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M a nioc a g ric ulture a nd se d e ntism in Ama zonia : the Up p e r Xing u

e xa mp le .( Sp e c ia l Se c tion: Issue s in Bra zilia n Arc ha e olog y)

by Michael J. Heckenberger
The subsistence agricultural basis of the development of sedentism among ethnic groups in the
Amazonian region is a subject of much debate and contentions. The issue cannot be resolved
because prehistoric diet has not been reconstructed to a degree that will allow researchers to
speculate on agricultural crops. Nevertheless, there are ethnographic and archaeological
evidences pointing to prehistoric sedentary populations in the Upper Xingu region.
C O PYRIG HT 1998 Antiq uity Pub lic a tions, Ltd .
Agricultural productivity and Amazonian settlement
The nature of Pre-Columbian agricultural systems in
Amazonia has stimulated considerable debate,
specifically: can one or another cultigen - maize or manioc
- provide a stable agricultural base for sedentism and
population growth (e.g. Cameiro 1961; 1986; Gross 1975;
Meggers 1996; Roosevelt 1980)? Certain ecological
factors are generally seen to limit production and
intensification of those subsistence resources that can
support sedentary or densely distributed populations. Low
agricultural productivity, characteristic of many Amazonian
soils, and the generally low density and patchy distribution
of terrestrial game are commonly cited as limiting factors
(Gross 1975; 1983; Johnson 1982; Meggers 1954; 1996;
Ross 1978; Sponsel 1989). It has become accepted that
the highly restricted varzea regions, primarily the floodplain
settings of the major white-water rivers (the Amazon and
its Andean-derived tributaries), did not impose these
environmental constraints on demographic or economic
growth due to their fertile soils and higher concentrations
of rich aquatic resources (e.g. Brochado 1984; 1989;
Cameiro 1986; 1995; Denevan 1996; Lathrap 1968; 1970;
1987; Lathrap et al. 1985; Meggers 1996; Moran 1993;
Roosevelt 1980; 1989; 1994).
In areas away from the varzea, the broadly-defined terra
firme, the model of environmental limitation still has wide
currency: [u]nder extensive management systems, the
increased labour time cost of subsistence production
provides a strong incentive for groups to keep their
settlement density low and move about frequently (520
year intervals) (Gross 1983: 429). Many scholars, in fact,
feel the incentive was so great as effectively to have
prevented the development of large, permanent villages in
upland areas characterized by low-fertility soils (e.g.
Brochado 1989; Brochado & Lathrap 1982; Gross 1975;
Meggets 1996; Roosevelt 1980; 1991; 1994). Certainly
local ecology differentially constrains cultural development
in Amazonia, but we adequately understand neither the
parameters of ecological variability nor of cultural
adjustments to it. The limits imposed on human
populations by Amazonian nutrient cycles turn out to be
substantially higher than analysis of contemporary
societies might lead us to believe (e.g. Balee 1989; 1995;
Beckerman 1979; Denevan 1992; Dufour 1994; 1995);
manioc agriculture, even on low-fertility soils
(utisols/oxisols), when combined with ample aquatic
resources can provide a stable economic foundation for
densely settled, fixed populations (see, especially,
Cameiro 1957; 1961; 1986; 1995; Denevan 1996; Lathrap
et al. 1985).
Heated debate continues over the subsistence base of
Amazonian societies, particularly with respect to:
* the staple crops of the densely populated varzea
societies [manioc, maize, or some similar seed-crop) and
* whether large, sedentary societies could develop
elsewhere in the region; if so, did this also depend on
staple foods other than manioc?
Debate is deadlocked because reconstruction of
prehistoric diet remains largely speculative; most models
are derived not from detailed analysis of an actual
prehistoric pattern, but instead projected from
ethnographic and human ecological patterns of
contemporary groups. Those few studies which use
archaeological data are often preliminary and depend
almost exclusively on one or a few well-documented
examples. Expanding interpretations from specific
archaeological examples to broad regional patterns
therefore depends on gross, and often unwarranted,
generalizations regarding contemporary populations.
In the present discussion, ethnographic and archaeological
evidence are reviewed which demonstrate:
* large, densely populated, and fully sedentary populations
did exist in one non-varzea setting (the Upper Xingu)
* these populations relied primarily on bitter manioc and
fish, as do their ethnographically known descendants; and
* increased productivity of these staple foods using an
existing technology, and not technological innovation,
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provided the economic foundation for populous, sedentary
social formations.
The Upper Xingu (Mate Grosso, Brazil), one of the
southernmost extensions of the hyleian forests of
Amazonia, is presently home to diverse cultural groups,
speaking Arawak, Carib, Tupian, and other languages.
Most Upper Xingu communities are part of a distinctive
Xinguano regional cultural pattern, established in the
region over a thousand years ago. Since initial recorded
contacts in the late 1800s, the Xinguanos have been
extensively studied ethnographically. Most important, for
the present discussion, are Robert Carneiros (e.g. 1957;
1961; 1983) studies of Xinguano (Kuikuru) settlement
patterns and subsistence, particularly manioc agriculture;
these studies were the first to challenge the environmental
limitations theory by empirically refuting the assumption of
low agricultural productivity for Amazonian soils. Carneire
(1983: 103) concludes that in the past:
The Kuikuru and their neighbors probably had bigger
villages, stronger chiefs, mobilized labor on a larger scale,
and perhaps even had social classes. If manioc cultivation
did not create this culture, it at least provided the economic
foundation on which it could be reared.
Carneiros ethnographic interpretations have met with
mixed feelings (see Descola 1996; Gross 1975; Roosevelt
1980), but there is no a priori ecological reason to doubt
them (Beckerman 1979: 535). Preliminary archaeological
investigations conducted in the 1950s by Carneire and
Gertrude Dole (1961-2) documented earthworks in the
Upper Xingu clearly related to large, settled villages; due
to misinterpretation of these as natural features by several
professional archaeologists who later worked in the region
(Knoip 1969; Simoes 1967), the significance of the sites
has seldom been considered in critiques of Carneiros
reconstructions. New archaeological evidence, based on
recent investigations by the author (summarized in
Heckenberger 1996), supports and elaborates Carneiros
conclusions regarding village size and the productivity of
Xinguano subsistence patterns, especially manioc
Villages and village life in diachronic perspective
The cultural sequence in the Upper Xingu, as presently
known, extends from c. AD 900 until the present. Within
this sequence, cultural continuity is demonstrable based
on conservatism within three fundamental, and
archaeologically visible, aspects of Xinguano culture:
* ceramic technology;
* village spatial organization; and
* settlement location within the Upper Xingu basin.(1)
The earliest occupations (c. AD 900-1500) apparently
relate to colonization of the Upper Xingu by Arawakan
groups from the west; they represent the ancestral
foundation of contemporary Xinguano culture. Over the
past 500 or more years, various distinctive groups moved
into the basin; many came to share this basic Xinguano
cultural pattern (Heckenberger 1996; 1997). Beyond
demonstration of cultural continuity, these resilient features
of regional cultural patterns provide the basis to
reconstruct changes in regional demography, economic
organization, and the scale and productivity of agriculture.
Continuity in local ceramic industries and land-use
patterns demonstrate that the basic economic orientation,
based primarily on terra firme agriculture and exploitation
of diverse aquatic resources, characterized communities
throughout the sequence. Dramatic changes have
occurred during the c. 1000-year Xinguano occupation,
most obvious when we consider the size and regional
distribution of contemporaneous settlements.
Contemporary villages are formed by a ring of houses
around a large circular plaza. Plazas range from roughly
100 to 250 m in diameter; typically between 50 and 350
people occupy a village. Plaza villages are situated in
selected areas which provide access to diverse ecological
settings, notably the upland forests and major waterways
(and associated bottomland); these favoured locations
become focal points for long-term permanent occupations
ideal Xinguano settlement pattern involves permanent
occupation and long-term transformation of these choice
areas, in an ideal of sedentism that permeates every
aspect of village life. Unlike many Amazonian societies,
particularly those which emphasize mobility (seasonal or
permanent) and hunting, Xinguanos prefer a large,
well-maintained and permanent (beautiful) village,
depend on the continued exploitation of diverse habitats
around these villages, and delight in the camaraderie and
sociability provided by stable and well-developed patterns
of trade and interaction. Settled village life not only reflects
itself in village spatial organization, subsistence economics
and socio-political relations, but also permeates ritual life,
with pronounced intra- and inter-village ceremonialism,
and the personalities of villages.
The picture provided from archaeology demonstrates that
in the past Xinguanos were also sedentary manioc farmers
and fisher-people; and it documents that their settled
tropical-forest life-way was not held in demographic (or
evolutionary) stasis by ecological limitations. Manioc
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agriculture, in combination with the rich aquatic resources
of the Upper Xingu, provided the economic foundation for
substantially larger village populations and regional
population aggregates, as Carneiro predicted.
Archaeological investigations conducted by the author at
various sites in the Upper Xingu basin were concentrated
in the territory (some 625 sq. km) currently occupied by
one contemporary Kuikuru (Carib-speaking Xinguano)
village. The Kuikuru - or Carib groups ancestral to the
contemporary Kuikuru - have occupied villages in one or
another part of this territory for at least the past c. 500
years. Considerable fieldwork was conducted at two sites
in Kuikuru territory, Nokugu (MT-FX-06) and Kuhikugu
The obvious difference between contemporary villages
and prehistoric sites is scale: prehistoric villages are
immense by comparison. Contemporary Xinguano villages
are commonly situated within or adjacent to ancient
settlements. Some 2.5 km west of the present-day Kuikuru
village - the largest historically-known Xinguano village in
area V, roughly 275 m in diameter, and in population some
320 people - lies the prehistoric site of Nokugu. At Nokugu,
a vast area of over 40 ha and extending over a kilometre
along the Anahuku (Buriti) River is covered by
archaeological remains [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3
OMITTED]. At first glance, one would think that the
archaeological distributions resulted from the type of
clustered occupations typical of contemporary settlement
patterns. Upon thorough exploration, one sees that the
entire site area of Nokugu is covered by ceramic sherds
and by various artificial earthen constructions. Systematic
mapping of these features, made possible by opening
parallel linear corridors (5 m wide) through a wide array of
vegetation, reveals that the earthworks articulate into an
elaborate structural plan. A similar pattern can be
reconstructed for the even larger site of Kuhikugu (some
50 ha in area], where the Kuikuru lived from the mid 1800s
and at several other sites in the Kuikuru study area
(MT-FX-13, 17, 18, and - perhaps - others).
Mapped in their full extent, the substantial earthworks,
apparently constructed more or less contemporaneously
across the region in the 14th century, provide a ready plan
for archaeologists of late prehistoric settlement
organization. Their intentional construction according to an
integrated architectural plan is unmistakable. More
structurally elaborated than in contemporary villages, this
plan nonetheless reflects the same underlying concentric
model of spatial organization; domestic areas gravitate
toward a central plaza(s) with spoke-like radial causeways.
Late prehistoric communities, unlike their ethnographic
descendants, constructed huge barriers around their
settlements. At Nokugu and Kuhikugu, and other sites in
the Upper Xingu,(4) the most prominent earthworks are
large, semicircular ditches at the outer margin of the
domestic occupation area and, at Nokugu, also within the
village area. These ditches reach a depth of 3-4 m,
including the ridge of excavation overburden heaped on
the inside berm; the village peripheral ditches often extend
over 2 km. Linear ridges, roughly 0.5-2 m high, at the
edges of central plazas and intra-village causeways also
are prominent features in the integrated architectural plan.
A primary function of this plan was almost certainly
defence, although these features undoubtedly had
important aesthetic, symbolic and, perhaps, economic
The layout of prehistoric villages or the earthworks
themselves is of less interest here than what they say
about village size and permanence. The scale of the
earthworks shows that the communities which built them
had every intention of staying put; whether or not the
villages had been abandoned and reoccupied during the
centuries preceding earthwork construction (c. AD
900-1000 to AD 1400). Peripheral ditches define the
boundaries of these ancient villages since virtually all
cultural remains (e.g. ceramics) are confined within the
ditches. The distribution of domestic ceramics throughout
areas within the peripheral ditch(es) demonstrates that
these roughly define the boundaries of residential
occupation, although occupation was apparently denser in
areas closer to the central plazas. The lack of
anthropogenic black earth (terra preta) or subsurface
ceramics in most areas closer to the peripheral ditch(es)
indicates that these areas were occupied late in time,
suggesting population nucleation concomitant with ditch
Although we cannot estimate village populations precisely,
the physical scale of the sites and their associated
earthworks indicates substantially larger populations than
in historically known villages. The contemporary Kuikuru
village, about 0.06 sq. km or 6.0 ha, is about one-eighth
the size of the average of Nokugu and Kuhikugu, 0.45; the village had a population of about 320 in 1994.
This figure multiplied by eight would give a population
estimate of about 2500 people. The within-village Kuikuru
population density of about 53 persons per hectare
multiplied by the Nokugu-Kuhikugu average of 45 ha gives
a similar figure, 2385 people (see Agostinho 1993:277 for
even higher estimates).
These estimates of village population based strictly on
village area are conjectural. Nonetheless, we can conclude
that late prehistoric villages, more than 10 times the area
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of most historically-known villages, had higher populations;
particularly considering that the plaza constitutes well over
half of the entire village area in the Kuikuru village (roughly
5 ha) and considerably less in late prehistoric villages. The
substantial earthworks, and the aboveground structures
(e.g. palisades, fences, bridges, traps) which likely
accompanied them, would have demanded a large labour
force, likely much larger than could be mounted today. I
would guess that village population at sites like Nokugu,
Kuhikugu and others likely exceeded 1000-1500 people,
and may have ranged considerably higher.
Xinguano subsistence economy
Clearly village and regional populations were substantially
higher in late prehistoric times. Likewise, it is clear that
these populations were fully sedentary. The question
remains, how did these large population aggregates
support themselves? Contemporary populations combine
manioc farming in terrafirme areas with aquatic food
foraging, and there is compelling reason to believe that
prehistoric populations depended on the same staple
foods. Contemporary Xinguano subsistence patterns, like
most ethnographic Amazonian populations, show a great
diversity in the foraged and produced resources;
nevertheless, bitter manioc and fish together constitute
90-95% of the diet (Carneiro 1994).
Subsistence practices
Cultivated plants make up some 85% of the Xinguano diet,
the vast majority from some 46 varieties of bitter manioc
(Manihot esculenta sp.) (Carneiro 1983; 1994: 207).
Numerous other domesticates, including maize (Zea
mays), sweet potatoes (Ipomoea bataras), hot peppers
(Capsicum sp.), pineapple (Ananas comosus), squash
(Cucerbita maxima), peanuts (Arachis hypogaea), banana
(Musa paradisiaca) and recently introduced non-native
cultigens, are grown. Among non-food domesticates,
Xinguanos cultivate gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), cotton
(Gossypium barbadense), tobacco (Nicotiana sp.), and
uructi (Bixa orellana). Palm fruits, including buriti (Mauritia
flexuosa) and macatiba (Acrocomia sclerocarpa), as well
as piqui (Caryocar brasiliense) and other fruits, e.g. goiriba
(Psidium guajava), caju (Anacardium occidentale) and
mangaba (Hancornia speciosa), are also consumed
(Carneiro 1978). Some, notably piqui and macauba, are
considered semi-domesticates since they occur in areas
of past habitation sites, but do not generally occur
naturally. Salt is manufactured from the ashes of water
hyacinth (aguape) and from burned tree termite nests.
Buriti palm, which grows in low-ground wet areas, is of
primary importance not only for its fruits; its leaves and
stalks are used for myriad purposes (e.g. cordage, mats,
seats, skirts, internal house walls, occasionally house
thatch). Sape grass (Imperata sp.), a colonizer of disturbed
ground, is also of singular importance as house thatch.
The house frame is constructed using select forest trees
(Carneiro 1978). Innumerable other wild plants are used
for industrial purposes, medicines and other purposes.
Second to agriculture in terms of subsistence activities and
dietary importance is fishing. Fish, including over 50
exploited species, provide about 10-15% of the diet, the
primary source of animal protein (see Camelto 1957; 1994:
207). Traditional Xinguano technology, which includes
various traps, weirs, nets, poison, bow and arrow, and
lances, can exploit virtually all the diverse fishing areas -
small streams and rivers, major rivers, and standing
bodies of water ranging from small mud-holes to
expansive and deep lakes (Basso 1973: 37-9; Carneiro
1957: 126-31). In recent times, hook-and-line fishing, a
western introduction, has become important.
Other forms of animal protein include: wasp larvae, sauva
ants, several species of grasshoppers (sometimes taken in
large quantities), turtles (Podocnesis sp.) and their eggs,
one type of monkey (Cebus sp.) and several species of
birds, including jacu (guan) and curassow (Cracidae), and
one or two smaller species. Monkeys and birds are
especially sought during times when dietary restrictions
preclude the consumption of fish (see Carneiro 1957:
By and large, Xinguanos (especially Carib and Arawak
groups) have strong restrictions against the consumption
of red meat from the abundant terrestrial animals
(including tapir, peccary, deer, sloth, paca, capyvara, coati,
agouti, armadillo, tortoise) (Basso 1973; Carneiro 1957;
Carvalho 1951; Gregor 1977). Restrictions also apply to
some aquatic animals, notably cayman and very large fish.
Dietary restrictions (taboos) vary slightly from village to
village depending on location and, especially, ethnic
Manioc processing and ceramic continuity
Manioc is processed and cooked through a sophisticated
process that is, by and large, unique to the Upper Xingu. In
brief summary, manioc processing proceeds through the
following general steps:
* tubers are collected from gardens and brought to the
* tubers are peeled (traditionally using a shell);
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* peeled tubers are grated using a wooden grater (inagi);
* grated pulp is rinsed through a mat strainer (tuafi) over a
large vessel separating the pulp into a fine fraction (which
passes through the strainer) and a heavy fraction (which
does not pass through the strainer and is removed and
dried as a clump called timbuku);
* the water from the straining is removed and boiled for
several hours to remove toxins and produce a thick
beverage called kuigiko.
* the fine fraction is removed in sections and dried;
* the dried sections are ground into flour (kuiginu); timbuku
is also sometimes ground into flour but only if the kuiginu
runs out.
(For detailed descriptions of manioc processing see
Carneiro 1983: 96-9; Dole 1978.)
Manioc processing, technically sophisticated and
standardized, is functionally linked to a very specific set of
utensils and cookware. Contemporary Xinguano
communities recognize three primary ceramic forms which,
although historically manufactured almost entirely by the
Arawakan-speaking Waura, are found in every household
throughout the Upper Xingu. The forms include:
* large to medium, flaring-rim vessels (averaging 45-70 cm
in mouth diameter), which are used to process and cook
* medium to small, everted- or direct-rim cooking vessels
(averaging 20-45 cm in mouth diameter), which are used
primarily to cook fish; and
* flat or shallow griddles (averaging 35-55 cm in mouth
Native communities likewise recognize these as the
primary ceramic forms. The Kuikuru (Carib-speaking
Xinguano) classify these three principal forms as ahukugu,
atangi and alato; the Waura likewise recognize these
primary forms, called kamalupi, makula and heshe,
respectively. Size and rim form are the primary
characteristics the Kuikuru use to distinguish between ah
ukugu and atangi forms. These forms have specific
functions in contemporary villages, namely processing and
cooking of manioc (ahukugu and alato) and fish (atangi),
although any ceramic vessel can serve a variety of
ancillary functions; of note, ahukugu forms are also used
to cook piqui fruits during harvesting season (late October
through early December), and a variant was traditionally
used to carry and store water (see Galvao 1953: 49).
These core elements of the Xinguano ceramic industry
are virtually identical in prehistoric and in contemporary
ceramic assemblages; the primary ethnographic forms
correspond exactly to the principal forms in prehistoric
assemblages, notably including:
* the large to medium cooking pots, identical to ahukugu
forms (designated here as Type 1A) [ILLUSTRATION FOR
* the medium to small (atangi-like) cooking pots, with
everted (Type 1B) and direct (Type 1C) rims; and
* manioc griddles.
Of all vessels identified from the prehistoric ceramic
assemblage (n = 688 forms), Type I vessels dominate with
584 forms, 85%. Of the Type 1 forms, the 363 Type 1A
vessels constitute 62% (53% of the total inventory of typed
vessels; with 209 definite forms from Mt-Fx-06 and 154
forms from Mt-Fx-11), and the 206 Type lB and 1C vessels
35% (30% of the total inventory; with 136 forms from
Mt-Fx-06 and 70 forms from Mt-Fx-11). Griddles constitute
about 6% of the total assemblage, and roughly 8% of the
total number of typed vessels correspond to forms other
than ah ukugu, atangi or alato forms. Continuity with
contemporary ceramic industries can be demonstrated
also in ceramic manufacture: paddle/anvil (slab/clump)
manufacturing technique, the preponderance of cauixi
temper (sometimes mixed with other inclusions, including
burned tree bark (caraipe), grog, charcoal and grit],
techniques of surface treatment (exterior red slip, interior
black pigment), burnishing and smoothing, and decoration
(rim incising, punctuation and rim adorno applique). Small
quartz burnishing stones and clay manufacture clumps
recovered in excavated prehistoric deposits likewise
resemble modern examples and provide further evidence
of ceramic continuity.
We can assume that the economic functions related to
these ceramics correspond to similar functions in
prehistoric communities and, like form, manufacture and
decoration, ceramic use-wear patterns on Type 1A
ceramic vessels correlate well between the prehistoric and
the contemporary ceramic assemblages. The two most
informative wear patterns are:
* significant erosion on the inside rim and vessel interior,
likely due to the processing or cooking of bitter manioc
notable for its acidic toxins; and,
* wide notches worn into the rim lips of large ahukugu
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forms resulting from the cross-bars placed over the pots to
process manioc.
Functional continuity, obvious in the manioc-processing
ceramics (ahukugu or Type 1A forms and griddles), can
also be suggested for the fish-processing ceramics (atangi
or Type lB and 1C forms). Although the introduction of
aluminium and plastic vessels has resulted in the
near-total replacement of ceramics for water-carrying,
storage and some food-processing activities, cooking of
manioc and fish continues to be conducted almost
exclusively in ceramic vessels due to their functional
Sufficient archaeological data demonstrates that bitter
manioc was the staple food of prehistoric Xinguanos by
three lines of evidence. There is demonstrable continuity in
ceramic ware associated with manioc processing. Except
for seasonal piqui and infrequent sweet potato processing,
plant products are generally not processed or cooked in
ceramic vessels; although maize fiat cakes are rarely
cooked on griddles, for example, maize is roasted over an
open fire and ground into flour in large wooden mortars.
Secondly, as widely recognized (see Roosevelt
1980:79-93 for a summary), the generally low fertility of
unaltered Amazonian upland soils (e.g. oxisols/utisols)
makes them unsuitable for the cultivation of many crops
(notably maize and other seed crops). Finally, the use of
terra firme (non-inundated) forest settings near prehistoric
sites, provides the means to evaluate prehistoric manioc
The limits of Xinguano subsistence productivity
Xinguano communities, like most Amerindian peoples,
exist in intricate anthropogenic landscapes formed in the
natural environment by the long-term occupation of
specific ecological settings (Posey & Balee 1989).
Settlements are, and have been in the past, located at the
interface of terra firme forest (providing flat, dry forest land
for manioc gardens) with rivers, lakes and even small
streams (providing areas for fishing, fresh water and
transportation). As localized areas experience
concentrated long-term occupations, the already mosaic
regional ecology becomes even more patchy; specific
locales - chosen because they meet select hydrological,
topographic and vegetational criteria and are therefore
naturally good habitation locations - become even more
attractive for human habitation. Pronounced anthropogenic
alternation of the environment concentrates both natural
and symbolic resources in these special places
(Heckenberger 1998). Over time, intimate familiarity with
these concentrated resources induces continually greater
commitment to place. This pronounced commitment to and
alteration of specific places relates to a general Xinguano
ethos of sedentism characteristic of both past and present
communities (described above), but prehistoric villages
were much larger, more permanent and elaborated, and
transformed local ecology far more than contemporary
villages. This raises important historical questions, most
notably for the present discussion: what are the productive
limits of a subsistence technology based on manioc
farming and fishing?
Late prehistoric settlements being substantially larger than
contemporary villages -and more numerous - necessitates
that overall production must have been considerably
higher. This does not necessitate, however, that individual
families produced more than present-day Xinguanos, that
production was more communally based, or that the
primary subsistence technology was radically different.
Economic intensification involved increased productivity of
the primary food sources, manioc and fish, rather than
innovations in technology or the introduction of exotic
cultigens. Increased agricultural productivity could have
been achieved either by more extensive (more gardens) or
more intensive farming (greater productivity per unit area).
Likewise, aquatic foraging could have been practised more
extensively or more intensively through management
systems (e.g. turtle pens). Overall increases in productivity
quite likely involved all of the above to some degree, as
well as greater reliance on resources other than manioc or
aquatic fauna.
Carneiro (e.g. 1957; 1961; 1983) has shown how
agricultural productivity within a domestic mode of
production similar to today could be increased far beyond
historically-known levels - more extensive agriculture. He
also provides ethnographic documentation that manioc is,
in fact, produced, processed and stored in great quantities
during the dry season (Carneiro 1983). Contemporary
manioc gardens (kwigi anda) are opened in areas of
primary or secondary forests, used for 2-5 years, after
which the plot usually stands fallow for about 10-30 years.
Manioc gardens are well tended during their use, and often
substantial barricades are constructed to keep peccaries
out. Fallow periods do not represent complete
abandonment, but alteration with a long-term cycle.
Gardens are often managed through continued reburning
to produce sape grass for house thatch, or as groves of
piqui trees, planted while the plot is still producing manioc.
Gardens not managed after abandonment quickly return to
scrub forest (after 10-30 years) and high forest (50-70)
years; it is these secondary forest stands, and not primary
forest, which are usually cleared for new gardens, only
rarely being opened in primary or virgin forest (itsuni)
(Carneiro 1983). So, Upper Xingu communities do not
abandon their gardens at all, although the crops
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(domesticated or not) planted or managed in them change
over time in a long-term pattern of cyclical rotation.
Long-term alteration of local vegetation, clearly
documented in aerial photographs, demonstrates that
agricultural areas around prehistoric villages were far more
extensive than those associated with contemporary
OMITTED]. It is also clear that these areas were used
much more intensively than today, as well. Forest
alteration related to historic occupations has a low impact
on local forest cover and more closely corresponds to the
general Amazonian (ethnographic) model of extensive
swidden agriculture - discrete clearings in the forest that,
as Carneiro (1983) noted, return to high forest in less than
a century. In contrast, the prehistoric agricultural areas,
like the prehistoric village areas themselves, have still not
returned to high forest after centuries of disuse and show a
patchy or mosaic regrowth. Although difficult to evaluate
precisely, prehistoric manioc farmers undoubtedly used
their garden areas far more intensively than the pattern of
short-cropping followed by long fallows or abandonment
characteristic today (see also Denevan 1992).
In a subsistence economy based on manioc and fish, what
was the nutritional status of the Upper Xingu diet? As
suggested by Dufour (1995: 160), manioc may not be
quite so poor a source of protein and minerals as we have
assumed, but as is true of other staple foods its nutritional
value is a function of processing. In the Upper Xingu, as in
most areas of Amazonia, the processing techniques that
remove the toxic properties of bitter manioc provide a wide
range of edible substances each with distinctive nutrient
characteristics (Carneire 1983; Dole 1978). Fine-grained
manioc flour (kuiginho) produced by contemporary
Xinguanos is more highly processed even than that
produced by most other Amazonian groups; it undoubtedly
has a nutritional status rather different from the
unprocessed raw, cooked or fermented sweet manioc from
which most studies of the nutritional status of manioc are
derived (Dufour 1994; 1995]. Nonetheless, manioc
products do not in and of themselves provide a balanced
diet and we must consider the ability to increase
harvesting of primary subsistence resources other tha
manioc. The contemporary Xinguano diet, based on
manioc and fish, maintains good health among
communities numbering in the hundreds (Dufour 1994:
164-5; Fagundes-Neto et al. 1981), but could it be
maintained among village populations numbering in the
low thousands given a technology and dietary profile like
that of contemporary Xinguanos?
With respect to the cultivation of secondary crops other
than manioc, another aspect of agricultural systems should
be addressed: the house garden (see Denevan 1992;
Lathrap 1997). House-midden black earth deposits within
villages are only minimally used by contemporary
Xinguanos for house gardens. These deposits, due to their
high fertility, support a wide variety of subsidiary crops,
many of which do not grow well in unaltered terrafirme
soils (e.g. maize). In the Kuikuru village, some backyard
house middens are only minimally cultivated, others are
mono-cropped, but most are planted with varied food and
other plants (e.g. gourds and tobacco). In prehistoric
settlements, rich black earth soils, which are far more
extensive than in contemporary villages and also include
large contiguous blocks associated with the road and
plaza marginal mounds (formed in part by repeated
dumping of domestic refuse), may have been cultivated
even more systematically and intensively by families or
larger social groups.
In contemporary villages, the primary protein source is
fish, supplemented by turtles, turtle eggs, insects (ants,
grasshoppers, wasp larvae), birds and diverse plant
products (notably palm, piqui and other fruits). The relative
quantities of Type lB and 1C ceramic vessels (fish-cooking
pots) demonstrates that fish were a primary food source
prehistorically as they are today. Many aquatic resources
could be harvested at levels far surpassing contemporary
levels using a technology essentially identical to those of
the present-day Xinguanos. Communal fishing with weirs
and traps, provides the means to harvest substantial
quantities of fish. Primary traps, utu and itaka, are placed
in weirs using a stick or pole frame with palm leaf thatch
placed between the wooden braces below the water-line.
The largest Kuikuru weir, cutting off the Anahuku River at
Ahanitahugu, was a tall (3-6 m) community-built weir
several hundred metres in length and containing over 40
conical itaka traps. During high-water fish runs, hundreds
of kilogrammes of fish could be harvested in a single day;
swimmers would also occasionally drive fish downstream
into the traps. Smaller, squat weirs with one or a few itaka
or utu traps were constructed by individuals or a related
group of men for private use. Weirs are also placed across
standing bodies of water to facilitate fishing with poison
(inte) or with a plunge basket-trap (kundu). Several
hundred kilogrammes of fish were captured for one
ceremonial payment from the shallow waters (less than i
metre) at Hialugihiti using the kundu dunk traps. Prominent
men also organize fishing expeditions by a large group of
related men, typically netting hundreds of kilogrammes of
fish and normally carried out today using commercial nets.
Little attention has been paid to issues of increasing
productivity of aquatic resources in native Amazonian
economies, especially in broadly-defined terrafirme areas
(cf. Garson 1980; Limp & Reidhead 1979); the Upper
Xingu case demonstrates the vast potential of these
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resources (Carneire 1986).
Fishing productivity varies seasonally, but alternative
nutrient sources can also be used or produced at much
higher levels than is ethnographically known (see
Beckerman 1979; Carneire 1957). Native cultivated plants
other than manioc - maize, piqui, sweet potato, peanuts,
peppers, among others - can also be collected in large
quantities; like manioc, many are storable for long periods.
Piqui is harvested in great quantity and stored as pulp
under water. Carneire (pers. comm., 1994), for instance,
witnessed over 11,000 piqui fruits collected by the Kuikuru
in preparation for an egitse ceremony the following year.
Other seasonally available foods include several varieties
of palm fruits (available in different seasons), mangaba,
turtles (sometimes kept in pens or tethered with a string
through the carapace) and turtle eggs, as well as
insects/larvae. In sum, we can conclude that in the Upper
Xingu, processed bitter manioc and fish, supplemented
with diverse wild plant and animal foods, prehistorically
provided a secure nutritional base for large, sedentary
regional populations.
For better or worse, prominent debates in Amazonian
archaeology, or more broadly, in the study of Amazonian
cultural development, revolve around the potential of one
or another agricultural economy for sedentism and
population growth (Carneire 1995). As it is acknowledged
that large, sedentary societies existed along the Amazon
(the varzea) in late prehistoric and early historic times (and
likely long before), recent debate has focused on
differences, particularly the differential productivity of soils
and aquatic resources, between this area and the rest of
Amazonia. Comparisons are often flawed, however,
insofar as they ignore prehistory and context and tend
uncritically to compare ancient occupations of the varzea
with contemporary upland occupations. Yet there are no
comprehensive early ethnohistorical or archaeological
studies which document that regional settlement patterns
were roughly similar to present-day patterns, from
anywhere in the Amazonian uplands.
Even in those few areas where well-documented
sequences of cultural development can be reconstructed,
the dietary base is uncertain. Significant archaeological
evidence exists: manioc-based systems can be inferred
from analysis of lithic artefacts, graterboard chips, and
ceramic griddles (cf. DeBoer 1975); Roosevelts (1980,
1991, 1994) arguments for maize or other seed-crop
agricultural systems in the varzea are based on analysis of
macro-botanical remains and on human bone chemistry.
But precise reconstructions of prehistoric diet are
hampered by severe problems of taphonomy, recovery
and sampling. In the Upper Xingu, for example, manioc,
which is largely processed outside houses and unburned
refuse heaped on backyard trash middens, would be
archaeologically detectable through microbotanical or soil
chemical analyses (rarely employed in the tropical
lowlands), but would likely be largely absent from
macrobotanical samples; conversely, maize (a minor crop)
would be obvious in macrobotanical analyses since ample
carbonized remains are likely produced when maize is
roasted in indoor firehearths.
Carneiros discussions of Xinguano cultivation practices
provide one of the most detailed treatments of agricultural
potential in Amazonia (e.g. 1961; 1983). He showed how
manioc production in the Upper Xingu, using a technology
essentially identical to that of contemporary communities,
could sustain large (up to 2000 according to him)
sedentary populations, but it remained to be demonstrated
that it did. Archaeological evidence, now available and
summarized here, generally substantiates Carneiros
conclusions; it refutes general models which minimalize
the potential of upland areas for intensive agriculture (e.g.
Gross 1975; Meggers 1996; Ross 1978) or that suggest
intensive agricultural systems and dense, sedentary social
formations in upland settings were narrowly restricted to
areas of high-fertility soils (e.g. Roosevelt 1991; 1994a). It
also supports the general observation, often overlooked in
discussions of protein limitations in Amazonia, that where
aquatic resources abound, fishing and other forms of
aquatic foraging generally take economic precedence over
terrestrial hunting (Beckerman 1994; Carneiro 1986;
Lathrap et al. 1985).
In the Upper Xingu, demonstrated continuity in cultural and
material life provides the means to evaluate long-term
trends through controlled historical comparison (rather
than broad general, and often uncritical, correlations or
analogies). What is clear from such comparisons is that
local populations were not held in demographic stasis by
any broadly defined ecological determinant (e.g. soil
infertility or protein limitation) or technological deficiency.
In fact, although it seems reasonable that such an
ecological imperative may have characterized some
regions of Amazonia prehistorically, this remains
adequately to be demonstrated archaeologically for any
area of Amazonia. Likewise, the present findings do not
refute models that propose fundamental transformations in
subsistence economies as the primary catalyst of
prehistoric cultural change (e.g. a purported shift in some
varzea economies from root-crop to seed-crop agricultural
systems; Roosevelt 1980; 1991; 1994). But they do cast
serious doubt on the generality of these models. Cultural
change in the Upper Xingu, at any rate, is not closely
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correlated with such transformations, but instead relates to
the consequences of other social, political or ideological
factors. The Xinguano subsistence economy remained
essentially the same through periods of profound change
in village and regional demography and socio-political
relations; in fact, in historical perspective, Xinguano
techno-economics, particularly settlement patterns and the
manioc farming/fishing subsistence economy, turn out to
be surprisingly flexible, in terms of scale and productivity,
but extremely resistant to overall transformational change.
Research in the Upper Xingu underscores the diversity of
resource management and settlement strategies among
pre-columbian (and contemporary) Amazonian
populations. A serious problem with archaeological
reconstructions (and those from ethnology and human
ecology) in the region stems from uncritical and generally
unwarranted generalizations regarding upland ecologies
and human interaction with them. The terra firme regions
represent a tremendous range of geophysical, hydrological
and biotic diversity, so variable regionally that it is
questionable whether terra firme (or varzea for that matter)
actually refers to any definable set of ecological
characteristics (Denevan 1984; Moran 1991; 1995).
Perhaps, as Carneiro (1994: 64) suggests, the Upper
Xingu represents something of a "Halfway house"
between the varzea habitats of the lower Amazon and the
terra firme habitats of the interfluves, but there is no
reason to see the Upper Xingu as an extraordinary,
singular case - i.e. the conditions for intensified production
of manioc and aquatic resource capture (and hence the
potential for large, sedentary populations) apply to other
upland areas as well. Therefore, the distinction between
varzea and terra firme is a gross oversimplification,
particularly insofar as it is seen directly to reflect
differential potential for agricultural intensification,
population growth or other related factors typically viewed
as key determinants of cultural evolution.
In short, the empirical evidence necessary for
archaeological reconstruction of generalized cultural
patterns, such as the notion of a tropical forest culture,
whether it defines riverine patterns (e.g. Lathrap 1977),
those of upland areas (e.g. Roosevelt 1980; 1991), or both
(e.g. Meggers 1996], simply does not exist. Regional
anthropological debate is therefore better served by
moving beyond overly general cultural models (i.e. prime
mover or prime inhibitor models) and oversimplified
generalizations to the development of in-depth studies of
specific regions and regional social systems, in as much
cultural and historical detail as possible, providing the
basis for more penetrating and illuminating comparisons in
the future.
Acknowledgements. Primary funding for the Upper Xingu
research was generously provided by the National Science
Foundation, Washington (grant no. DBS-9214806) and the
Social Science Research Council, New York. My special
thanks to Afukaka Kuikuru and his family, the Kuikuru
community, Aritana Yawalipiti, Robert Carneiro, Bruna
Franchetto, Sandra Wellington, James Richardson III and
James Petersen.
1 The Upper Xingu basin can be generally characterized
as a peneplain surrounded by topographically higher areas
and is largely confined to the broad area (some 40,000 sq.
km) where the principal headwater tributaries converge to
form the Xingu River proper.
2 Site designations correspond to the nationwide Brazilian
site registration system based on state, in this case Mato
Grosso (MT), and region (here referring to headwaters
(formadores) of the Xingu River (FX).
3 The Kuikuru moved to the village of Ahanitahagu,
adjacent to Nokugu, to be included in the confines of the
Xingu Indigenous Park which was established in 1961.
They moved to their present location adjacent to Lake
Ipatse, several kilometres east of Nokugu, in 1971.
4 Ditches and other works described here are known from
at least 15 sites in the Upper Xingu (Heckenberger 1996:
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