Prehistoric Guiana

By Reid, Basil A. | Caribbean Quarterly, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Prehistoric Guiana


Reid, Basil A., Caribbean Quarterly


Denis Williams, Prehistoric Guiana, Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2003. 471 pp.

Prehistoric Guiana by Denis Williams represents an important scholarly milestone in South American Lowland archaeology. Comprising 471 pages and interspersed with an array of photographs, maps, diagrams and tables, this book places a well-needed scholarly spotlight on a part of the circum-Caribbean and South America whose archaeology is often under-represented. The Guianas (which includes Venezuelan Guayana, Guyana [formerly British Guiana], French Guiana and Suriname) occupies more than a quarter of the area of the rain forests of the Amazon Basin. Despite the valiant efforts of prominent Amazonists such as Betty J. Meggers, Donald Lathrap, Anna Roosevelt and Michael Heckenberger, New World archaeology continues to focus inordinately on the so-called "high cultures" of the Mayas and Aztecs of Central America, the Incas, Chimú, Moche and Chavin cultures of Peru coupled with the large chiefdom societies of the American southwest and southeast. Intermittent forays by Arie Boomert, Martijn van den Bel and Claude Coutet in Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname have given some necessary exposure to the archaeology of the Guianas. Their work, however, has been largely spasmodic and piecemeal, with investigations primarily trained on horticultural sites and ceramic classification and analyses. Prehistoric Guiana is therefore seminal, as it provides a holistic treatment of the diverse pre-colonial archaeology of the region by critically reviewing an eclectic mix of shell mound complexes, petroglyphs, pictographs, lithic assemblages, earthworks, pottery, artificial depressions, rock alignments, rock circles and human burials both on the Coast and in the Hinterland. Given that archaeology is primarily about 'people' not 'things', the book ably explores a range of issues such as settlement patterns, subsistence, socio-political organisation, migration, trade networks, religion and cosmology, based on careful, deliberative interpretations. Although much of the discussion coalesces around horticultural groups, including the Arawaks, Caribs and Warao, there is ample treatment of earlier groups, referred to as the Paleo-Indigenous Peoples and the Peoples of the Tropical Forest Archaic.

The book is divided into five sections: Introduction (Chapter I), The Paleo-Indigenous Peoples (Chapter 2), Peoples of the Tropical Forest Archaic (Chapter 3), The First Farmers (Chapter 4) and the Origin and Dissemination of Tropical Forest Culture in the Guianas (Chapter 5). Chapter 1 provides a lengthy discussion of local geography, sources for the study of Guiana prehistory and a history of research in the Introduction. The "Island" of Guiana (which includes Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, Venezuelan Guayana and north-eastern Brazil which is bounded by the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers and the bridging stream of the Casiquiare Canal) is presented by Williams as the primary region of interest. Although the activities of pre-colonial societies in the Guianas were not necessarily circumscribed by the "Island" of Guiana's geographical boundaries, using these boundaries rather than modem political ones was probably designed by Williams to reflect the extent to which native lifeways and social and economic networks were environmentally determined by rivers, river valleys, savannas, estuaries and coastlines. This is followed by a summary review of a range of data sources such as artifactual assemblages, rock art, and cemeteries characteristic of the Guianas. Types specific to the Paleo-Indigenous (11,000 b.p.), the Archaic (7200 b.p.) and the Formative (3500 b.p.) periods as well as types specific to the Coast vis-à-vis the Hinterland are presented both in narrative and tabular forms (pages 6-15). Chapter 1 ends with a fairly lengthy discourse on the history of archaeological research in the Guianas. A common thread running through this discussion is the fact that, like the Caribbean, archaeological research in the Guianas has lagged considerably behind that of North, Central and north-western South America. …

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