highlands

Article excerpt


Anthropologists and archaeologists studying the Neolithic in the Old World and Formative periods in the Americas have long been concerned with the study of the relationships between the living and the dead and in particular with the social and ideological roles of monumental burial and the appreciation and use of these burial monuments by successor societies (Fleming 1973; Beck 1995; Dillehay 1995; Barrett 1996). Debate has been focused on the way that the arrival of monumental burial practices reflected changes insubsistence, population growth, ranking and inheritance, territoriality, and ideology (e.g. Renfrew 1973; Bradley 1998; Carr & Case 2005; Dillehay 2007).

The southern Brazilian highlands features a pre-Hispanic culture of monumental earthwork construction, the Taquara/Itarare tradition, which includes both mounds and causewayed enclosures (Beber 2005). This is also one of the few regions in the world where indigenous mound-building and associated ceremonies have been recorded in a living people, the Kaingang (Metraux 1946). Comparison with the pre-Hispanic and the later practice may help us understand the role that burial monuments and post-funerary rites played in the emergence of complex societies more generally.

This paper presents a synthesis of the Taquara/Itarare earthen monument tradition based upon recent investigations at the ElDorado mound and causewayed enclosure complex, PM01, in north-eastern Argentina. These are interpreted in light of procedures for the burial of a chieftain, as observed among the later Kaingang cultural tradition.

The Taquara/Itarare tradition and the arrival of mound and enclosure complexes in the southern Brazilian highlands

The Taquara/Itarare tradition (Beber 2005) otherwise the pre-Hispanic southern Je (Noelli 2000; 2005) extends along the southern Brazilian states of Parana, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul and the adjacent Misiones Province, Argentina, and Paraguay (Figure 1). Dating back to c. 220 BC, and possibly to 2860 BC (De Masi 2006), this culture is characterised by its diagnostic ceramics, highland pit-house villages, a mixed collective economy including Araucaria seeds, horticulture, hunting and fishing, and elaborate earthen mound and enclosure complexes (see Beber 2005 for a more detailed summary).

The earth monuments are located on hill-tops or ridges commanding wide views. Locally called danceiros (dance grounds) in Brazil, the enclosures are characterised by circular, elliptical and key-hole shape plans (Figure 2). The banks are typically 3-6m wide and the enclosures 20-180m in diameter. They may exhibit associated small ringworks, and their remains rise to between 30 and 80cm. Most earthen enclosures contain central mounds (1.5-20m diameter; 0.7-3m high), typically raised over a cremated burial of a single adult person associated with few lithics or ceramic sherds (Figure 3 shows an example). However, central mounds containing several interments have also been reported (De Masi 2005). The formal layout of these enclosures, and the lack of substantial domestic debris within them, indicate that they were ceremonial spaces. In some regions, mound and enclosure complexes occur together in small groups such as at ElDorado, Anita Garibaldi, Campos Novos, and in the Pinhal da Serra regions. In the latter, their distribution on the landscape suggests that they are placed at nodal points along regional transit routes (Saldanha 2005; Cope 2007).

Radiocarbon dates suggest the construction of these monuments coincides with a more intense late Holocene occupation of the southern Brazilian highlands by Taquara/Itarare groups (Table 1; Iriarte & Behling 2007: Figure 7). The genesis of this monumental tradition that peaked after AD 1000 took place in a rime when regional cultures were flourishing, populations as reflected in the number of sites were increasing, more intensive ways of food-production were developing and long-distance population migrations over contested territories were taking place across lowland South America. …