PAINTED ROCK CAVE

“Rather than admiration or enthusiasm,” the great Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, “the feeling that overtakes one when first encountering the Amazon is foremost one of disappointment.” Like today’s ecotourism brochures, the accounts of the great river basin in da Cunha’s time celebrated its immensity but rarely dwelled on its extreme flatness—in the Amazon’s first 2,900 miles the vertical drop is only 500 feet. “It is as though the place lacks vertical lines,” da Cunha complained. “In a few hours the observer gives in to the fatigue of the unnatural monotony.” Every year the river floods—not a disaster, but a season. A channel that is one mile wide in the dry season can become thirty miles wide in the wet. After five months the water recedes, leaving behind a layer of rich sediment. From the air, the river seems to ooze like dirty metal through a wash of green utterly devoid of the romantic crags, arroyos, and heights that signify wildness and natural spectacle to most people of European descent.

The area around the lower-Amazon city of Santarém is an exception. West of town, the Tapajós pours into the Amazon from the south, creating an inland bay that at high water is fifteen miles wide and a hundred miles long. The flood rises high enough to cover low river islands in knee-deep water, leaving their trees to stand out like miracles in mid-channel. Fishers from town ride their bicycles into little boats, parking the bikes while working by hanging them in the offshore trees. The bay is lined with bluffs high enough to cast long shadows. Almost five hundred years ago, Indians lined the edge of the rise, taunting Orellana by waving palm fronds.

On the opposite, northern side of the river are a series of sandstone ridges that reach down from the Guiana Shield in the north, halting close to the water’s edge. Five hundred feet high and more, they rise above the canopy like old tombstones. Many of the caves in the buttes are splattered with ancient pictographs—rock paintings of hands, stars, frogs, and human figures, all reminiscent of Joan Miró, in overlapping red and yellow and brown. In the 1990s one of these caves, Caverna da Pedra Pintada—Painted Rock Cave—drew considerable attention in archaeological circles.

Wide and shallow and well lighted, Painted Rock Cave is less thronged with bats than some of the other caves. The arched entrance is twenty feet high and electric with gaudy imagery. Out front is a sunny natural patio, suitable for picnicking, that is edged by a few big rocks. During my visit I ate a sandwich atop a particularly inviting stone and looked through a stand of peach palms over the treetops to the water seven miles away. The people who created the petroglyphs, I thought, must have done about the same thing.

Painted Rock Cave has attracted scientists since the mid-nineteenth century, when Alfred Russel Wallace visited it. Wallace, a naturalist, was more interested in the palm trees outside the caves than the people who had lived inside them. The latter were left to an archaeologist, Anna C. Roosevelt, then at the Field Museum. To her exasperation, press accounts of Roosevelt’s work often stress her descent from Theodore Roosevelt (she is his great-granddaughter), as if her lineage were more noteworthy than her accomplishments. In truth, though, she has demonstrated something of her ancestor’s flare for drama and controversy.

Roosevelt first came to public attention when she reexcavated Marajó in the 1980s. By using a battery of new remote-sensing techniques—including total-station topographic mapping, ground-penetrating radar, and scanning for slight variations in magnetic field strength, electrical conductivity, and electrical resistance—she was able to build up a picture of Marajó far more detailed than Meggers and Evans could have in the 1940s and 1950s, when they worked there. Detailed—and different.

Published in 1991, Roosevelt’s initial report on Marajó was like the antimatter version of Counterfeit Paradise. A few scientists had challenged Meggers’s ideas; Roosevelt excoriated them from top to bottom. Far from being a failed offshoot of another, higher culture, she concluded, Marajó was “one of the outstanding indigenous cultural achievements of the New World,” a powerhouse that lasted for more than a thousand years, had “possibly well over 100,000” inhabitants, and covered thousands of square miles. Rather than damaging the forest, Marajó’s “large population, highly intensive subsistence, [and] major systems of public works” had improved it: the places formerly occupied by the Marajóara showed the most luxuriant and diverse growth. “If you listened to Meggers’s theory, these places should have been ruined,” Roosevelt told me.

Rather than pressing down on Marajó, she said, the river and forest opened up possibilities. In highland Mexico, “it wasn’t easy to get away from other people. With all those rocky hillsides and deserts, you couldn’t readily start over. But in the Amazon, you could run away—strike off in your canoe and be gone.”

As in Huckleberry Finn? I asked.

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In this reconstruction based on archaeologist Anna Roosevelt’s view of Marajóara society, houses cluster on artificial platforms above the wet ground while farm fields stretch into the island’s interior.

“If you like,” she said. “You could go [along the river] where you wanted and homestead—the forest gives you all kinds of fruit and animals, the river gives you fish and plants. That was very important to societies like Marajó. They had to be much less coercive, much more hang-loose, much more socially fluid, or people wouldn’t stay there.” Compared with much of the rest of the world at that time, people in the Amazon “were freer, they were healthier, they were living in a really wonderful civilization.”

Marajó never had the grand public monuments of a Tenochtitlan or a Qosqo, Roosevelt noted, because its leaders “couldn’t compel the labor.” Nonetheless, she said, Marajó society was “just as orderly and beautiful and complex. The eye-opener was that you didn’t need a huge apparatus of state control to have all that. And this had been entirely missed by Meggers, who couldn’t see past her environmental-determinist theories. And I said so much in my book.”

Meggers reacted to Roosevelt’s critiques by sneering at her “polemical tone” and “extravagant claims.” In concluding that large areas of Marajó had been continuously inhabited, Roosevelt had (according to Meggers) committed the beginner’s error of confusing a site that had been occupied many times by small, unstable groups for a single, long-lasting society. Cultural remains, Meggers explained to me, “build up on areas of half a kilometer or so, because [shifting Indian groups] don’t land exactly on the same spot. The decorated types of pottery don’t change much over time, so you can pick up a bunch of chips and say, ‘Oh, look, it was all one big site!’ Unless you know what you’re doing, of course.” From her point of view, claiming that Amazonian societies could escape their environmental constraints was little more than a display of scientific ignorance, the archaeological version of trying to design perpetual-motion machines.

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Anna Roosevelt

To Meggers’s critics, the ecological-limits argument was not only wrong, but familiar—and familiar in an uncomfortable way. From the first days of contact, Europeans have perceived the Indians of the tropics as living in timeless stasis. Michel de Montaigne admiringly claimed in 1580 that the inhabitants of the Amazon had “no knowledge of numbers, no terms for governor or political superior, no practice of subordination or of riches or poverty…no clothing, no agriculture, no metals.” They abided, he said, “without toil or travail” in a “bounteous” forest that “furnishes them abundantly with all they need…. They are still in that blessed state of desiring nothing beyond what is ordained by their natural necessities: for them anything further is merely superfluous.”

Montaigne’s successors quickly turned his views upside-down. Like him, they viewed Amazonians as existing outside history, but they now regarded this as a bad thing. The French natural historian Charles Marie de la Condamine retraced Orellana’s journey in 1743. He emerged with great regard for the forest—and none for its inhabitants. The peoples of the Peruvian Amazon were nothing more than “forest animals,” he said. “Before making them Christians, they must first be made human.” In softened form, Condamine’s views persisted into the twentieth century. “Where man has remained in the tropics, with few exceptions, he has suffered arrested development,” the prominent geographer Ellen Churchill Semple remarked in 1911. “His nursery has kept him a child.” To be sure, advocates of environmental limitations today do not endorse the racist views of the past, but they still regard the original inhabitants of the Amazon as trapped in their environment like flies in amber. Meggers’s “law of environmental limitation of culture,” her critics in essence say, is nothing but a green variant of Holmberg’s Mistake.

Over time, the Meggers-Roosevelt dispute grew bitter and personal; inevitable in a contemporary academic context, it featured charges of colonialism, elitism, and membership in the CIA. Particularly vexing to Meggers was that some of the same people who demanded minutely detailed proof for pre-Clovis sites had cheerfully accepted Roosevelt’s revisionism about Marajó. A big, prosperous city rising up on its own in the stifling Amazon forest? Meggers could not contain her disbelief. “I wish a psychologist would look into this,” she said to me.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt went on to Painted Rock Cave. On the cave floor what looked to me like nothing in particular turned out to be an ancient midden: a refuse heap. Roosevelt’s team slowly scraped away sediment, traveling backward in time with every inch. Even when the traces of human occupation ceased, they kept digging down. (“You always go a meter past sterile,” she told me.) A few inches below what she had thought would be the last layer of human habitation she hit another—a culture, Roosevelt said later, that wasn’t supposed to be there. It was as much as thirteen thousand years old.

Painted Rock Cave was occupied at roughly the same time that the Clovis culture was thriving to the north. But Amazon paleo-Indians didn’t live in the same way as their northern counterparts, Roosevelt said. They didn’t make or use Clovis points. They didn’t hunt big game (almost none exists in the Amazon). Instead they plucked wild fruits from the forest, painted handprints on the walls, and ate the Amazon’s 1,500 species of fish, especially the 500-pound piraruçu, the world’s biggest freshwater fish. And then, after 1,200 years, these early people left the cave for good.

Painted Rock Cave became inhabited again in about 6000 B.C. Probably it was no more than temporary shelter, a refuge when floodwaters got too high. People could have brought in loads of turtles and shellfish, built a fire in the shelter of the cave, and enjoyed the feel of dry land. In any case these people—Roosevelt called them the Paituna culture, after a nearby village—had ceramic bowls, red- to gray-brown. Found at Painted Rock Cave and other places in the area, it is the oldest known pottery in the Americas.

And so there were two occupations: one very old, with ceramics; the other even older, without them. To Roosevelt, the first settlement of Painted Rock Cave demonstrated that the Amazon forest was not settled by a copy or offshoot of Clovis. This early culture was a separate entity—another nail in the coffin of the Clovis-as-template theory, to her way of thinking. The second occupation, with its early and apparently independent development of ceramics, demonstrated something equally vital: Amazonia was not a dead end where the environment ineluctably strangled cultures in their cradles. It was a source of social and technological innovation of continental importance.

By about four thousand years ago the Indians of the lower Amazon were growing crops—at least 138 of them, according to a recent tally. The staple then as now was manioc (or cassava, as it is sometimes called), a hefty root that Brazilians roast, chop, fry, ferment, and grind into an amazing variety of foods. To this day, no riverside table is complete without a bowl of farofa: crunchy, toasted manioc meal, vaguely resembling grated Parmesan cheese, which Amazonians sprinkle on their food with abandon. To farmers, manioc has a wonderful advantage: it can grow practically anywhere, in any conditions. In Santarém I met a woman who told me that the asphalt street in front of her home had just been ripped up by the municipal authorities. Underneath the pavement, which had been laid down years before, was a crop of manioc.

Manioc has always been the Amazonian staple. To this day, it is ubiquitous in the slash-and-burn plots that surround every riverside hamlet. These little, shifting farms look like unchanged remnants of the past. But that idea apparently is mistaken. Rather than being the timeless indigenous adaptation portrayed in ecology textbooks, many archaeologists now view slash-and-burn agriculture as a relatively modern technique whose spread was driven by European technology. The main reason is the stone ax.

Living in the world’s thickest forest, the inhabitants of the Amazon basin had to remove a lot of trees if they wanted to accomplish practically anything. For this task the stone ax was their basic tool. Unfortunately, stone axes are truly wretched tools. With a stone ax, one does not so much cut down a tree as use the ax to beat a section of the trunk to pulp, weakening the base until the tree can no longer support itself. In the outskirts of the central Amazonian city of Manaus, a researcher let me whack at a big Brazil nut tree with a locally made replica of a traditional stone ax. After repeated blows I had created a tiny dent in the cylindrical wall of the bole. It was like attacking a continent. “Those things suck,” the researcher said, shaking his head.

In the 1970s Robert Carneiro, of the American Museum of Natural History, measured the labor required to clear a field before the advent of steel. He set people to work with stone axes in thickly forested parts of Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela. Many of the trees were four feet in diameter or more. In Carneiro’s experiments, felling a single four-foot tree with an indigenous stone ax took 115 hours—nearly three weeks of eight-hour days. With a steel ax, his workers toppled trees of similar size in less than three hours. Carneiro’s team used stone axes to clear about an acre and a half, a typical slash-and-burn plot, in the equivalent of 153 eight-hour days. Steel axes did the job in the equivalent of eight workdays—almost twenty times faster. According to surveys by Stephen Beckerman, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, Amazonian slash-and-burners are able to work their plots for an average of three years before they are overwhelmed. Given that farmers also must hunt, forage, build houses and trails, maintain their existing gardens, and perform a hundred other tasks, Carneiro wondered how they could have been able to spend months on end banging on trees to clear new fields every three years.

Unsurprisingly, people with stone implements wanted metal tools as soon as they encountered them—the prospective reduction in workload was staggering. When Columbus landed, according to William Balée, the Yanomamo lived in settled villages in the Amazon basin. Battered by European diseases and slave raiding, many fled to the Orinoco, becoming wandering foragers. In the seventeenth century they acquired steel tools, and used them to make the return journey from seminomadic hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists who lived in more or less permanent villages. So precious did European axes become during this time, according to Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, that when a source appeared the Yanomami would relocate whole villages to be near it. Steel tools, he told me, “had a major, transformative effect on all the trade and marriage relations in a whole area. They led to new trade networks, they led to new political alliances, they even led to war.” Researchers have often described the Yanomamo as “fierce,” aggressive sorts whose small villages are constantly at violent odds with one another. In Ferguson’s estimation, one cause of the endemic conflict observed by Western anthropologists and missionaries was the anthropologists and missionaries themselves, who gave their subjects “literally boatloads” of steel tools—axes, hatchets, machetes—to ingratiate themselves. At a stroke, the village hosting the Westerners would gleam with wealth; its neighbors would seek a share of the undeserved bounty; conflict would explode. “Steel to the Yanomamo was like gold for the Spanish,” Ferguson said. “It could push fairly ordinary people to do things that they wouldn’t consider doing otherwise.” (The anthropologists and missionaries there vehemently deny Ferguson’s claims. But so far as I am aware they did not call his scenario impossible. Rather, they said that to avoid unhappy consequences they had carefully controlled the amount of gift giving.)

Metal tools largely created slash-and-burn agriculture, William M. Denevan, the Wisconsin geographer, told me. “This picture of swidden as this ancient practice by which Indians kept themselves in a timeless balance with Nature—that is mostly or entirely a myth, I think. At least there’s no evidence for it, and a fair amount of evidence against it, including the evidence of simple logic.” Slash-and-burn, supposedly a quintessentially Amazonian trait, “is a modern intrusion.”

A similar phenomenon seems to have taken place in North America, where Indians were widely said to have practiced slash-and-burn as part of their habit of living lightly on the land. Dismissing the data to back up these claims as “gossamer,” the geographer William E. Doolittle of the University of Texas noted in 2000 that most colonial accounts showed Indians clearing their fields permanently, even ripping stumps out to prevent them from sprouting. “Once fields were cleared, the intent was to cultivate them permanently, or at least for very long periods of time.” As populations rose, “farmers cleared new fields from the remaining forests.” Slash-and-burn was a product of European axes—and European diseases, which so shrank Indian groups that they adopted this less laborious but also less productive method of agriculture.

In the Amazon, the turn to swidden was unfortunate. Slash-and-burn cultivation has become one of the driving forces behind the loss of tropical forest. Although swidden does permit the forest to regrow, it is wildly inefficient and environmentally unsound. The burning sends up in smoke most of the nutrients in the vegetation—almost all of the nitrogen and half the phosphorus and potassium. At the same time, it pours huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, a factor in global warming. (Large cattle ranches are the major offenders in the Amazon, but small-scale farmers are responsible for up to a third of the clearing.) Fortunately, it is a relatively new practice, which means it has not yet had much time to cause damage. More important, the very existence of so much healthy forest after twelve thousand years of use by large populations suggests that whatever Indians did before swidden must have been ecologically more sustainable.

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