Friday, July 2, 2010

Lost Cities of the Amazon - From House to Polity

“Palatial” is not the word that usually comes to mind to describe a pole-and-thatch house. Most Westerners think “hut.” But the house that the Kuikuro were building for the chief when I arrived in 1993 was massive: well over 1,000 square meters. It is hard to imagine that a house built like a giant, overturned basket without stone, mortar or nails could get any bigger. Even the average Xinguano house, at 250 square meters, is as big as the average American home.

What makes the chief’s house stand out is not just size but also its position, located on the southern point of the central circular plaza. As one enters the village along the formal entry road, high-ranking families live to the right (south) and left (north). The arrangement reproduces, on a larger scale, the layout of an individual house, whose highest-ranking occupant hangs his hammock to the right, along the long axis of the house. The entry road runs approximately east-west; in the chief’s house, his hammock is oriented in the same direction. When a chief dies, he is also laid to rest in a hammock with his head to the west.

This basic corporeal calculus applies on all scales, from houses to the entire Upper Xingu basin. Ancient towns are distributed across the region and interconnected by a lattice of precisely aligned roads. When I first arrived in the area, it took weeks to map the ditches, plazas and roads using standard archaeological techniques. Beginning in 2002, we began using precise GPS, enabling us to map major earthworks in a matter of days. What we have found is an impressive degree of regional integration. The landscape planning seems almost overdetermined, with a specific place for everything. Yet it was based on the same basic principles of the current village. Main roads run east-west, secondary roads radiate out to the north and south, and smaller roads proliferate in other directions.

We mapped two hierarchical clusters of towns and villages in our study area. Each consists of a major ceremonial center and several large satellite towns in precise orientations relative to the center. These towns likely held 1,000 or more inhabitants. Smaller villages are located farther from the center. The northern cluster is centered on X13, which is not a town so much as a ritual center, rather like a fairground. Two large walled settlements lie equidistant to the north and south of X13, and two medium-size walled towns lie equidistant to the northeast and southwest. The southern cluster is slightly different. It is centered on X11, which is both a ritual center and a town, around which are medium- and small-size plaza settlements.

In land area, each cluster was more than 250 square kilometers, of which about a fifth was the built-up core area, making it roughly equivalent in size to a small modern city. Today most of the ancient landscape is overgrown, but forests in the core areas have distinctive concentrations of certain plants, animals, soils and archaeological artifacts, such as prolific ceramics. Land use was more intensive in the past, but the remains suggest that many practices were similar to those of the Kuikuro: manioc plots, small orchards of pequi fruit trees and fields of sapé grass, the preferred material for house thatch. The countryside was a patchy landscape interspersed with secondary forests that invaded fallow agricultural areas. Wetlands, which today are choked with Buriti palm, the most important industrial crop, preserve diverse evidence of fish farming, such as artificial ponds, raised causeways and weir footings. Outside the core areas was a more lightly populated green belt and even deeper forest wilderness between clusters. This forest, too, had its uses for animals, medicinal plants and certain trees, and it was considered the home of diverse forest spirits.

The areas in and around residential sites are marked by dark earth, which the Kuikuro call egepe, a highly fertile soil that has been enriched by household refuse and specialized soil-management activities, such as controlled burning of vegetation cover. People have altered soils the world over, making them darker, more loamy and richer in certain chemicals. In the Amazon these changes are particularly important for agriculture in many areas because the natural soil is so poor. In the Xingu, the dark earth is less
prevalent than some areas, because local populations depend mostly on manioc and orchards, which do not require high-fertility soils.

Identification of large walled settlements over an area about the size of Vermont suggests that at least 15 clusters were spread across the Upper Xingu. But most of the region is unstudied, so the true number could have been much higher. Radiocarbon dating of our excavated sites suggests that ancestors of the Xinguanos settled the area, most likely from the west, and began to mold the forests and wetlands to their design about 1,500 years ago or before. In the centuries before Europeans first discovered the Americas, the communities were re-formed into hierarchical clusters. Records date back only to 1884, so the settlement patterns are our only way of estimating the pre-Columbian population; the scale of the clusters suggests a regional population many times larger than today, perhaps numbering 30,000 to 50,000.

Source of Information : Scientific American October 2009

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