Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pre-Columbian Marajo, an Island at the Mouth of the Amazon

I've been dipping in and out of John Hemming's Tree of Rivers, a book about the history and culture of the Amazon.  Hemming is an explorer, and his book is truly excellent when it comes to the privations, threats, and charms of Amazonian travel, things he knows well.  He writes in a strong, punchy style, and much of the book is genuinely exhilarating - I've found it hard to put down at times.
Some of the stories were familiar to me their having been covered in other books on South America and the Amazon, including Orellana's journey down the Amazon; the story of rubber; the journeys of Bates, Spruce, and Wallace; the ethnography of Karl von den Steinen; and the travails of Percy Harrison Fawcett.  Other stories were quite new: I didn't know anything about the real story that inspired Herzog to make Fitzcarraldo, one of my favourite films.

Some of these stories are less edifying.  Hemming's account of the maltreatment of indigenous Amazonians is relentless, and sometimes it seems that brutal rape, murder, and disease are as integral to the events recounted as the river itself.  This is an Amazonian history that manages to bring home the massive and appalling impact of European colonisation, slave-raiding, and deliberate genocide in a visceral and truly disturbing way, and that's probably the right way to approach the subject.

What unites all of these tales is Hemming's talent in telling them, and in spite of my familiarity with Carvajal's description of the Orellana voyage I found myself totally engrossed in Hemming's version.  He brought the terrifying experience to life, from the frenzy of hunger-driven theft that caused even friendly natives to turn against the Spaniards to the power of crossbows and arquebuses against tapir hide shields, to the bizarre way in which the crazed Europeans interpreted their encounter with (probably) male Waiwai warriors wearing their hair high ('Amazons').

A map showing Orellana's route down the Amazon with the probable locations of the events and polities noted by Carvajal.  'Province of the Gibbets' probably refers to the Munduruku, who were rather famous for beheadings (a Munduruku trophy head can be seen in the Pitt Rivers Museum).  h/t Athena Review.

There are some inaccuracies, but they are few and far between and are to be expected in a book of this size.  One of those inaccuracies is about the prehistory of Marajó, an island at the mouth of the Amazon that is the largest in a small estuarine archipelago, and Marajó is such an interesting place that it ought to be worthwhile to talk about it here.

This Marajoara culture, dated on radiocarbon grounds to between 400 and 1350 CE, has been the subject of several theories, due primarily to the attractiveness of its ceramics.  Betty Meggers, for example, proposed that social complexity on Marajó was the result of a downstream migration from the Andes.  This is no longer believed, and Hemming doesn't discuss her view in his section on the Marajoarans.  But he still gets it a little wrong about the nature of Marajoara society/ies.

His introduction and recent history of the island is first rate, of course, including the alliances made between Protestant northern Europeans and the local people against the Portuguese, and the money made by Jesuits from grazing their cattle on the island's pasture.  His description of Marajoara pottery is also good.  Hemming introduces the island in his discussion of pre-Columbian Amazonian ceramics:
The most famous ceramic style is Marajoara, named after the flat island Marajó that sits like a cork in the mouth of the Amazon.  The size of Switzerland, much of Marajó is flooded during the rainy months and its forests and mangroves are a labyrinth of channels as the waters recede.  It benefits from being at the meeting of river and ocean waters since this dissolves sediments and yields abundant fishing.
The Marajoara style is excellent: most famous are the metre-tall funerary urns, but figurines and tangas, 'curved triangles that covered women's genitals, possibly during rite-of-passage ceremonies', are also prevalent.  Manioc griddles - flat clay discs used for cooking manioc cakes - are also reportedly found in Marajoara contexts, but they are very rare (Hemming doesn't mention their scarcity).  Hemming's description of the Marajoara style is accurate and interesting (incidentally, my favourite ceramic styles all come from South America - I'm especially fond of the Nazca and Tiwanaku ware).
They are covered with elaborate incised and painted geometrical tracery.  Everything is stylized, self-assured, intricate and beautiful.  Human faces are reduced to components, as in a Picasso portait, and there are snakes, lizards, caymans, tortoises and birds. [...]  Many pots depict females, with every feature... reduced to geometric simplicity with the elegance of Cycladean art.
He also notes that the word 'tanga' is now used to refer to skimpy bikini bottoms.
A Marajoara funerary urn.  h/t Marie-Lan Nguyen.
What isn't accurate is his summary of the Marajoara culture and its 'fall':
The great Marajó chiefdom had ended two centuries earlier, but the Arawak-speaking Arua were probably descendants of the great pottery-makers.  Marajoaran culture may have been shattered by a 'mega-Nino'... and then overrun by its equivalent of barbarians invading the Roman Empire. (Kindle Loc 5272 of 8689)
 In reality, there probably was no single 'Marajó chiefdom'.  Marajó is, as Hemming says, about the same size as Switzerland (49,606 square kilometres), and a single chiefdom that size would have had to have been very complex - a state, really.  The archaeology suggests that there were several chiefdoms, and these were probably relatively simple chiefdoms at that.  There is very limited archaeological evidence of agriculture, and it is probable that these chiefdoms were primarily non-agricultural, dependant on limited exploitation of plant resources and on the super-abundance of fish gifted to the island by the floods of the rainy season.
Another funerary urn.  h/t Daderot.

Marajoaran ceramics were manufacted by people who lived on large earth mounds, some piled ten or more metres above sea-level.  When the island flooded, these mounds were the only parts above water.  Marajó is a very seasonal place, with six months of rain between January and June and a dry season beginning in July.  The waters recede properly in August, exposing most of the land.  By damming the headwaters of the island's own rivers at the end of the rainy season (while surrounded by the Amazon, it is a large island in itself, and so has several rivers), fish can be trapped in large numbers.  Archaeologist and Marajó specialist Denise Schaan, who has focused on the Camutins chiefdom based on the Camutins River in central Marajó, says
...archaeological sites are located exactly in areas of high fish productivity, and [...] earthen mounds were only part of a wider range of earthworks designed to manage aquatic fauna. (p.341)
The aquatic fauna - fish and turtles, including turtle eggs (needed both for their edible yolks and for the oil they contain) - would have been sufficient to sustain population growth.  In the colonial period these resources were very important to the town of Pará (modern Belém) on the south bank of the Para river, the part that flows south of Marajó, allowing it to expand considerably.  There's every reason to believe that populations could expand so as to necessitate more complex social arrangements without agriculture.  These were sedentary foraging chiefdoms, and they were probably never politically integrated, always remaining under the power of the same controlling kin group.
An Arrau turtle, Podocnemis expansa.  You can eat their meat, and their eggs too.  h/t Whaldener Endo.
Schaan's model is that early inhabitants of interior Marajó would have had significant advantages in exploiting these resources.  The first people to build large mounds to live on and earthworks to corral fish and turtles with would have been at such a great advantage with regard to incoming groups or lower-ranked kin that they couldn't have helped developing a hierarchical social structure.  Some individuals would have been able to create differential access to the resources, and then Bob's your uncle.  Cooperation was vital, but it was probably directed by kin groups with the leverage of an abundance of fish.
Another Marajoara urn.  h/t Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Ritual and feasting were also key, and may have been used to celebrate the successes of the cooperative effort.  Schaan says
Given the absence of any outstanding burial among all those investigated, and considering similarities in vessel iconography and grave goods, it can be concluded that all individuals belonged to the same rank order, as if a kin group was in power.  The proximity between elite residence, elite burials, ceremonial theater, and critical resources speaks to the symbolic control that the elite exercised over the means to sustain life, probably justifying their differential access to resources as a function of their close relation to ancestors ... some artifacts associated with the consumption of tobacco and hallucinogenic beverages attest to the importance of ritual and ceremonial exchange. (p. 350)
The ceramics themselves were probably important elements of the Marajoaran political economy too, and control of their difficult production process would have enhanced the kin group's authority, especially in light of their role in interring and thereby honouring the dead.

Finally, Schaan notes
Preliminary data indicate the absence of a supra-regional political center, which suggests a system of alliances between chiefdoms that is compatible with peer-polity interaction. (p.354)
Clearly, this was no Roman Empire, and there was no single great Marajoaran Chiefdom that governed the island in pre-Columbian times.  The culture expanded between 700 and 1000 CE, with clear signs of 'a collapse in the regional political economy after AD 1100' (p.341), but this isn't quite the same thing.  Ecological problems may have been important in causing this collapse, as may aggressive incoming groups.

What's interesting is that the people encountered by Europeans on Marajó in the sixteenth century were speakers of Arawak languages (specifically, Aruã).  The presence of a few manioc griddles, a key diagnostic of the presence of Arawak speakers, testifies to the probability that it was Arawaks who were behind the Marajoara culture.  Their ceramics were rather simpler and less beautiful than the Marajoara style, but it seems reasonable to believe that they are the direct descendants.
A manioc griddle.  From here.

Arawak-speaking peoples are generally agriculturalists, and manioc formed into flat breads is the typical subsistence food.  If it's correct that the Marajoarans spoke an Arawak language, then it would be an example of an agricultural people giving up on agriculture in the presence of abundant non-agricultural resources - although it should be pointed out that this kind of advanced aqua-culture follows similar principles to agricultural production.  It's also important to note that Arawak speakers are/were typified by relatively large and powerful political structures based on networks of alliances between groups of roughly equal power and importance, with cooperation a key asset in building political power.  This would certainly fit with the archaeology of the Marajoara culture.  This would mean, though, that the Marajoara culture really did have a non-local origin, in a certain sense.

Anyway, the Marajoara culture is justifiably famous for its exceptional ceramics as well as for its interesting non-agricultural resource base, and it is yet another example of the fascinating diversity and peculiarity of pre-Columbian Amazonia. Hemming's book is well worth reading, and despite his slight mis-statement with regard to the Marajoara phase, the book is informative and entertaining - I don't know of a better one on the history of Amazonia. 

A bibliography of the Marajoara culture and Amazonian archaeology can be found here.


Hemming, John.  2012.  Tree of rivers.  Thames & Hudson.

Schaan, Denise Pahl.  2008.  The nonagricultural chiefdoms of Marajo island.  In Silverman and Isbell (eds). The handbook of South American archaeology.  New York: Springer.  Pages 339-357.

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