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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Archaeology in the Guianas

Denis Williams


Defined by the courses of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers and their bridging stream, the Casiquiare Canal, the "Island of Guiana" of early exploration today comprises the national territories of Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, as well as an eastern portion of Venezuela, and parts of Amazonian Brazil (Figure 1). The histories of these territories are diverse and have been written in five major European languages. This diversity has been a factor in the variable development and indigenization of archaeology in each territory. Whereas the process of development and indigenization was relatively rapid in Brazil, following the pioneer work at the mouth of the Amazon by Smithsonian Institution archaeologists Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans, it was less rapid in Venezuela. Both are relatively old, independent nation states with sophisticated European cultural infrastructures. A vastly different situation developed in the so-called Colonial Guianas (British, Dutch, and French) by virtue of their dependent political status, their chronically strapped economies, their perfunctory educational and cultural institutions, and their racially mixed immigrant populations. While archaeology could be easily grafted onto pre-existing European-based cultural infrastructures such as museums, universities, and specialized libraries, after World War II it was a pioneer undertaking in the Colonial Guianas. Suriname became a self-governing part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1954, while Guyana achieved political independence from Great Britain only in 1966. French Guiana remains a départment of metropolitan France to this day, and prospects for its political and economic advancement are not encouraging.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Among the relatively recent immigrant populations of these "Three Guianas" (African, East Indian, Chinese, Indonesian), the concept of history pertains to specific ancestral concerns that relate to identity and survival, and scarcely to the notion of cultural evolution for the Guiana area as a whole. There is, in addition, the "problem" of the non-immigrant Native Guyanese whose historical concerns embrace the entire territory and who implacably views all non-natives as intruders. However, with an area of some 1.6 x 106 km2, this "Island of Guiana" occupies more than a quarter of the area covered by the Amazon Basin rain forests, and boasts an antiquity directly associated with human migrations into the southern continent nearly 12,000 years ago. Therefore, the planning and development of archaeology in the Guianas must be seen as apposite to current global concerns regarding the recoverable history of the rain forest and its sustainable exploitation, as well as to problems centering on the past and future of its non-immigrant populations. With the increasing articulateness and national organization of the native peoples these two concerns bid fair to proving a single inseparable problem in the anthropology of the future: overpopulation. Today, the Native Guyanese exhibit with variable intensity an impatience with their political marginalization on the state peripheries. As horticulturists for well over the past 3,000 years, population pressure is presently generating a land hunger unknown to previous generations. This problem is exacerbated by efforts to develop the region, perceived by Native Guyanese as inimical to their traditional interests; in most cases development has meant state appropriation of their land and infringement of what they perceive to be their inalienable rights.

In Guyana, for example, the taking of "state lands" has restricted the reservations of Native Guyanese to semi-arid areas or areas of tropical savanna. Large expanses of the rain forests have been sequestered in the national interest for logging or mineral extraction by expatriate concerns. Some 3,600 km2 of primary rain forest have been set aside for the Commonwealth and Government of Guyana Iwokrama Rain Forest Programme, which has been designed to develop and demonstrate methods of sustainable management of tropical forests. The associated developments of highways is regarded as an irreversible threat to the survival of long-held lifeways (Figure 2). With reference to indigenous history, a Native Guyanese scholar has recently published an eight-point classification of threats that are perceived to circumscribe the native effort at self-determination: tribal, pestilential, legislative, land, corporate, natural, cultural, and, above all, the threat of unbridled miscegenation.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Moreover, Native Guyanese are becoming increasingly impatient with an anthropology that to them, perpetuates their marginalization as "Amerindians." In fact, the quest for cultural autonomy within the region involves recognition of the historic cultural diversity of individual and independent nations of Arawaks, Caribs, Akawaio, and others. Some Warao surviving in northwestern Guyana consciously represent an archaeologically defined heritage dating back for 6,000 years. Their opinions on the appropriation of power from the European colonists by recent immigrants are expressed in their lukewarm responses to new-fangled institutions such as schools and clinics, which further the trend toward alienation. Problems of the development and indigenizing of archaeology are therefore the same throughout the Guianas, although responses to these pressures are variable. Nonetheless, since these problems are certain to determine the role of archaeology development during the coming century, they merit historical review.

At the time of its independence from Great Britain in 1966, Guyana had experienced 100 years of archaeological inquiry, dating back to missionary efforts stimulated by the publication of Lubbock's Prehistoric Times (1865). Initially, most archaeological inquiry was carried out by amateur British archaeologists. But at the turn of the century, North American professionals representing a variety of institutions, notably the Caribbean Anthropology Program of Yale University of the 1930s and the Smithsonian Latin American Program of the 1960s, undertook scientific development.

In the context of the developmental sequence proposed by Gordon Willey and Jeremy Sabloff (A History of American Archaeology 1974) for American archaeology, a classificatory-descriptive period had commenced with the work of the first missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel on the Pomeroon River in 1866 and lasted until the first river basin survey in 1930. Although the classificatory-historical (chronology) period began around 1914 in North America, it was not initiated in Guyana until 1946, with the investigations of Cornelius Osgood from Yale University. As in the Caribbean, archaeological research tended to lag behind events in North America by three to four decades.

Osgood's pioneering work in stratigraphic excavation and ceramic classification was unfortunately aborted with the loss of his excavated materials in the Georgetown, Guyana, fire of 1945. This loss extended the above-mentioned developmental time lag by a few years. The integration of seriation with metrical stratigraphy, the identification of independent ceramic phases and traditions, and the framing of area syntheses in the structuring of a cultural sequence, all constituting the new theoretical orientation in North American archaeology, now had to await the investigations of Clifford Evans and Betty Meggers in the early 1950s and publication of their results.

By this time in North America, the succeeding classificatory-historical period (context and function) was already being replaced by the explanatory period. The second half of the classificatory-historical period, with its emphasis on the potential of artifacts for elucidating group behaviors and inter-relationships, particularly as expressed in settlement patterns, was represented by Meggers's experimental reconstruction of Taruma village succession based on the seriated sequence of 24 sites on the upper Essequibo River, as well as by Peter Seigel's site structure analyses among the contemporary Waiwai.

Thus, the interest and involvement of North American professionals resulted in drawing Guyanese archaeology into the mainstream discourse. This discourse was principally centered on Julian Steward's hypotheses (Handbook of South American Indians vols. 3, 5) concerning the probable origin and dissemination of tropical forest culture somewhere in the Guianas. Guyanese archaeological scholarship has maintained a central place in the Guiana region ever since this problem was first introduced by Steward half a century ago. Although the problem continues to remain unresolved, the Guyanese chronology that resulted from Evans and Meggers's contributions provided the foundation for all future work on the reconstruction of prehistory in the Guianas.

Unlike Brazil and Venezuela, the relationship between Guyana and North American archaeological theory was not shared by Suriname or French Guiana, where European connections have been maintained. In both cases, archaeological inquiry goes back 100 years and more. The activity in these two countries over the past century has primarily focused on surface finds of stone tools and the recording of petroglyphs and grinding surfaces on riverbed or riverbank outcrops, often for the benefit of European museums. Although the cry for a local archaeology had been made in Guyana as early as 1945 by the (British) curator of the national museum, in 1960 the (Dutch) curator of Suriname's national museum was still lamenting the exclusive conduct of Suriname archaeology by Dutch nationals. The situation largely remains unchanged, although in the field of physical anthropology, the Suriname-born medical doctor, M.D. Khudabux, has made notable advances in the study of Harris (growth arrest) lines on Native Guyanese and African skeletal materials. This continues a tradition initiated by the works of Crevaux (1875) and ten Kate (1886) during the final quarter of the 19th century.

Suriname's first professional archaeologist, a Dutch national, was appointed only in 1973. His successor, also a Dutch national, who left the country in 1981, was succeeded in 1995 by still another Dutch national, a cultural anthropologist. A Dutch-trained native Suriname archaeologist, appointed to the Ministry of Education in 1984, appears not to have established a high publication profile. In French Guiana, the first areal synthesis was included in a doctoral thesis submitted by a French archaeologist to the Université de Paris in 1994. The inevitable start-stop pattern of these expatriate investigations typifies the colonial or ex-colonial political situation and amply demonstrates the need for an indigenous archaeology grounded in the kind of continuing or developing social, cultural, and environmental problems that have been outlined above.

In the context of the history of American archaeology, the classificatory-descriptive period survived in Suriname until 1973, a good 60 years after its demise in the United States, and, in French Guiana another two decades beyond that. Even so, the nature of the materials investigated during this period (stone axes, petroglyphs, grinding surfaces) offered only limited scope for classification and regional synthesis. In the absence of excavation, the on-off nature of the associated reports, and the lack of commitment to sustained inquiry by workers principally trained in other disciplines, the period was entirely symptomatic of the political structure of the classical European colony. The brief classificatory-descriptive period (chronology) that followed in both countries was characterized by a few distributional extensions of certain ceramic cultures already identified by Evans and Meggers in Guyana, as well as by the definition of a few new ones on the Eastern Guiana Littoral (the coast between the mouths of the Essequibo and Amazon rivers).

Although Guyana boasts indisputable temporal priority in the history of archaeological investigations in the Guiana region, the research problem that continues to dominate inquiry--the place of origin and dissemination of tropical forest culture--was first put to the archaeological test, not in Guyana, but along the northeastern Brazilian coast in the territory of Amapa. The investigations initiated there by Meggers and Evans in 1948 were a direct and timely response to the challenge made by Steward earlier that year. These investigations brought the classificatory-descriptive period to an end and established the basis for an eventual areal synthesis involving the entire Eastern Guiana Littoral. However, this lay far in the future. The immediate result of these investigations was an unequivocal rejection of the migration route of the Steward hypothesis--down the north coast of South America from a supposed origin in the Intermediate Area, and up the Amazon and its main tributaries. Rejection of this route necessitated the proposal of an alternative for the postulated intrusion of tropical forest culture into the lowlands. The authors saw this as having proceeded down the Amazon River from the west, a theory which has since elicited a degree of dissent. The authors postulated that rather than constituting the source of tropical forest cultural development, the Guianas had served merely as a passive recipient of diverse lines of cultural influence deriving from the general Andean area of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. There the matter rests.

In the Venezuelan national territory, the Macizo de Guayana, covering nearly half the surface area of the country, is extremely difficult terrain, and this is reflected in the relative paucity of archaeological investigations there. On the upper Orinoco, the classificatory-historical period has provided evidence of occupations dating back to 7000 B.C., with implications of a regional trade network already based on the unique and massive jasper outcrops of the Roraima Highlands. This jasper occurs no farther than 64[[ring]] W. Since it constituted the principal rock material used for tool making from Paleoindian times, it was a dominant factor in regional integration at all cultural levels. Results of the excavation of the Aguerito site on the middle Orinoco right bank contributed to knowledge of the early peopling of this portion of the region by horticulturists. Initial occupation was dated there by two radiocarbon series: 810-940 B.C. and 2030-3475 B.C. A choice between these alternatives was made on the basis of comparison with a series of thermoluminescence dates for the same site, as well as by comparison with the largely similar sequence at the Parmana site on the other side of the river. Although these comparisons favored the younger series, the excavators hesitated to reject altogether dates obtained elsewhere for ceramics in the third or even fourth millennium B.C. By suggesting the possibility of an early and extended ceramic horizon in the lowlands that was unrelated to either the Orinocan Saladoid or Barrancoid traditions, these workers presented an implicit challenge to the Steward model of the origin and dissemination of tropical forest culture. No alternative model has been forthcoming so far.

While the indigenizing of archaeology remains problematic in the context of chronic underdevelopment (professional training, development of museums, libraries, laboratories, publications, etc.), continued dependence on North American paradigms seems likely to accompany the science well into the coming century. Meanwhile an important development has been the establishment of the massive Iwokrama Rain Forest Programme in 1990 with international funding.

Denis Williams is at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, in Georgetown, Guyana.


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