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"Seated People" of the Rain Forest Volume 53 Number 3, May/June 2000
by Bernadette Arnaud

[image] The anthropomorphic funerary urns contained secondary interments--bones from bodies earlier defleshed. The statues' heads served as covers. The urns represent men and women seated on benches, which may mean that both sexes served as chiefs or shamans. (François Guenet/Eurelios)

For two hours now we have been walking through the dense forest of northern Brazil's Amapa State. Vegetation climbs to vertiginous heights and gives off an intoxicating odor of orchids and earth. In Indian file behind João, a hunter from the area, our group proceeds with difficulty, creepers and branches smacking our faces, ruts hidden in the undergrowth twisting our ankles.

João hesitates, pondering which path to follow. He looks for machete notches he's left on tree trunks during his last trip this way. But he doesn't get us lost. He remembers well the places where he saw "the seated people"--funerary urns shaped like men and women that have drawn our party from Belém, capital of the neighboring state of Para.

When Vera Guapindaia, director of the expedition, told me this past fall at an archaeology conference in Recife that three caves containing urns had been found along a tributary of the Maraca River, I made special arrangements to join her research team from Belém's Museu Goeldi. Since the nineteenth century, scholars have attributed the urns to a little-known people called the Maraca; the river bears their name. Only a handful of these fired clay statues have emerged from the jungle in the past hundred years, so João's discovery of the caves was an extraordinary event. Guapindaia had met João during previous research in the Amazon. He was aware of the urns' scientific value and alerted her soon after he found them.

We're all worried that we won't find the caves, though João assures us that, being the dry season, it won't be a problem. For the moment, the difficulty rests in our navigating two miles of a black mud lagoon, stepping from palm trunk to palm trunk, balancing like tightrope walkers. We reach the other side, walk to the edge of a clearing, and suddenly João's smiles. "That's it!" he cries. "It's right here!"

Bernadette Arnaud is a Paris correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America