Prehistoric Hunters and Gatherers of Brazil

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  • Prehistoric Hunters and Gatherers of BrazilAuthor(s): Pedro Ignacio SchmitzSource: Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 1987), pp. 53-126Published by: SpringerStable URL: .Accessed: 23/09/2013 11:13

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  • Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987

    Prehistoric Hunters and Gatherers of Brazil

    Pedro Ignacio Schmitz1

    Although carbon-14 dates prior to 13,000 B.P. have been obtained from several sites east and south of Amazonia, their reliability is uncertain. By about 11,000 B.P., however, two lithic traditions were widespread. The Uruguai tradition, characterized by bifacial stemmed projectile points, was associated with open vegetation in the south; the Itaparica tradition, emphasizing well formed unifacial artifacts, had dispersed over the eastern tropicalparklands. An enormous amount and variety of rock paintings and/or engravings are associ ated with the latter. Around 7000 B.P., two new traditions emerged to exploit new habitats. The Humaitd tradition, characterized by large bifacial tools and an absence of stone projectile points, expanded over the broad-leavedforests in the south, leaving the open landscapes dominated by the projectile point-using Umbu tradition. The sambaqui (shell midden) tradition, also emphasizing large bifaces, developed along rugged portions of the southern coast. By 4000 B.P., groups along the coast of Rio de Janeiro and Espirito Santo were using domesticated or semidomesticated plants, perhaps sweet manioc. Maize was being grown in Minas Gerais by about 3500 B.P. Carbon-14 dates from numerous sites indicate, however, that the hunter-gatherer way of life persisted in many places long after the advent of pottery-making horticultur alists. The existence of large temporal and spatial gaps even in regions with considerable investigation makes it difficult to reconstruct the process of evo lution reflected in these archaeological complexes. Correlations between cultural traditions and environmental fluctuations indicate, however, that

    adaptation to changing conditions was a significant challenge faced by pre historic Brazilian populations.

    KEY WORDS: preceramic traditions of coastal Brazil; rock art; shell middens; plant domesti cation; lithics.

    'Institute Anchietano de Pesquisas, Praca Tiradentes 35, 93.000 Sao Leopoldo, RS, Brazil.


    O892-7537/87/O30O-O053S05.00/0 ? !987 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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  • 54 Schmitz


    Historical Background

    Compared with most other countries in the Americas, archaeological research is a recent development in Brazil. Today, professional archaeologists number fewer than 100 and reconstruction of the prehistory of some

    8,500,000 km2 within the frontiers of the nation is just beginning. A few decades ago, Brazilian archaeology called to mind "Lagoa Santa

    man" and the names of W. P. Lund, J. H. A. Padberg-Drenkpol, H. V.

    Walter, and A. Cathoud. The principal problem they investigated was association of humans with the Pleistocene fossils encountered in the cal careous caverns of Minas Gerais.

    Since 1956, the picture has been radically changed by the introduction of new problems, new methods, and more efficient techniques, primarily by North American and French scientists. Wesley R. Hurt continued the

    investigations in Minas Gerais and succeeded in dating the human remains.

    Subsequently, he turned his attention to the coastal sambaquis (shell middens) of the states of Parana and Santa Catarina, seeking to define the

    way of life of these shoreline gatherers and its relation to changes in sea level. Annette Laming-Emperaire, accompanied initially by her husband Joseph Emperaire, concerned herself with correlating the sambaquis of Sao Paulo and Parana with successive marine transgressions. Later, she too conducted work in the Lagoa Santa region and also stimulated the study of Brazilian rock art. Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans, although more interested in the development and dispersal of agriculturalists, encouraged their Brazilian collaborators to investigate important aspects of coastal and inland hunter

    gatherer populations and provided most of the carbon-14 dates available for Brazilian archaeology. In more recent times, influence from the French school developed by A. Leroi-Gourhan has been pronounced, especially in the state of Sao Paulo.

    At present, teams composed principally of Brazilians trained by these pioneers exist in several states. They are expanding the geographical frontiers of knowledge and multiplying by many thousands the number of recorded sites. As a consequence of their diverse training, they employ distinct theoretical orientations and methodologies. Topics of investigation include the distributions of cultures in time and space; the habitats in

    which they developed; the oscillations in climate and their repercussions on the flora, fauna, sea level, and technology; rock art; burial rituals; the use of domestic space; and the mechanics of migrations and cultural


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  • Prehistoric Brazilian Hunter-Gatherers 55

    Present Status of Knowledge

    In geographical terms, fieldwork now concentrates on the Atlantic coast, the adjacent planalto (plateau), and the banks of the Amazonian rivers. The

    quantity and quality of information vary, but some states possess good initial frameworks and a few have advanced to the investigation of specific prob lems or detailed excavations of sites.

    The existing chronology is based principally on carbon-14 dates

    provided by laboratories in the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Japan. In

    addition, a small number of thermoluminescence results have been produced by the Universidade de Sao Paulo and the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Although the total number of dates must be about a thousand, this is very few for a territory of 8.5 million km2 with considerable cultural

    diversity. Furthermore, about half the dates apply to pottery-making groups and the majority of the nonceramic dates is from sambaquis (shell middens). Consequently, many sites and complexes must be given estimated chrono

    logical positions on the basis of typological comparisons. Although research was initiated recently, its geographical scope is

    expanding rapidly and its goals are diversifying to include paleoenviron mental reconstruction as a factor in explaining cultural changes. Because most of the data have not been thoroughly analyzed, much less published, considerable modification is to be expected in the synthesis presented here.

    Time-Space Framework

    Many investigators employ the concepts of tradition and phase, per mitting their data to be correlated. Others use different analytic categories, however, making comparisons difficult. This situation has led me to adopt a framework based on major environmental regions and climatic or paleo environmental periods. Although the present-day environment cannot be taken without reservation as the canvas upon which to project past cultures, it can serve as a general reference to be retouched and focused for earlier

    periods. Three major regions are definable using dominant vegetation: (1) the

    densely forested equatorial lowlands of Amazonia, still superficially explored archaeologically; (2) the tropical parklands of the plateau, extending from the northeast across central Brazil to the southeast, which have been under

    going rapid economic exploitation during recent decades; and (3) the sub

    tropical forests and savannas of the south and the Atlantic coast, both

    densely populated for centuries (Fig. 1).

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  • 56 Schmitz

    Fig. 1. Map of eastern Brazil showing the boundaries between the three principal environ mental regions: (1) Amazonia, (2) the tropical parkland area, and (3) the subtropical area.

    Although Amazonia incorporates more than half of Brazil, data on

    hunter-gatherers are too sparse and imprecise to warrant discussion. The environments of the other two regions differ significantly. Tropical parklands cover an immense area, most of it within Brazil. Subtropical forests con centrate in Brazil but extend slightly into northeastern Argentina and

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  • Prehistoric Brazilian Hunter-Gatherers 57

    southeastern Paraguay. The savannas are minor northern extensions of those

    covering Uruguay and much of Argentina. The shores along the southern and southeastern coasts are sufficiently uniform to be treated as a separate unit.

    Since cultural differences correlate generally with these environmental

    divisions, the discussion is divided into two parts. The first deals with the area of tropical parklands, and the second with the subtropical forests and savannas.



    Nearly all the tropical parklands are located on the Brazilian planalto, varying between 200 and 1200 m in elevation. Its central portion, with elevations above 500 m, is surrounded by a broad strip with altitudes between 200 and 500 m. This, in turn, is bordered on the Atlantic side by a narrower band below 200 m in elevation.

    The climate is hot, the average temperature of the coolest month being above 15?C. Rainfall is irregularly distributed, creating clearly defined wet and dry seasons. In the eastern extreme, rainfall occurs during winter, whereas in the rest of the region it occurs during summer. The dry season may extend for 11 months in the most arid part of the Sao Francisco basin and

    adjacent terrain and typically exceeds 3 months except in peripheral areas, where it may last only 1 month.

    Relief, climate, and soil are responsible for the tropical parkland vege tation (Fig. 2). It is very sparse in the driest portions, where it is known as

    "caatinga." Where water is more abundant, it is somewhat denser and termed "closed savanna" (campo cerrado) or simply "cerrado." Dense forest

    may occur where humidity is most evenly distributed and patches of relict savanna occupy the highest and most poorly drained locations.

    Resources suitable for human exploitation appear to be more abundant in the cerrado than the caatinga. Numerous plants produce large quantities of fruits during the rainy season, which attract both humans and animals. Savanna enclaves in the cerrados may shelter abundant game, the animals

    solitary or in small groups. The forest is poorest in both plant and animal resources.

    Game is characterized by a large number of species of medium or small size, which live dispersed or in small bands in specific habitats and

    vary in abundance according to the season of the year. The rivers draining toward the Amazon basin are well stocked during the dry season, when

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  • 58 Schmitz

    Fig. 2. Typical landscapes of the tropical parkland area, (a) Bed of the Rio Curimatau, RN, during the dry season, (b) Cerrado and gallery forest in the Serranopolis region, GO. [(a) Courtesy of N. Nasser.]

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  • Prehistoric Brazilian Hunter-Gatherers 59

    fish ascend to spawn and turtles to lay their eggs. Even the less prolific rivers of the southeast and northeast offer some sustenance. Throughout the

    uplands, honeybees are abundant, constructing their hives in trees or among rocks.

    Although the planalto offers similar flora and fauna throughout its

    extent, local conditions of latitude, topography, soil, and climate combine the elements in different ways, creating extremely productive habitats for human

    exploitation. This diversity is attributable largely to the scarps, ridges, and hills produced by the cutting action of the Amazon, Sao Francisco, and Parana rivers, which originate from the divide in the center of the planalto. The most extreme expression is manifested by the "brejos" of the northeast, where differences in altitude offer an incredible range of varied resources, from dry plains with sparse vegetation to high summits with dense forest.

    Heterogeneous environments also develop near the sea. Other resources include the variety of raw materials obtained from

    animals, such as skins, bones, horns, teeth, and shells. Minerals required for manufacturing tools and weapons are unequally distributed. Raw

    materials of good quality (chert, indurated sandstone, and quartzite) exist in

    large masses in some places, whereas only materials of inferior quality (e.g., quartz) and small quantity are available in others. Wood for fuel and for raw material is universally available, but water may be scarce during the dry season in some places. In crystalline regions, shelter may be insufficient

    during cold or rainy periods but is usually abundant in karst and sedimentary zones.

    The absence of large gregarious animals (bison, horse, guanaco, etc.), which could support a specialized hunting economy, led to the development of a generalized hunting and gathering subsistence on the planalto domi nated by parkland. This can be distinguished from the specialized hunting characteristic of the natural plains of the Southern and Northern Hemi

    spheres, which concentrated on a few extremely abundant species. Changes took place in the vegetation during the millennia of human

    occupation. During cold and dry periods, caatinga and even cerrado expanded at the expense of forest; during hot and wet periods, vegetation increased in

    density and forest displaced the parkland. Although reconstructions of climate and environment during the terminal Pleistocene and Holocene are still extremely hypothetical (see especially Ab'Saber, 1977), they offer the

    only background against which we can project the cultural evidence and attempt to understand it. Faunal changes and their relationship to human