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Volume 57 / Social Sciences


South America

BETTY J. MEGGERS, Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

TWO MAJOR CONTROVERSIES have pushed South American archaeology into the headlines during this biennium: 1) the antiquity of human arrival and 2) the existence of precolumbian civilizations in Amazonia.

The earliest accepted North American date ca. 12,000 BP has been challenged as incompatible with associations between lithic complexes and extinct fauna have been challenged as incompatible with the earliest accepted North American date ca. 12,000 BP. The “Clovis barrier” was breeched as a consequence of extensive documentation in the final report on Monte Verde, Chile (item bi 98009327) and inspection of the site visit by skeptical US specialists (items bi 98009320 and bi 98010042). However, two other candidates for pre-Clovis antiquity remain contested. A conference attended by European, US, and Latin American experts to evaluate evidence for a 50,000 BP occupation at Pedra Furada in Northeastern Brazil led the US delegation to reject human presence prior to ca. 10,000 BP (item bi 98009028). Although this assessment has been challenged by the excavation team (item bi 98009025), it is compatible with the date from a nearby site (item bi 98008658). Claims for the antiquity of Pedra Pintada, a rock shelter in central Amazonia (item bi 98011031) have provoked multiple rebuttals by US specialists, who challenge the dates, associations, stratigraphy, and inferred tropical forest context (Tankersley 1996, Science 1996, 1997).

Concurrently, South American archaeologists have strengthened the case for human presence contemporary with or earlier than Clovis. Well-documented sequences have been described from Santana de Riacho, Minas Gerais (item bi 98008093) and Serranopolis II, Goiás in Brazil, at Quero (item bi 98010045) and Taguatagua (item bi 98010397) in Chile, and at sites in several parts of Argentina (items bi 96020274, bi 98008279, and bi 98008278) and interpretations of ethnicity, subsistence preference, and adaptation to diverse habitats based on archaeological evidence have been supplemented by experimental replication of lithic technologies (item bi 96002075, Nami 1996). A symposium in Bogotá with participants from Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panamá (item bi 96007578) and a study of the cranial morphology of early skeletal remains (item bi 98008170) provide a continental perspective. The abundant evidence for pre-Clovis presence in southern South America raises the question: where are the antecedent North American sites?

The controversy over the existence of precolumbian states and civilizations in Amazonia is increasingly acrimonious. Proponents reject archaeological evidence and environmental constraints in favor of early European descriptions of dense populations, hierarchical societies, and advanced technology (item bi 98008165, bi 98011031, bi 97008124, bi 98011038, item bi 98008166); opponents report only impermanent settlements with relatively recent dates and no evidence of metallurgy, social complexity or other advanced features (items bi 98011096, bi 95003622, and bi 96007538). Although Denevan (item bi 97007469) has reduced his previous estimates of floodplain productivity, he maintains large permanent settlements were sustainable. In Colombia, by contrast, impressive highland and north coastal remains are attributed to autonomous chiefdoms linked by exchange of elite items, rather than centralized states (items bi 97008114, bi 97016028, bi 97008137, bi 97008159, and bi 98010248).

In spite of increased length, this section does not adequately reflect expansion of archaeological research by South Americans. In the case of Argentina, for example, annotation of contributions in conference proceedings would double the number of titles (item bi 96007546) and many articles on local topics have been omitted for lack of space. Other multi-authored volumes attest to increasing collaboration among neighboring countries: Argentina/Chile (item bi 98008390, bi 98014927, bi 98014157, and bi 98008217), Colombia/Ecuador (items bi 98010757, bi 98010339) Colombia/Ecuador/Peru (item bi 96007544), Peru/Argentina (item bi 98011794). Conferences with international participation focus on faunal exploitation, mortuary practices (item bi 95002790), and environmental adaptations (item bi 96007578, Stahl 1995). Tabulations of authors by country of origin shows that nationals still far surpass foreigners in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. The biggest change is Peru, where entries have declined from a third to a quarter of the total and national authorship has increased to about 40 percent.

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