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New discoveries concerningpre-Columbian settlements in the Amazon

Thepre-Columbian Indiansocietiesthat once lived in the Amazonrainforestsmayhavebeenmuchlarger andmoreadvancedthan researcherspreviously realized.Together withBrazilian colleagues,archaeologists from the University of Gothenburghavefound theremains of approximately 90 settlementsin an area South of thecity of Santarém, in theBrazilian part of the Amazon.

"Themostsurprisingthing is thatmany ofthese settlements are alongway from rivers, and arelocated inrainforest areas thatextremelysparselypopulated today,"says Per Stenborg from the Department ofHistorical Studies, who led theSwedish part of the archaeologicalinvestigations in the area over the summer.

Traditionallyarchaeologistshavethought thatthese inland areasweresparselypopulatedalsobefore thearrival 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 ispoorduringdry periods asthese areas aresituated at longdistances from the major watercourses. It hasthereforebeensomething of amystery that theearliesthistorical account; fromSpaniard Francisco deOrellana'sjourneyalong the River Amazon in 1541-42,depicted the Amazon as adenselypopulated region withwhat theSpanishdescribed as "towns",situated not only along the riveritself, but also in the inland.

NEW DISCOVERIES COULD CHANGE PREVIOUS IDEAS Thecurrentarchaeologicalproject in the Santarém areacouldwellchangeourideasabout thepre-Columbian Amazon. Thearchaeologistshave comeacross areas ofvery fertilesoilscatteredaround theotherwise infertile land.These soils, known as "Terra Preta do Indio", or "Amazonian Dark Earth", are not natural, buthavebeencreated by humans (that is, they are "anthrosols").

"Just as importantly,wefound rounddepressions in the landscape,some as big as a hundredmetres in diameter, byseveral of thelarger settlements,"says Stenborg. "Thesecould be theremains of water reservoirs,built tosecure water supplyduringdry periods." It isthereforepossible that the information from deOrellana'sjourney will bebacked up by newarchaeological findings, and that the Amerindian populations in this part of the Amazonhaddevelopedtechniques toovercome the environmental limitations of the Amazonian inlands.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESCUE EFFORTS ARE URGENT Thearchaeologicalsites in the Santarém area arerich in artefacts,particularly ceramics. Alarge andgenerallyunstudiedcollection of material from the area isheld by the Museum of WorldCulture in Gothenburg.Collected in the 1920s by theGermano-Brazilian researcher CurtUnkel Nimuendajú, the materialended up in the Museum ofEthnography in Gothenburg andis essential forincreasingourknowledge of thepre-Columbian Amazon.Brazilian researchers arethereforeinterested in joint projects,where newfield studies arecombined with researchinto thecontents of the Museum of WorldCulture'scollections from the same area.

Theinvestigation area issituated near thecity of Santarém,between the Amazon mainstream and its tributary; RioTapajós innorthern Brazil.

"The Santarém area ispresently experiencing intensive exploitation of various forms, including expansion of mechanized agriculture and road construction,"says Dr. Denise Schaan at Universidade Federaldo Pará. "Thismeans that thearea'sancientremains arebeingrapidlydestroyed and archaeological rescueefforts are thereforeextremely 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 Fundaçao deAmparo eDesenvolvimento da Pesquisa,in Santarém.

Thearchaeologicalinvestigation forms part of awiderproject led by the University ofGothenburg's Per Stenborg, PhD. Theproject isbeingcarriedout incollaboration withBrazilianarchaeologists DeniseSchaan (Universidade Federaldo Pará) andMarcioAmaral-Lima (Fundaçao deAmparo eDesenvolvimento da Pesquisa,Laboratório deArqueologia Curt Nimuendaju, Santarém), and isfunded by grants from the Stiftelsen för Humanistisk Forskning, the Royal Swedish Society of Sciences and Letters in Gothenburg, Radman och Fru Ernst Collianders Stiftelse, Stiftelsen Otto och Charlotte Mannheimers fond, and theuniversities inPará and Gothenburg.

Formore information,please contact: Per Stenborg Tel.: +46 31 786 5173 E-mail:p.stenborg@archaeology.gu.se

Maps/photographscan beordered from: Thomas Melin Tel.: +46766 181068 E-mail:thomas.melin@hum.gu.se

idw :: 17.10.2010