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Peopling of South America Volume 49 Number 4, July/August 1996
by Jessica E. Saraceni and Adriana Franco de Sá

A cave in the Amazon River basin near the town of Monte Alegre in northern Brazil has yielded evidence that people migrating from North to South America some 11,000 years ago did not settle exclusively in the Andes as previously believed. The new thinking suggests either that Paleoindians branched east into the tropics or that a separate migration of people was involved. Anna C. Roosevelt, of Chicago's Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago, excavated Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Cave of the Painted Rock), discovering stone spear points, other tools, and charred plant and animal remains from the lowest levels of the cave, carbon dated and thermoluminescense dated to ca. 11,000 years ago. These finds indicate that the cave's earliest visitors foraged for plant foods and hunted small game common to tropical areas.

The most widely accepted theory of the peopling of South America suggests that over a period of 3,000 years Paleoindians left Asia, crossed the Bering Strait on a land bridge that has since been submerged, then migrated through what is now the western United States and Central America into South America, settling along the Andes. Paleoindians in the Andes and those in North America had similar cultures, known as the Clovis tradition. These early hunters lived in open, temperate lands where they hunted large game with stone-pointed spears. The humid tropical forest environment of the Amazon was thought to have been too harsh for early people, and until now this area had not been investigated intensively by archaeologists.

Recognizing that some South American stone points in museum collections did not fit the Clovis tradition, Roosevelt began searching the tropics for Paleoindian sites. Her work shows that Caverna da Pedra Pintada's first visitors did indeed hunt and forage in a humid tropical environment, as documented by remains of tropical forest trees and fauna typical of closed-canopy forests. The evidence indicates that Paleoindians visited the cave regularly for 1,200 years, foraging from the rain forest and from the river, gathering fruits and seeds, such as Brazil nuts and palm seeds, from common tropical plants and trees, and hunting fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish. She has also found hundreds of drops of paint and lumps of pigment that date the cave's wall paintings, now believed to be the earliest in the Americas. "We found strong evidence that a culture quite distinct from the North American Paleoindian culture, but contemporary with it, existed more than 5,000 miles to the south," says Roosevelt. "Paleoindians traveled far and adapted to a diverse range of habitats. The existence of distinct cultures east of the Andes suggests that North American big-game hunters were not the sole source of migration into South America."

Meanwhile Altair Sales Barbosa of the Catholic University of Goias has discovered two fossilized skeletons in a cave at Serranopolis in central Brazil, tentatively dated to 11,000 years ago. The well-preserved remains of a 25- to 30-year-old man were found in a fetal position with one hand pressed against his forehead, the other against his groin. A child's skeleton in poor condition was also recovered, along with necklaces made of human teeth and mother of pearl. Barbosa determined the age of the skeletons by carbon dating plant and animal remains found in the same strata; samples of the bones themselves have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for carbon dating. Archaeologists await Barbosa's published results. "Unless directly dated, it is still possible that these burials were deposited in a Paleoindian site at a later time," says Roosevelt.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America