Mystery men of hard rock

Unknown Amazon
March 1, 2002

In 1985, a booklet titled The Hidden Peoples of the Amazon was published by the British Museum to accompany an exhibition held in Burlington House. That exhibition, partially based on an aborted 1962 exhibition, was considered by one reviewer as "probably unrivalled" internationally and as " The statement by British ethnography on the subject". Despite this, it was severely criticised for its apparent lack of sensitivity towards the plight of the very people it portrayed. Why, the critics asked, were they "hidden" - and public protests followed.

The current exhibition in the Great Court of the British Mus-eum, named "Unknown Amazon", which is also the title of the book under review, is very different. First, the approach has been essentially through prehistory - not ethnography as in 1985. Second, the focus is on specific objects, particularly those with aesthetic appeal, many of which feature in this sumptuously illustrated book. It is, however, no mere catalogue, for the book convincingly reverses previous assumptions held on the earlier inhabitants of this vast tropical forest that is so important to the future health of our planet. Third, several of the contributing authors are themselves Brazilians, while the exhibition itself is not based on the museum's own collections, but incorporates materials almost entirely from outside the Uni-ted Kingdom. This surely is to be lauded. Needless to say, however, critics have remarked on this fact, pointing to the richness of our own UK collections. Why not, they ask, display them? By doing so, however, they misunderstand the reasons, academic and financial apart, for undertaking difficult collaborations such as this rewarding example.

The book demonstrates a closer collaboration between the disciplines of archaeology and social and cultural anthropology. Certainly archaeology is increasingly reconstructing the past through an anthropological lens. Some might argue that, like recent trends in university teaching, the two subjects are once again conjoined, as in the 19th century.

"I would like to stress," Denise Gomes writes, "the potential of these objects for providing information that extends far beyond an appreciation of their aesthetic qualities. They symbolise a vital connection with one of the last frontiers of the human imagination, how the world was viewed and ordered in the unknown Amazon."

This is what makes Unknown Amazon and its accompanying exhibition so intriguing, and we owe this initiative almost entirely to BrasilConnects, the main sponsor, which is also responsible for exhibitions held concurrently in Oxford and Cambridge. Its president, Edemar Cid Ferreira, in celebrating Brazil's five centuries since "discovery", emphasises cultural and biological ecology when he writes of the concern for "indigenous Amazonia both past and present" and the need for the preservation of its flora and fauna.

There have been many contradictory theories and assumptions about the history and prehistory of Amazonia and, in a sense, it retains its mystery in the popular imagination. Even the most practical minded of academics fall prey to the occasional reverie about a romantic past - of legends of headless men, of Amazonian women and golden cities. These stories were compounded by an apparently ageless rock art that itself had become part of indigenous creation mythology.

Eduardo Neves quotes the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg, one of the many great names in scientific exploration of the Amazon, in the following terms: "The nights were beautifully clear. I sat down in the midst of the rapids, on a rock washed by the stream. The water came and went as if it was the river's breathing. The rapids roared and the waves moved constantly among the rocks. The noises resembled the voices of spirits narrating stories from remote times when the ancestors of the current inhabitants engraved in the hard rock the drawings that today are so enigmatic for their descendants."

It is the study of these "enigmatic" drawings and discoveries, such as the wall paintings at Pedra Pintada cave dated to some 11,000 years ago (see Edithe Pereira's contribution), that has undermined the assumption that Amazonia remained uninhabited until relatively recent times. It was also thought that because of its inadequate soil base, the Amazon basin could have supported scattered populations of foragers (hunter-gatherers) and shifting cultivators only after the introduction of manioc. That there still exist today very small groups of these foragers living virtually without recourse to any cultivated crops is brilliantly demonstrated by the field research of the archaeologist Gustavo Politis. Recent evidence tends to confirm, however, the existence of sophisticated settled urban populations, centuries and perhaps millennia before the time of the conquest. These were the people who created the diverse ceramic styles that are illustrated here in this book and in the exhibition.

Who were these early people? What were the causes of their development and their decline? We as yet have no answer to this, even if we do know - and only too well - what has happened since the conquest. However, this excellent book, with its numerous plates, maps and diagrams, goes some way towards enlightening us. After John Hemming's foreword, with its concise historical overview since the conquest, the book is arranged into four parts. The first, "Economy and Subsistence", introduces new theoretical approaches to Amazonian archaeology. This includes an essay by James Petersen, Neves and Michael Heckenberger on terra preta de indio (black Indian soil), which are areas of anthropogenic carbonised plant remains, providing fertile soil much sought after by contemporary Brazilian settlers. Often 2ft thick, they mark extensive once heavily populated areas, contradicting the notion that intensive exploitation was unsustainable. José Oliver examines the Amazonian Holocene transition from the last glaciation and the resulting climatic change and subsequent environmental adaptations of foragers and cultivators. The photographs in Politis's essay on Nakuk foragers show a hunter with blowpipe darts wrapped in palm leaves. Usually in Amazonia, these are contained in rigid basketry quivers to avoid accidents with the deadly curare poisoned tips and their apparent casualness over this raises some interesting questions.

The second part, "Archaeology and society", relates to ceramic styles and tentative interpretations of the societies that created these remarkable works of art. Denise Schaan examines the intricately painted and stylised 4th-century to 14th-century ceramic urns from Maraj" Island, first excavated by Barbara Meggers and Clifford Evans in 1949. Gomes writes on pottery finds near Santarem - ceramics once associated with Mesoamerica and the Mississippi valley in Helen Palm-atary's 1930s research, which Gomes thinks unlikely. Recent DNA analysis, however, indicates northward migrations from Amazonia to Florida thousands of years ago, which may also suggest later movements of peoples and a reappraisal of outdated diffusionist theories. Following earlier archaeological finds, Vera Guapindaia's essay concentrates on her own research on the many surface cemeteries, in caves and rock shelters, in the Maracá river region, north of the Amazon delta. These finds, which indicate the density of prehistoric settlements in the area, include the strange seated tubular-shaped anthropomorphic burial urns, some of which are displayed in the exhibition.

The third part of the book focuses on the symbolic role in ritual paraphernalia. In the first essay, "Seats of power", Colin McEwan writes on indigenous benches that, like the proverbial magic carpet, allow the shaman to take flight during ritual trance. He also identifies a Tukano design, on a number of objects, representing the sun's vertical procreative force and upward plant growth, conjoined by an hourglass figure representing the material world - an apt metaphor for the human condition. That these motifs "are so consistently applied confers a sense of underlying coherence and relatedness..." to these objects, he believes. Nevertheless, the design varies and is applied only infrequently to the objects he mentions, including house fronts, yajé pots and stamping tubes. This, however, does not invalidate his interpretation with its aesthetic and philosophical implications. The next contribution, "The woven universe", is a detailed and extremely informative essay on basketry weaving, based on Lucia van Velthem's own research on the Carib-speaking Wayana. This is followed by Pereira's well-illustrated essay on the wide distribution and variety of Amazonian rock art.

In the final part of the book, Cristiana Barreto and Juliana Machado consider how the discovery and exploration of the Amazon influenced the course of European art and science and the history of ideas. Warwick Bray then examines early examples of the ubiquitous Guiana war club, while Neves writes on the relevance of native narrative to important historical and archaeological sites. The Neves and Politis essays include an identical outline map of the northwest Amazon that is confusing. It depicts the Casiquiare connected to the tributaries of the upper and lower Rio Negro.

Unknown Amazon is the most accessible, comprehensive, and up-to-date book available on the cultural history and prehistory of the Amazon. It explains much that an exhibition cannot. I would, however, encourage everyone, of all ages and persuasions, to visit this exhilarating exhibition as well as to obtain the book, as the two are synonymous. With its panoramic multiple-videovisuals and ambient sound lending depth to the fine displays, the exhibition too, like the book, is a revelation.

Donald Tayler was formerly curator, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Unknown Amazon

Editor - Colin McEwan, Cristiana Barreto and Eduardo Neves
ISBN - 0 7141 2558 X
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 304

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