New discoveries concerning pre-Columbian settlements in the Amazon

Oct 18, 2010
This is an example of the round depressions found in the landscape, which could be the remains of water reservoirs. Credit: Photographer: Per Stenborg/GU.

The pre-Columbian Indian societies that once lived in the Amazon rainforests may have been much larger and more advanced than researchers previously realized. Together with Brazilian colleagues, archaeologists from the University of Gothenburg have found the remains of approximately 90 settlements in an area South of the city of Santarém, in the Brazilian part of the Amazon.

"The most surprising thing is that many of these settlements are a long way from rivers, and are located in rainforest areas that extremely sparsely populated today," says Per Stenborg from the Department of Historical Studies, who led the Swedish part of the archaeological investigations in the area over the summer.

Traditionally have thought that these inland areas were sparsely populated also before the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries. One reason for this assumption is that the soils found in the inland generally is quite infertile; another reason is that access to water is poor during dry periods as these areas are situated at long distances from the major watercourses. It has therefore been something of a mystery that the earliest historical account; from Spaniard Francisco de Orellana's journey along the River in 1541-42, depicted the Amazon as a densely populated region with what the Spanish described as "towns", situated not only along the river itself, but also in the inland.

NEW DISCOVERIES COULD CHANGE PREVIOUS IDEAS

The current archaeological project in the Santarém area could well change our ideas about the pre-Columbian Amazon. The archaeologists have come across areas of very fertile soil scattered around the otherwise infertile land. These soils, known as "Terra Preta do Indio", or "Amazonian Dark Earth", are not natural, but have been created by humans (that is, they are "anthrosols").

"Just as importantly, we found round depressions in the landscape, some as big as a hundred metres in diameter, by several of the larger settlements," says Stenborg. "These could be the remains of water reservoirs, built to secure water supply during dry periods."

It is therefore possible that the information from de Orellana's journey will be backed up by new archaeological findings, and that the Amerindian populations in this part of the Amazon had developed techniques to overcome the environmental limitations of the Amazonian inlands.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESCUE EFFORTS ARE URGENT

The archaeological sites in the Santarém area are rich in artefacts, particularly ceramics. A large and generally unstudied collection of material from the area is held by the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg. Collected in the 1920s by the Germano-Brazilian researcher Curt Unkel Nimuendajú, the material ended up in the Museum of Ethnography in Gothenburg and is essential for increasing our knowledge of the pre-Columbian Amazon. Brazilian researchers are therefore interested in joint projects, where new field studies are combined with research into the contents of the Museum of World Culture's collections from the same area.

The investigation area is situated near the city of Santarém, between the Amazon mainstream and its tributary; Rio Tapajós in northern Brazil. Maps: Per Stenborg.

"The Santarém area is presently experiencing intensive exploitation of various forms, including expansion of mechanized agriculture and road construction," says Dr. Denise Schaan at Universidade Federal do Pará. "This means that the area's ancient remains are being rapidly destroyed and archaeological rescue efforts are therefore extremely urgent."

"Our work here is a race against time in order to obtain archaeological field data enabling us to save information about the pre-Columbian societies that once existed in this area, before the archaeological record has been irretrievably lost as a result of the present development", states Brazilian archaeologist Márcio Amaral-Lima at Fundação de Amparo e Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa, in Santarém.

Explore further: New branch added to European family tree

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Amazon conservation policy working in Brazil (w/Video)

Jun 16, 2009

Contrary to common belief, Brazil's policy of protecting portions of the Amazonian forest from development is capable of buffering the Amazon from climate change, according to a new study led by Michigan State University ...

Stone Age site found in Sweden

Apr 27, 2007

Residents in a new development in the Swedish port of Gothenburg will be living on top of one of the earliest archaeological sites in the country.

The end of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon?

Dec 03, 2009

A new article in the December 4 issue of Science addresses how the combined efforts of government commitments and market transition could save forest and reduce carbon emissions in Brazil. The Policy Forum brief, entitled "The E ...

Farmers mainly to blame for deforestation in the Amazon

Jan 30, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Small-scale farmers who lease land from the Brazilian government are very much responsible for deforestation in the Brazilian state of Rondonia in the Amazon area. In most areas with agrarian projects, more ...

Recommended for you

New branch added to European family tree

19 hours ago

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago. Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands ...

'Hidden Treasure of Rome' project unveiled

Sep 16, 2014

For more than a century, hundreds of thousands of historical artifacts dating back to before the founding of Rome have been stored in crates in the Capitoline Museums of Rome, where they have remained mostly untouched. Now, ...

NOAA team reveals forgotten ghost ships off Golden Gate

Sep 16, 2014

A team of NOAA researchers today confirmed the discovery just outside San Francisco's Golden Gate strait of the 1910 shipwreck SS Selja and an unidentified early steam tugboat wreck tagged the "mystery wreck." ...

User comments : 0