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Letter from Bahia: Diamond Rush Volume 60 Number 2, March/April 2007
by Samir S. Patel

Nineteenth-century wildcatters left their marks on Brazil's landscape.

[image]Ecologist Roy Funch hikes up the bed of a waterfall to a diamond mining camp. He has observed the diamond culture in the region since the 1970s. (Samir S. Patel)

We are walking up the bed of a gently graded waterfall in Bahia, Brazil. It is the dry season and the water--so clear and dark with tannins that it looks like strong tea--cascades through shallow pools to the left, leaving an expanse of smooth pink sandstone for us to climb. Roy Funch, a local ecologist and guide, is hunting for something he spotted from a helicopter last year, some remains of the frontier-mining culture that gave this region its name, the Chapada Diamantina, or diamond tablelands.

At the top, we push our way through some thorny scrub, rock-hop across the river, and find two rows of slabs stacked about a foot high. To me they look like suburban landscaping, but Funch--a wiry, spry American expat--explains that they are part of a double-walled canal used to pan for diamonds since the nineteenth century. The diamond miners who built this canal used it like American gold prospectors used sluices, to control the flow of water to separate out denser material that can be panned. We see, a few yards away, Brazilian-style frontier cabins made of more unmortared sandstone slabs. Cacti grow up through the blocks, and inside are the brittle remains of roofing and bedding material. The buildings haven't been occupied in a while--Funch guesses a couple of decades--but the construction style suggests they were built during the Bahia diamond rush in the 1840s, before the gold rush in California. Back then, the mountains and valleys of the 15,000-square-mile Chapada Diamantina were crawling with prospectors sifting every bit of gravel for the dull glow of a raw diamond and leaving behind such structures, which reflect the rugged, ramshackle lives of their erstwhile inhabitants.

Shelters like this one, which may have been built in the 1840s, have more recently become hangouts for misanthropes. The old woman who lived here used to chase her husband with a machete. (Samir S. Patel) [image]

"We're the first," says Funch, who resembles a Brazilian hill-town version of Leonard Nimoy, but we're not really the first to visit since the miners left. Guides often bring travelers through the Marimbus Marsh, a maze of rills between stands of papyrus and water hyacinth, to swim in the waterfall. Some of them must have stumbled across these sites. We are, however, the first to see their significance as symbols of the inflection point between living culture and archaeology.

Funch is admittedly an amateur archaeologist, but he's the only one paying these sites any mind--he takes photos and GPS readings at each one. "It's always nice to add a couple of new houses to my collection," he says, which numbers over 100. But frontier-mining sites are studied by archaeologists all over the world, and those investigations might guide a study of the Chapada Diamantina: who lived there; how they survived, communicated, and altered the landscape; and how successful they were in seeking their fortunes.

Samir S. Patel is associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America