Friday, December 2, 2016

Amazon - Indigenous People / Lost Cities? (Part 2)

The Amazon's tropical rainforests have captivated the Western imagination long before they took center stage in the world's environmental crisis. Mere mention of the Amazon conjures evocative images of dripping, vegetation-choked jungles; cryptic, colorful and often dangerous wildlife; endlessly convoluted river networks; and half-naked primitive tribes.

The Kuikuro

The Kuikuro are an indigenous ethnic group from the Mato Grosso region of Brazil, they are one of the Xingu tribes that are living near the Xingu River. Xingu people represent fifteen tribes and all four of Brazil's indigenous language groups, but they share similar belief systems, rituals and ceremonies.
Explore the area using Google Aerial Mapping
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Kuikuro villages are shaped in a circle with a central patio. Their houses--called malocas--are inhabited by one or more extended families.

Prior to European Conquest

Many historically-minded researchers, archaeologists and geographers, are now challenging the view of the Amazon being a pure, unadulterated nature, of wilderness little impacted by indigenous peoples. There has been a quiet revolution brewing for several decades that suggests the Amazon was teeming with people in 1492, and that prior to European conquest, over five million indigenous people lived in the Brazilian Amazon.

A series of settlements connected by roads has been found at the headwaters of the Xingu River in an area previously buried beneath the dense foliage in what is now Xingu National Park. This is the proximity where world-famous Percy Fawcett went missing  (see earlier post).

The Upper Xingu region was heavily populated prior to European and African contact. Densely populated settlements developed from 1200 to 1600. Ancient roads and bridges linked communities that were often surrounded by ditches or moats. The villages were pre-planned and featured circular plazas similar to the villages in the region today.

Anthropologist Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida teamed with the local Kuikuro people in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso to uncover 28 towns, villages and hamlets that may have supported as many as 50,000 people within the forest—an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. The larger towns boasted defensive ditches 10 feet deep and 33 feet wide backed by a wooden palisade as well as large plazas, some reaching 490 feet across.

Satellite pictures reveal that during that time, the inhabitants carved roads through the jungle; all plaza villages had a major road that ran northeast to southwest along the summer solstice axis and linked to other settlements as much as three miles away. There were bridges on some of the roads and others had canoe canals running alongside them.
Buried plazas unearthed by archaeologists
An artist's rendition of a pre-Columbian Xingu city

Post-contact history

Kuikuro oral history says European slavers arrived in the Xingu region around 1750. Population in the region was estimated in the tens of thousands but was dramatically reduced by diseases and slavery by Europeans.

In the centuries since the penetration of the Europeans into South America, the Xingu fled from different regions to escape modernization and cultural assimilation. Nonetheless settlers made it up as far as the upper run of the Rio Xingu. By the end of the 19th century, about 3,000 natives lived at the Alto Xingu, where their current political status has kept them protected against European intruders. By the mid twentieth century this number had been reduced by foreign epidemic diseases such as flu, measles, smallpox and malaria to less than 1,000.


Part Three will be focused on Anna Curtenius Roosevelt's fascinating explorations of pre-Columbian settlement throughout the Amazon. Anna is the the great-granddaughter of United States President Theodore Roosevelt and much of her work challenges the long assumed scientific theories about the lives and migrations of the first Americans.

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