Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lost Cities of the Amazon - An Ancient Walled Town

When I ventured to Brazil in the early 1990s to study the deep history of the Xingu, lost cities were the furthest things from my mind. I had read Steinen but had barely heard of Fawcett. Although much of the vast Amazon basin was archaeological terra incognito, it was unlikely that ethnographers, much less local Xinguanos, had missed a large monolithic center towering over the tropical forests.

Nevertheless, signs of something more elaborate than present-day settlements were all around. Robert Carneiro of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, who lived with the Kuikuro in the 1950s, had suggested that their settled way of life and productive agricultural and fi shing economy could support communities 1,000 to 2,000 strong—several times the contemporary population of a few hundred. He also cited evidence that indeed it once had: a prehistoric site (designated “X11” in our archaeological survey) that was surrounded by extensive ditches. The Villas Boas brothers— Brazilian indigenistas who were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their part in creating the Xingu park—had reported such earthworks near many villages.

In January 1993, soon after I arrived in the Kuikuro village, the principal hereditary chief, Afukaka, took me to one of the ditches at a site (X6) they call Nokugu, named for the jaguar spirit being thought to live there. We passed local men who were raising a huge fish weir across the Angahuku River, which was already swelling from the seasonal rains. The ditch, which runs over two kilometers, was two to three meters deep and more than 10 meters wide. Even though I had expected to fi nd an archaeological landscape different from today’s, the scale of these ancient communities and their constructions surprised me. Kuikuro research assistants and I spent the following months mapping it and other earthworks at the 45-hectare site. Since that time, our team has studied numerous other sites in the area, hacking more than 30 kilometers of line-of-sight transects through the forest to map, examine and excavate the sites. Many Kuikuro helped in one way or another, and some became well versed in archaeology.

At the end of 1993, Afukaka and I went back to Nokugu so I could tell him what I had learned. We followed the contour of the site’s outer ditch and stopped at an earthen bridge, where a major road we had uncovered passed over it. I pointed down the arrow-straight ancient dirt road, which was 10 to 20 meters wide and led to another ancient site, Heulugihïtï (X13), about five kilometers away. We crossed the bridge and entered Nokugu.

The road, defined by low earthen curbs, widened to 40 meters—the size of a modern four-lane highway. After a couple of hundred meters, we passed over the inner ditch and stopped to look at our recently finished excavation trench, where we had found a funnel-shaped footing for a tree-trunk palisade. Afukaka told me a story of palisaded villages and raids in his people’s distant past.

As we moved farther into the ancient town, we passed through patches of forest, scrub and open areas that now cover the site—the footprints of diverse past activities. We emerged into a grassy glade of towering palms marking the former plaza. I slowly spun and pointed along the perfectly circular edge of the plaza, marked by a meter-high mound. The tall palms, I told him, had colonized the plaza centuries ago from compost gardens in domestic areas.

Leaving the plaza to explore the surrounding neighborhoods, we came across large refuse middens that closely resembled the one behind Afukaka’s own house. They were fi lled with broken pots that he noted were exactly like those his wives used to process and cook manioc, down to minute details. On a later visit, when we were excavating a pre Columbian house, the chief bent down in the central kitchen area, popped out a big hunk of pottery, and corroborated my sense that the daily life of the ancient society was much like today’s. “You’re right!” Afukaka exclaimed. “Look here, a pot support”— an undagi, as the Kuikuro call it, used to cook manioc.

These connections are what make the Xinguano sites so fascinating. They are among the few pre-Columbian settlements in the Amazon where archaeological evidence can be linked directly to present-day customs. Elsewhere, the indigenous culture was completely wiped out, or the archaeological record is spotty. The ancient orienwalled town I showed Afukaka was much like his current village, with its central plaza and radial roads, only it was 10 times larger.

Xingu History
Radiocarbon dating indicates that people have lived in the upper Xingu for at least 1,500 years.

6th century. The ancestors of today’s inhabitants moved in from the west.

13th century. Groups organized themselves into integrated clusters with a regional population estimated at 30,000 to 50,000.

1542. Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana led the fi rst European expedition down the Amazon, as chronicled by Gaspar de Carvajal.

18th century. Slave raids further decimated the Xinguano people.

1884. German anthropologist Karl von den Steinen visited the Xingu and estimated a population of 3,500.

1950s. Orlando, Cláudio and Leonardo Villas Boas led a campaign to found the Xingu reserve. The Xinguano population was about 500.

Source of Information : Scientific American October 2009

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