Twenty Years of Amazonian Archaeology in Brazil (1977-1997)

By Neves, Eduardo Goes | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Twenty Years of Amazonian Archaeology in Brazil (1977-1997)


Neves, Eduardo Goes, Antiquity


This paper presents a brief overview of Amazonian archaeology in Brazil in the last two decades, a fitting span since 1997 marked the 20th anniversary of the PRONAPABA - Programa Nacional de Pesquisas Arqueologicas na Bacia Amazonica - created by Clifford Evans, Betty Meggers and Mario Simoes with the co-operation of several Brazilian archaeologists.

In contemporary archaeology of the Brazilian Amazon, rapidly increased knowledge about the early pre-ceramic and ceramic occupation has not been matched by an understanding of the socio-political dynamics of native Amazonian societies during the last two millennia, notably immediately before the 15th century AD.

This state of affairs arises from long-held ideas that can be traced back to Lowie's and Steward's discussion of the concept of 'tropical forest cultures' (TFC) in the Handbook of South American Indians (Lowie 1948; Steward 1948). TFC were defined by comparison to the politically centralized societies of the Central Andes, as much by a lack of cultural traits as by a presence. TFC were characterized by a curious blend of adaptive traits, such as root cultivation or the use of river craft, and also by the manufacture of pottery, hardly an exclusive prerogative (Myers 1973: 24). Lowie laid focus on the importance of watercraft and navigation, a fact supposed to account for the apparent homogeneity of TFC over the Amazon and parts of the Brazilian lowlands. From that seed has grown a sacred axiom - even without much empirical data - of Amazonian archaeology: the distinction between floodplain, varzea, and hinterland terra firme societies. More important, this picture contributed to what the Brazilian archaeologist E. Viveiros de Castro (1996) has called the 'standard model' for TFC: the perception of these societies as small, isolated and autonomous communities with decentralized political organization.

The standard model has been going through a slow and unpainful death among cultural anthropologists - thanks to developments in ethnohistory, ecology and what has been called 'historical ecology' (Balee 1994). This paper discusses advances and limitations in archaeology over the last 20 years that have (or have not) contributed to criticism of the standard model. I address works of three different groups of influential archaeologists: Betty Meggers and her Brazilian colleagues; Donald Lathrap and his students; and Anna Roosevelt. I start with Lathrap's work, which I consider the longest-available criticism of the standard model presented by an Amazonian archaeologist.

Lathrap: tropical forest as lost paradise

Lathrap realized that similar ceramic complexes of the Amazon and of northern South America were being analytically separated by different classification procedures. His truly integrated continental perspective for South American archaeology came from his general hypothesis that the tropical forest alluvial floodplains were a major centre of cultural development in the Americas at the outset of the Formative. He suggested (Lathrap 1973a; 1973b; 1974), for instance, that the earliest ceramic complexes of the Americas should be found in the floodplains of the central Amazon (Lathrap 1974), a direct critique of Evans et al.'s (1965) 'transpacific' hypothesis for the development of Early Valdivia ceramics. Boldly, Lathrap proposed that all aboriginal systems of food production in the New World originated from an ancient system of cultivation of bitter manioc centred on the alluvial floodplains of the Amazon and northern South America (1977). Crucial to this discussion is the concept of 'house garden', with the slow management of plants transplanted from the forests to areas around villages. This model also assumes that the alluvial floodplains would provide a constant and reliable supply of aquatic animal protein.

Recent evidence supports some of these ideas, which seemed implausible at the time. Roosevelt's (1995; Roosevelt et al. …

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