Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lost Cities of the Amazon - “Nature Folk”

The most famous person to go looking for lost civilizations in the southern Amazon was Percy Harrison Fawcett. The British adventurer scoured what he called the “uncharted jungles” for an ancient city, Atlantis in the Amazon, replete with stone pyramids, cobbled streets and alphabetic writing. His tales inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and perhaps the Indiana Jones movies. David Grann’s gripping recent book, The Lost City of Z, retraced Fawcett’s path before his disappearance in the Xingu in 1925.

Actually, five German expeditions had already visited the Xinguano people and lands. In 1894 Karl von den Steinen’s book Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral Brasiliens, which described the earliest expeditions, became an instant classic in the fl edgling discipline of anthropology. The book set the tone for 20th-century studies of Amazonian peoples as small, isolated groups living in a delicate balance with the tropical forest: “nature folk.” Later anthropologists often viewed the forest environment as uniformly inimical to agriculture; the soil’s poor fertility seemed to preclude large settlements or dense regional populations. By this reasoning, the Amazon of the past must have looked much like the Amazon in recent times.

But this view began to erode in the 1970s as scholars revisited early European accounts of the region, which talked not of small tribes but of dense populations. As Charles Mann’s best-selling book 1491 has eloquently described, the Americas were heavily populated on the eve of the European landings, and the Amazon was no exception. Gaspar de Carvajal, the missionary who chronicled the first Spanish expedition down the river, noted fortifi ed towns, broad, well-kept roads and large numbers of people. Carvajal wrote on June 25, 1542:

We went among some islands which we thought uninhabited, but after we got to be in among them, so numerous were the settlements which came into sight … that we grieved ... and, when they saw us, there came out to meet us on the river over two hundred pirogues [canoes], that each one carries twenty or thirty Indians and some forty . . . they were colorfully decorated with various emblems, and they had with them many trumpets and drums . . . and on land a marvelous thing to see were the squadron formations that were in the villages, all playing instruments and dancing about, manifesting great joy upon seeing that we were passing beyond their villages.

Archaeological research in several areas along the Amazon River, such as Marajó Island at the mouth of the river and sites near the modern cities of Santarém and Manaus, has confirmed these accounts. These societies interacted in far-flung systems of trade. Less is known about the southern peripheries of the Amazon, but recent work in Llanos de Mojos in lowland Bolivia and in the Brazilian state of Acre suggests that they, too, supported complex societies. In 1720 Brazilian frontiersman António Pires de Campos described a densely settled landscape in the headwaters of the Tapajós River, just west of the Xingu:

These people exist in such vast quantity, that it is not possible to count their settlements or villages, [and] many times in one day’s march one passes ten or twelve villages, and in each one of them there are ten to thirty houses, and in these houses there are some that are thirty to forty paces across . . . even their roads they make very straight and wide, and they keep them so clean that one finds not even a fallen leaf. . . .

Source of Information : Scientific American October 2009

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