Amazonia. The name conjures western images of luxuriant vegetation, unbridled nature, and vast, unexplored lands. Whether envisioned as a tropical paradise or a “green hell,” the salience of the naturalistic and idealistic features associated with Amazonia has implications for the perception of its human inhabitants. From its inception, Amazonian anthropology has been a highly contested and fractured intellectual field, partly resulting from the manner in which Amazonia was imagined as a cultural category of colonialism centuries before the advent of modern ethnographic exploration.
Early European encounters with indigenous Amazonians provoked debates about the nature of humanity in a manner that would inform subsequent centuries of colonial rule. Yet we can distinguish Amazonia from other colonized regions partly by the manner in which its native peoples were characterized as the prototypical primitive people. Long before ethnographic investigations of Amazonian societies, Westerners stereotyped Amazonians as savages, noble or otherwise, and considered them to be outside the domain of (Western) civilization and closer to nature.
The beginnings of anthropological investigation in the region remained infused with inherited stereotypes about the nature and culture of Amazonia. Ethnographic studies appeared relatively late in the region, which was still largely unexplored scientifically well into the 20th century. The diversity of societies encountered over five centuries of contact has contributed to the mosaic character of region, in which diversity itself remains an important hallmark, frustrating attempts at regional synthesis. The first regional synthesis provided in 1948 by Julian Steward in the Handbook of South American Indians inherited many of the presumptions of earlier periods. Revisions of the standard model provided by Steward have predominated the past few decades of Amazonian anthropology, during which time ethnographic studies of Amazonian peoples reached unprecedented growth. The search for a new synthesis in Amazonian anthropology remains an important goal in the field, yet is further complicated by the increasingly abundant and varied literature regarding Amazonia.
Amazonia as a geographic region is named for its major river, the Amazon, the world’s largest river by water volume. The term Amazon refers to the female warriors of Greek mythology, who were associated with fabulous accounts of indigenous warriors along the banks of the named river. The river’s headwaters are located in the Andean mountains, and the principal channel drains east into the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon River is approximately the same length— 6,400-6,800 kilometers—as the Nile and, due to yearly changes in the meandering channel, carries a fluctuating status as the world’s longest river. Many tributaries of the Amazon also rank among the world’s longest rivers and constitute an integral part of the region. In the strict sense of the term, Amazonia refers to the watershed of the Amazon River and its many tributaries.
Occupying approximately seven million square kilometers, roughly the size of the continental United States, the Amazon Basin is the largest river basin in the world. This vast region dominates the northern portion of the South American continent and contains the world’s most extensive tract of humid tropics. Bounded to the north by the Orinoco River basin and to the south by the Brazilian shield escarpment, the Amazon Basin stretches eastward from the lower slopes of the Andes, where the 500 meter elevation contour is generally used to delimit the Amazon as a phytogeographic region. Over half of the basin encompasses two ancient upland shields, the Guiana Shield to the north of the river and the Brazilian Shield to the south, both of which predate the rise of the Andes. Remaining areas comprise a giant alluvial basin.
Several adjacent areas are not geographically part of the Amazon Basin but are considered part of greater Amazonia because they share many of its ecological and cultural features. These include the region to the southeast that is sometimes referred to as pre-Amazonia and incorporates the Araguaia and Tocantins River basins that drain into the Atlantic south of the mouth of the Amazon. The Orinoco River Basin, which drains north into the Caribbean, is also generally included in the definition of Amazonia, as are the tropical forested regions of the Guianas. Finally, the transition between the Central Brazilian Highlands and the Amazon Basin is gradual and includes the upper portions of the Xingu, Araguaia, and Tocantins Rivers.
We can also use the term Amazonia to mean the politically and economically defined boundaries maintained by contemporary nation states. Countries whose borders include portions of Amazonia include Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. As a result of historical geopolitical expansion in the region, more than two thirds of the Amazon Basin falls within Brazil’s contemporary jurisdiction and generally receives proportionately more popular and scientific attention. The Andean nations of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia also have sizeable portions of the Amazon Basin relative to country size. Even the smaller portions of Amazonia located within Venezuela and the Guianas have played an important role in the exploration of the region’s biological and cultural diversity.
The Amazonian Environment
The environment is an important defining characteristic of Amazonia, and, as such, has figured prominently in anthropological accounts of the region. In particular, archaeologist Betty Meggers presented the Amazonian environment as a “counterfeit paradise,” in which lush tropical flora is a deceptive indicator of underlying soil fertility because energy in tropical forests is recycled within the canopy structure of the forests rather than stored in the soil substrate. The ability of Amazonian soils and environments to support the development of complex societies emerged as a central debate in Amazonian ethnography and archaeology. These debates are grounded in assumptions of the Amazonian environment as pristine, static, nonproductive, and fundamentally limiting in its effect on indigenous societies. Recent advances in our understanding of the nature and culture of Amazonian environments are therefore relevant to Amazonian anthropology.
Located in the humid tropics, the Amazon is defined by tropical conditions that include year- round warm temperatures, high amounts of solar radiation, rainfall, humidity, and biodiversity. Tropical rain forests cover the majority of the Amazon Basin, which contains the largest expanse of the world’s rain forests. Yet, while Amazonia may have come to symbolize the generic tropical forest—hot, humid, and teeming with vegetation—the region is far from homogonous. Biodiversity, an important hallmark of the Amazon, generally increases from east to west and is correlated with multiple factors such as latitude, rainfall, temperature, solar radiation, and soils that likewise vary across the region. While the Pleistocene refugia theory was once advanced as an explanation for the rich diversity of Amazonian flora, ecologists now suggest that a variety of natural disturbance processes, rather than long-term climatic stability, underlie speciation.
Another important advance in the scientific understanding of the Amazonian environment has been the documentation of the variety of ecosystems that characterize Amazonia. At the most basic level, a distinction can be made between the upland regions, or terra firme, and the floodplains of the major rivers, called the vdrzea. The vdrzea accounts for approximately 2% of the Amazon Basin, yet is considered disproportionately important to Amazonian societies because of the relatively rich alluvial soils. The vdrzea can be internally differentiated into three different habitats: the upper floodplain, the lower floodplain, and the estuary.
We can categorize Amazonian rivers into three main types that have important ecological impacts: white-water rivers, clearwater rivers, and blackwater rivers. Whitewater rivers drain the eastern slopes of the Andes and carry geologically young sediments of high fertility that are deposited downstream during seasonal flooding events. These floods constitute the higher soil fertility found along the vdrzea floodplains of the Amazon River and its whitewater tributaries. In contrast, clearwater rivers drain the ancient leached bedrocks of the Guiana and Brazilian plateaus and therefore carry sediment loads of medium to low fertility. Blackwater rivers drain the white sandy soils of the northwest Amazon that are nutrient poor and extremely acidic.
Historical documents and archaeological evidence suggest that densely populated settlements once spanned the varzea regions—fostering ongoing debate over the nature of prehistoric and historic chiefdoms in the Amazon. The majority of contemporary indigenous societies, however, live within the upland regions of the Amazon. Emilio Moran’s 1993 book Through Amazonian Eyes: The Human Ecology of Amazonian Populations carefully documents the internal variety of ecosystems in both the varzea and terra firme in an attempt to reach beyond this simple dichotomy and avoid condensing diverse habitats and societies under the generic rubric of “tropical forest adaptations.” Moran describes the diversity of habitats within the terra firme, including lowland savannas, blackwater ecosystems, montaine forests, and upland forests, each of which is internally differentiated. Upland forests also exhibit what appear to be anthropogenic forest types, including liana, bamboo, Brazil nut, and certain palm forests.
Recent advances in ecological research challenge assumptions that Amazonian habitats are homeostatic or stable and increasingly recognize the dynamic role of human societies in the formation of anthropogenic environments. In addition to the large-scale landscape modifications produced by dense populations of the past, traditional subsistence activities practiced by contemporary indigenous societies likewise interact with and transform local ecosystems. Slash-and-burn horticulture efficiently converts tropical forest biomass and mimics processes of natural forest gap dynamics. The primary staple throughout much of the Amazon is manioc (Manihot esculenta), along with maize, bananas, plantains, papaya, sweet potatoes or yams, and beans. Cultigens are often interspersed to create multistoried swiddens or garden plots that, rather than being abruptly abandoned, are generally managed through succession. Old fallows function as agroforestry systems that may be used as the preferred hunting and gathering locations for many years. Anthropogenic forests that regenerate from old fallows may be just as biodiverse, if not more so, than adjacent old growth forests, as documented by William Balee among the Ka’apor.
Horticultural activities are generally complemented by hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. Amazonia lacks large pack animals, and game animals tend to be dispersed and cryptic. Hunting technologies such as blow darts, poisons, bows and arrows, and traps are employed and often embedded in local knowledge systems and cosmologies that stress the relationships between people and animals. Likewise, fishing activities use technologies such as nets, hooks, weirs, and fish poisons, and the catch provides important sources of protein. Finally, the gathering of wild and semidomesticated plants, particularly palms, is an important complementary activity that affects the diversity and distribution of these resources. Even still, the assumption that Amazonian environments are uniformly poor or that indigenous people have passively adapted to pristine environmental conditions once formed a part of the traditional definition of Amazonia.
Amazonia as a Culture Region
Definitions of Amazonia as a culture region have included implicit comparisons with other culture regions of South America, particularly the Andes. Early ethnographers sought to explain why the impressive state-level societies of the Andean region were not found in the adjacent tropical lowlands, where the ethnographic present was characterized by numerous small, autonomous horticultural or hunting-gathering tribes. Steward classified these groups respectively as Tropical Forest Tribes (swidden horti-culturalists) and Marginals (hunter-gatherers) in the Handbook of South American Indians. Assumptions underlying cultural evolutionary typologies led to the search for conditions that prevented the development of complex societies in the Amazon. The environment was initially explored as a likely culprit. The characterization of Amazonia in terms of negative rather than positive traits has had a lasting impact on the anthropology of the region.
In positive terms, Amazonia is typified by its cultural and linguistic diversity, which makes regional generalizations difficult. The traditional unit of analysis within the region has been the tribe. The exact number of tribes or ethnic groups in the Amazon region is also difficult to estimate given the uncertain overlap between local and supralocal units of identification or that between language and ethnicity. Furthermore, ongoing processes of acculturation and ethnogenesis defy analysis of tribes as static, ahistorical units.
However defined, we usually classify tribal groups according to their subsistence strategies as hunter- gatherers, trekkers, or horticulturalists. While heuristic, this typology arbitrarily divides a continuum of nomadic and sedentary lifestyles and usually negates historical or contemporary inclusion in market
economies. Mixed subsistence strategies that combine some form of slash-and- burn horticulture with hunting, fishing, and gathering are most common throughout the region. We also traditionally characterize Amazonian tribes by autonomous villages, relatively small populations, and different degrees of egalitarianism. Other region-wide characteristics include the importance of reciprocity, ostracism as a form of social control, the existence of food taboos, belief in multiple souls, and shamanism. Peter Riviere suggests that dualism is a universal structural feature of Amazonian societies, including underlying two- section kinship terminologies, moieties, and a principle of direct exchange.
Linguistic Diversity and Language Groupings
Amazonia is also recognized as a linguistic area, with shared pan-Amazonian linguistic tendencies that differentiate the languages of the Amazon from those of the Andes. Unfortunately, the Amazon basin remains the least known linguistic region in the world, with a paucity of adequate grammars in relation to the diversity of languages evident. Furthermore, processes of assimilation and language loss continue to accelerate at an alarming rate. There are more than 300 extant indigenous Amazonian languages that belong to approximately 20 language families, and include over a dozen linguistic isolates.
The largest language families in terms of numbers of affiliated languages include Arawakan, Cariban, Tupian, Macro-Ge, Pano-Takanan, and Tucanoan. The major language families are also noted for their markedly discontinuous distributions, more so than in any other part of the world. The Tupi and Arawak families are the most dispersed, followed by the Carib languages. Other language families are more localized, including Panoan and Jivaroan languages in the montana, Ge languages in Central Brazil, and Tucanoan languages in the Northwest.
Distinctive regional distributions and associated characteristics allow language groups to function as meaningful categories for organizing and comparing Amazonian societies. Languages are closely related to ethnic identity in the Amazon, and language families provide analytical units that allow for regional comparisons. Amazonian scholars often specialize as much according to language families as they do to geographic regions, and research directions and analysis are often informed by the different cultural regularities affiliated with these major groupings.
With the largest number of languages and a wide distribution, the Arawak family has been the focus of a substantial degree of scholarly research. Published in 2002, the edited volume Comparative Arawakan Histories by Jonathan Hill and Fernando Santos- Granero incorporates much of this research and demonstrates how linguistic groupings can provide a basis for meaningful dialogue and regional synthesis. Throughout their vast, fragmented distribution, Arawak-speaking groups are noted for their cultural proclivity to trade, forge alliances, and maintain widely dispersed fields of identification. As such, Arawak groups are implicated in the maintenance of contemporary and historical trade networks in Amazonia. According to Arawak scholars, cultural institutions that emphasize peaceful relationships with other Arawak groups enable them to integrate larger areas into such networks.
Cultural peculiarities of Arawak speakers include a diplomatic ethos, a prohibition of internal warfare codified in ritual greetings, and a characteristic willingness to incorporate other ethnic groups into Arawak communities. Even the kinship system of riverine Arawak groups extends classificatory siblings to encourage the establishment of allies beyond immediate kin. Apart from Arawak and Tukanoan groups, preoccupation with genealogy and extended kin categories are rare among Amazonian societies and are connected to the equally uncommon emphasis on social stratification and the ambition to incorporate, rather than confront, neighboring groups.
The Arawak phenomenon refers to the pervasive presence of Arawak groups throughout Amazonia that resulted from the hypothesized expansion out of the Orinoco and Rio Negro heartland during the second millennium BC. The distribution of Arawak languages suggests a pattern of expansion along major rivers, creating wedges that contributed to the geographic demarcation of more localized language families. Arawak cultural institutions, along with expertise in river navigation, trade, intensive agriculture, and hierarchical social organizations may have played a role in the emergence of a regional trade system in prehistoric Amazonia that emerged at this time. With access to fertile floodplains and major riverine trade routes, Arawakan societies may have been the most powerful and expansive polities in pre-Colombian Amazonia.
Studies of Tupi language families, particularly the Tupi-Guarani groups, likewise contribute to an understanding of historical processes in the region. In apparent contrast to the Arawak expansion through trade and incorporation, Tupi societies appear to have expanded through military conquest. Tupi societies originally migrated eastward from the southwestern Amazon to conquer vast territories south of the Amazon and southeastern Brazil. The famous Tupinamba chiefdom displaced Ge speakers along the Atlantic coast shortly prior to European arrival. A westward expansion was underway when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, by which time Tupi societies controlled the southern shore of central and lower Amazon. Orellana’s 1542 expedition encountered the powerful Omagua chiefdom in the upper Amazon, lending historical evidence to the existence of complex societies along the major tributaries. Archaeologist Michael Heckenberger suggests, however, that the Omagua may have been formerly Arawak-speakers who had recently adopted a Tupi lexicon, demonstrating the complex relationships between language and ethnicity in the region.
Although located outside of Amazonia, the prominence of the Tupinamba in the 16th century cemented their place in the Brazilian national heritage. The Tupinamba remain a point of reference for the interpretation of contemporary Tupi-Guarani societies in Amazonia, which are smaller horticultural or foraging groups, generally “regressed” horticulturalists. Furthermore, the major trade language or lingua geral of the Amazon evolved on the east coast of Brazil and combined a simplified morphology from the Tupinamba language with a syntax similar to Portuguese. The lingual geral spread up the Amazon basin, producing dialectical variants, some of which are still spoken in the Upper Rio Negro region.
Tupi-Guarani groups have received particular attention for their reputations as cannibals and their history of migrations throughout the region. Contemporary ethnographies continue to explore these enduring themes, demonstrating how they involve diverse aspects of culture such as subsistence, warfare, kinship, and cosmology. Although diverse, Tupi- Guarani societies tend to use Dravidian kinship terminologies and have oblique marriage rules. In other respects, however, Tupi-Guarani groups are more notable for their cultural diversity—a fact that has long frustrated comparative scholarly efforts.
In contrast to the loosely defined cultural similarities of the Tupi-Guarani, we typify the Ge groups of central Brazil by strongly dualistic social structures that helped inspire the emergence of structural anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s. The Ge groups are most commonly associated with the seasonally dry closed savannas (cerrado) of Central Brazil, but are also found in the bordering closed-canopy forests of the lower Amazon and pre-Amazonia. Although the landscape was traditionally considered only marginally productive, the Ge groups maintained an abundant existence with occasionally dense populations through complementary strategies of limited agriculture and nomadism. Most contemporary Ge groups have reduced or stopped trekking altogether as a result of circumscription by cattle ranchers and industrial soy farmers.
The earliest scholars failed to recognize the complex social structures of the Ge groups, assuming from Steward’s classification of them as generic hunter-gatherers that their societies and technologies should be equally simple. Later scholars discovered that the Ge groups were neither pure hunter-gatherers nor socially simple. Rather, they were historically semi-nomadic trekkers with seasonal reliance on agriculture and highly developed social configurations. Striking among these groups is the prevalence of men’s houses, cross-cutting moieties, and hierarchical age grades, which ensured from the start that analysis of social structure would dominate Ge studies.
Major Culture Regions
We can also subdivide Amazonia into the following cultural regions, each with its own distinctive characteristics: the northwest Amazon, northern Amazonia, Guianas, Montana, Upper Amazon, Lower Amazon, Upper Xingu, and Central Brazil. Regional focuses have developed within the scholarship of the region and are informed by the particular characteristics of each culture area.
The northwest Amazon is exemplary of regional interactions. Unique blackwater ecosystems and caatinga vegetation mark the ecological distinctiveness of this region, which is characterized by an incredible diversity of bittern manioc cultivars. Geographically, the region extends from the Rio Negro westward into Colombia and Venezuela. The Vaupes and Iana river basins constitute a well- defined linguistic area with a number of characteristics shared among groups pertaining to the Arawak, Tukanoan, and Maku language families. Relationships between language and culture are particularly complex in this area. We can find material, social, and ideological commonalities among the diverse indigenous groups of the northwest Amazon, where bonds of kinship, marriage, and political alliances regularly cross linguistic boundaries.
Multilingualism and linguistic exogamy are characteristic of many groups of the region, as are specialized trade, complex cosmologies, and the shamanic use of hallucinogens. Linguistic exogamy is compulsory among East Tukano groups and Tariana in the Vaupes, where marriage practices emphasize nonendogamy rather than prescribed marriages. In these systems, language identity is assigned through patrilineal descent. Individuals also tend to know several other regional languages, including those of their mothers and spouses.
Specialized trade also unifies local groups in a regional trade network. Jean Jackson suggested the term artificial scarcity to define how groups “forget” to make or obtain items that other groups provide. Subsequent specialization reinforces peaceful relations in the region. Janet Chernela likewise concluded that the northwest Amazonian trade network is structured around the maintenance of social relations. Language and artifact manufacture are the most salient identifying features of northwest Amazonian groups. As such, locally manufactured goods always move toward “outsiders” and away from relatives. A particular form of specialized trade has developed between the horticultural tribes and the foraging Maku tribes, in which the Maku peoples provide game, weapons, and hallucinogenic plants in exchange for manioc and other garden products.
The existence of complex segmentary hierarchies among the Tukano groups also distinguishes this region. Local descent groups comprised of several nuclear families are organized into ranked sibs or corporate patrilineal descent groups. Sib ranking is based on prestige and used to allocate preferential territories along rivers. Lower-ranking sibs may be comprised of individuals who originally spoke non-Tucanoan languages such as Maku. The language group, or tribe, functions as a named political and ceremonial group, with all language groups belonging to one of five phratries that serve as unnamed exogamous groups.
Northern Amazonia is delimited by the Orinoco- Rio Branco area located near the Brazil-Venezuela- Guyana border. Despite the diverse languages groups from the Yanomaman, Arawakan, and Cariban language families, Galvao defined this culture area as exhibiting remarkable cultural homogeneity. Perhaps the most well-known Amazonian tribe, the Yanomami, was popularized by the work of Napoleon Chagnon and has come to form one of the foundational societies of the anthropological corpus.
In the adjacent Guianas, Cariban groups historically dominated the region, while Arawakan societies are presumed to represent more recent intrusions. In keeping with the cultural propensities of Arawakan societies, extensive trade networks once connected the savannas of Venezuela with the Guianas. Unlike the northwestern Amazonian trade network, with its focus on intergroup relations, the trade system of the Guianas distributes natural and cultural resources such as curare, pottery, dogs, and green stones. The symbolic systems of Guiana groups have played an important role in the development of British social anthropology in Amazonia, particularly through the work of Peter Riviere.
Marking the ecological and cultural transition between the Andes and the Amazon, the montana region is characterized by specious forests that support complex swidden horticultural systems and subsistence economies that stress the importance of hunting. Bitter manioc is absent from the montana, although sweet varieties (yucca) are present. The area is populated by numerous localized language families, such as Panoan and Jivaroan, as well as many linguistic isolates. The montana region serves an ethnic interface between the different tribes of the Andean foothills and Upper Amazon and has long been involved in trade and cultural interaction between the Andes and the Amazon. The presence of jungle Quichua, a dialect of Quechua, is emblematic of these interactions.
Montana groups such as the Jivaroan or Shuara peoples are most notorious for their practice of headhunting and have received much scholarly and popular attention. Instead of villages or communal houses, single-family dwellings and residential atomism define traditional settlement patterns in the region. Polygynous households that function as autonomous units may be organized into supralocal units that define an endogamous nexus. Marked gender division of labor and a system of resource allocation based on social categories of descent and affinity are common to indigenous peoples of the montana. Basic concepts of symmetrical, delayed reciprocity define relationships within and across ethnic boundaries, including exchange of goods, help, refuge, and marriage partners. This concept permeates the worldviews and cosmologies of montana peoples, whose systems of shamanic practices and hallucinogenic visions have been well studied. Shamanism may even play an important role in the extensive trade networks that are based, in part, on a system of craft specialization.
The adjacent Upper Amazonian region shares certain characteristics with the montana, particularly the predominance of Panoan groups and the absence of bitter manioc. The contemporary city of Manaus marks the transition between the Upper Amazon and the Lower Amazon regions. The Lower Amazon, which extends to the river mouth, is characterized by the importance of bitter manioc cultivation and the universality of pottery.
Further to the south, the characteristics of the Upper Xingu river basin include remarkable linguistic diversity within a unified cultural area, where language serves as a group’s main symbolic distinctive feature. This well-studied region is home to seventeen indigenous groups that belong to five language families: Arawak, Carib, Tupi, Ge, and Trumai, a linguistic isolate. Ten of these indigenous groups have lived in the region for more than one hundred years, while the remaining tribes were relocated after the creation of the Xingu National Park in 1961. A series of rapids separating the navigable lower Xingu River from the upper basin allowed this region to serve as a refuge area.
Shared cultural features include dependency on fish for protein and taboos on eating many large game animals. People eat only fish, birds, and monkeys and complement swidden horticultural practices. Further-more, archaeological remains in the upper Xingu suggest that the circular village layout of contemporary settlements represents cultural continuity with large sedentary settlements of the past. A typical village includes haystack-shaped houses circularly arranged around a central plaza and the inclusion of men’s houses. Individual households represent patrilineal extended families. Although there is a tendency toward village endogamy, intermarriage among different groups occurs and leads to multilingualism. Intertribal connections also are maintained through ceremonial events that include ceremonial ambassadors and a common song language, intertribal games such as spear-throwing and log racing, and specialized ceremonial trade. Jackson’s concept of artificial scarcity has been applied to the intertribal exchange network of the Xingu region, in which each group specializes in different ceremonial or functional items.
In contrast to the linguistic diversity of the Xingu region, Central Brazil is characterized by the predominance of Ge-speaking groups and associated cultural features, such as circular settlements, men’s houses, moieties, age grades, uxorial residence with bride service, sharp divisions of labor by gender, pervasive dualism, wrestling matches, strong leaders, and seminomadism. Scholarship with a culture area focus (Central Brazil) and a linguistic group focus (Ge societies) therefore overlap in these and other Amazonian regions in ways that are meaningful to an understanding of Amazonian anthropology.
History of Amazonia
Amazonia has a long and complex history that began well before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. Conceptualizations of Amazonians as representing generic stages of cultural evolution long prevented an appreciation of the role of historical processes. Furthermore, these stereotypes led to a failure to recognize the past regional scale and supraethnic character of Amazonian societies at the time of European contact. Current interest in the history and historiography of the Amazon is beginning to flesh out a more complicated past.
The first inhabitants of Amazonia arrived very early, as evidenced by sites such as Pedra Pintada (11,000 BP), roughly contemporaneous with Clovis sites in North America. Contrary to North American patterns, Amazonian Paleo-Indians seem to have practiced a generalized hunter-gatherer strategy that focused on hunting small game, fishing, and collecting shellfish and forest products rather than big game, which is lacking in the Amazon.
There is ongoing academic tension between the notion that egalitarianism and social simplicity typify Amazonia and the idea that Amazonia is characterized by a greater range of social systems that developed over time, including societies with elaborated hierarchies and social complexity. This tension is especially apparent in archeology due to its greater attention to prehistoric cultures. Archaeological sites on Marajo Island at the mouth of the Amazon date back to 950 BC, with the emergence of Marajoara chiefdoms between AD 600 and 1000. Archaeologist Betty Meggers, however, suggests that the cultural complexity of these sites was ephemeral due to environmental limitations and may even have resulted from Andean intrusions.
Other archaeologists working in Amazonia reject this claim and continue to excavate archeological sites in far-flung locations, such as the Orinoco river drainage, middle Amazon, the Upper Xingu, and llanos de Mojos in eastern Bolivia—which attest to the emergence of densely populated settlements and regional interactions systems by around AD 1000. In addition to mound sites located in the varzea, extensive earthworks in the llanos de Mojos of eastern Bolivia suggest that wet savannas were likewise used for intensive agriculture and habitation. Earthen features such as moats, bridges, and causeways connecting ancient settlements in the Upper Xingu also document the emergence of complex societies along the southern periphery of the Amazon. Evidence for sociocultural complexity in the Amazon includes the appearance of dark anthrosols, or terra preta, that indicate past activities of large, sedentary settlements. The extremely high fertility of these soils makes them desirable by contemporary Amazonian peoples for the location of agricultural activities.
The earliest historical reports by 16th century European explorers corroborate the existence of dense settlements along the banks of the Amazon. For instance, Orellana’s 1542 expedition down the Amazon documented huge, densely populated villages of the Omagua chiefdoms located along a 700 kilometer stretch of the river. Other historically recorded chiefdoms include the Lokono upland polity straddling the Amazon and Orinoco drainages, and the Aparia, Aisuari, and Yurimaguas. Early European chroniclers such as Pedro Teixeira (Acuna), Carvajal, Oveido, and Raleigh documented abundant natural resources, sophisticated productive technologies, demographic density, social stratification, centralized political power, political provinces, and interethnic economic relations, including specialized trade in elite items. These chroniclers also began to record the depopulation and disarticulation of Indian societies that occurred with the demographic collapse brought about by European diseases.
With the discovery of Brazil in 1500, the Portuguese began to explore and colonize the Amazon from the east, while the Spanish entered the Amazon from the Andean mountains to the west. The Spanish also competed with the Dutch, British, and French for control over the northerly regions of the South American continent beginning in the early 17th century. Initial European interests in Amazonia were economic and included the search for gold and forests products such as dyes and herbs. The initial impacts of the conquests are scarcely known, although chief among them was a devastating population reduction due to introduced diseases, genocide, and assimilation. As indigenous populations fled into the interior regions or perished, African slaves were brought in to meet the labor demands of the region. Refugee communities of African slaves, quilombos, also were established in Amazonia and contributed to the cultural heritage of the region. Peoples of African descent mixed with individuals of European and Amazonian descent in the creation of distinct caboclo societies that inhabit the varzea regions.
By the end of the 18th century, after waves of epidemics, slavery, and colonization, hardly a trace remained of the once populous floodplain chiefdoms. As a result of the extreme demographic collapse, European explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries were inclined to perceive Amazonia as the antithesis of culture. Natural scientists, such as Alexander von Humbolt and Alfred Russell Wallace, encountered depopulated, autonomous villages assumed to represent primordial rather than historical conditions. Instead, centuries of colonial occupation had already instigated immeasurable changes in the form of disease, warfare, slavery, religious conversion, language change, and involvement in the boom-and-bust extractive economies that linked the Amazon with the rest of the world. Postcolonial republics continued policies aimed to integrate and assimilate Amazonia’s diverse societies and stimulate the economic development of the region. The environmental and social disruption caused by many of these development schemes has received growing scholarly and popular attention.
Development of Amazonian Anthropology
Descriptive accounts by amateur ethnographers such as Curt Unkel (Nimuendaju) helped pioneer the field of Amazonian anthropology. German-born Nimuendaju became the leading Brazilian ethnographer during the first half of the 20th century, having lived among and published extensively about many Tupi-Guarani groups. His descriptive accounts, along with those furnished by other early ethnographers, comprised the corpus of materials from which the first regional synthesis was drawn. Swiss anthropologist Metraux and Swedish anthropologist Nordenskiold, both of whom worked in Bolivia, initiated this first synthesis, completed by North American anthropologist Julian Steward after Nordenskiold passed away. The monumental seven volume Handbook of South American Indians (1946-1950) that Steward edited marked the beginnings of scientific anthropology in the region. It also established what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro refers to as the standard model of Amazonian ethnography.
The image of indigenous Amazonia that emerged from the Handbook became deeply rooted in the ethnological tradition of the region. The model combines a schema of cultural areas, a typology of levels of sociocultural integration, and an explanatory theory of geographic or environmental determinism. Principles of unilineal social evolution are implicit in the organization of the volumes, which divides indigenous South Americans into foraging marginals, horticultural Tropical Forest Tribes, Circum-Caribbean chiefdoms, and the Andes. The four defined stages of unilineal evolution were mapped out across the South American continent and correlated with environmental features that either promoted or limited the development of societies along this teleological progression.
The Amazon region was defined by the presence of tropical forest tribes, considered to occupy an inter-mediate evolutionary position between the circum- Caribbean chiefdoms and the marginal foraging tribes of Patagonia and Central Brazil. The image presented of the typical tropical forest tribe is familiar— organized into small, autonomous, egalitarian villages; limited by an unproductive environment; and unable to produce the requisite economic surplus to develop forms of sociocultural complexity recognized elsewhere in the continent. Steward’s field of cultural ecology proved influential among subsequent decades of Amazonian ethnographers and archaeologists that hotly debated which “limiting factors” were responsible for the region’s sociopolitical landscape. Other topics explored by cultural ecologists included land use and subsistence patterns, material culture, and trade and exchange.
The first major alternative to Steward’s paradigm emerged in the 1950s with Claude Levi-Strauss’s brand of French structuralism, which became increasingly popular in Amazonian studies with the publication of his Mythologiques volumes in the 1960s. Levi-Strauss drew on the wealth of myths recorded among Amazonian tribes, particularly those of the Ge, to develop his structural analysis. Whereas scholars of the materialist tradition of Steward focused on the environmental and technological interface, French structuralists emphasized the cognitive and symbolic aspects of Amazonian societies. Furthermore, the evolutionary typologies employed by Steward contrasted with the synchronic analysis of particular groups favored by French structuralists. What both traditions had in common, however, was the presumption that Amazonian societies were intrinsically small, dispersed, autonomous, and egalitarian.
British social anthropologists began to conduct ethnographic research in Amazonia during the late 1960s, and challenged this view of Amazonian social organization. Ethnographic research in Central Brazil and the Guianas provided complementary materials to explore the intricacies of Amazonian sociopolitical organization—a theme largely absent from the Handbook synthesis. Amazonian anthropologists of this tradition focused on studies of warfare, leadership and factionalism, gender roles, kinship, and marriage. Peter Riviere’s 1969 trail-breaking monograph on Amazonian kinship, Marriage Among the Trio: A
Principle of Social Organization, was influential in establishing the importance of a final categories to Amazonian societies. The dialectical nature of Amazonian societies was also explored by David Maybury-Lewis in his 1979 edited volume, Dialectical Societies: The Ge and Bororo of Central Brazil.
North American anthropology was also influenced during the late 1970s by contemporary transformations in the Boasian tradition and the growing influence of European schools. Emphasis shifted away from cultural ecology to the new fields of ethnoscience and symbolic anthropology that focused on cognitive and cosmological systems. These approaches contrasted with the sociobiological approach practiced by Chagnon and other ethnographers and physical anthropologists in the Amazon, who viewed foraging societies as comparative to early man.
The popularity of Amazonia among all theoretical traditions increased during the last few decades of the twentieth century and coincided with significant revisions of the standard model. Reasons for the demise of the old synthesis included a historical turn in the understanding of pre-Colombian populations and revisions in the appreciation of contemporary indigenous social formations. The field of human ecology embraced these changes and shifted from an adaptationist paradigm that focused on limiting factors and optimal foraging theories to the documentation of indigenous resource management strategies. The research program of historical ecology further postulated that indigenous societies are not passively adapted to Amazonian environments, but actively transform these through the creation of anthropogenic landscapes.
Other new directions in Amazonian anthropology included a revision of descent and alliance theories and a greater attention to ideas of personhood, identity, performance, and representation. As traditionally defined categories of analysis are increasingly deconstructed, there is a shift in analysis away from the village to regional interactions and an appreciation of local, regional, and global scales of integration. Furthermore, there is a greater synthesis of historical, archaeological, linguistic, and ethnographic data to achieve these ends. Anna Roosevelt’s 1994 book Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to the Present goes a long way toward achieving such a synthesis, which continues to prove elusive.
The recent controversy over Chagnon’s work among the Yanomami, extensively covered in Borofsky’s Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn From It has also drawn attention to the region and revolutionized debate about ethics within anthropology. At the same time, Amazonian anthropology is broadening to incorporate new themes that reflect these and other changing realities. As anthropologists pay more attention to issues of gender, power, and identity, the more they integrate the increasing activism of indigenous Amazonians into anthropological research and practice.
- Balee, W. (1994). Footprints of the forest: Ka’apor Ethnobotany—the historical ecology of plant utilization by an Amazonian people. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Borofsky, R. (2005). Yanomami: The fierce controversy and what we can learn from it. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hill, J. D., &. Santos-Granero, F. (Eds.). (2002). Comparative Arawakan histories: Rethinking language family and culture area in Amazonia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Maybury-Lewis, D. (Ed.). (1979). Dialectical societies: The Ge and Bororo of central Brazil. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Meggers, B. J. (1971). Amazonia: Man and culture in a counterfeit paradise. Chicago: Aldine.
- Moran, E. (1993). Through Amazonian eyes: The human ecology ofAmazonian populations. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
- Rival, L., & Whitehead, N. (Eds.). (2001). Beyond the visible and the material: The Amerindianization of society in the work of Peter Riviere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Riviere, P. (1969). Marriage among the trio: A principle of social organization. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Roosevelt, A. (Ed.). (1994). Amazonian Indians from prehistory to the present. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Steward, J. (1948). The handbook of South American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.