Monday, 5 December 2011

Review of Betty J. Meggers‘ review of the Handbook of South American Archaeology
Betty J. Meggers has been working in Amazonian archaeology for more than 50 years. She has recently published a review of the Handbook of South American Archaeology, which is of great relevance to all of us working on the paleoecology of Amazonia during the Holocene. You can download her paper here.
The paper discusses 3 fundamental aspects of the South American archaeology: i) how contemporary Amazonian archaeologists’ interpretation of the archaeological record has been biased by the abandonment of the classical archaeological methods of pottery analysis; ii) the origin of new world pottery and iii) the relationship between environmental conditions and cultural development in Amazonia.
Classical archaeologists spent months on end drawing and analysing thousands of pieces of pottery. In the first part of her paper, Meggers explains why this meticulous work is a fundamental step in scientific archaeology: “Pottery can be decorated using an essentially unlimited number of techniques and motifs without affecting the utility of the vessel, making independent duplication of identical decoration unlikely”. Therefore, the analysis of pottery’s details and decorations allows us to distinguish diffusion (cultural aspects which are transmitted form one cultural group to another) form independent invention, where a cultural trait arises spontaneously in a given population. According to Meggers, some of the authors of the Handbook omit this important task, undermining the strength of their interpretation of archaeological records
Pottery analysis is the criteria that Meggers uses to discuss, in the second part of her paper, the origin of new world pottery. Many archaeologists that have contributed to the Handbook believe that pottery was independently invented in Amazonia. In Meggers’ view, the similitudes between Japanese Jomon pottery and the Valdivia pottery (which is the oldest pottery in America, dating 6000 BP) are too many to be the result of some form of “cultural convergence”. Moreover, she highlights that the period of Valdivia pottery coincides with a catastrophic volcanic eruption in Japan, which could have pushed groups of Japanese fishermen towards the American coasts. Hence, these Japanese fishermen would have influenced the pottery of early Americans. .
In the Handbook, Amazonia is depicted as a “manufactured landscape” or “anthropogenic cornucopia”. In the third part of her paper, Meggers assesses whether or not such descriptions of Amazonia are supported by the archaeological evidence. She shows that the evidence is actually very weak: the idea of widespread human occupation of pre-Columbian Amazonia is not supported by pollen, phytolith and charcoal analysis, which indicate that vast areas of Amazonia have never faced human disturbance; no systematic archaeological excavation has ever been performed that supports the assumption that large permanent settlements were common in Amazonia; many of the earthworks often cited in support of the “manufactured landscape” idea are concentrated in the Llanos de Moxos, which are ecologically quite different from the tropical rainforest that covers most of the Amazon basin; there is no evidence suggesting that ADE was created for intensive agriculture or to exclude that slash and burn agriculture was a common practice among pre-Columbian people.
Despite the fact that the bibliography of Meggers’ paper is not as large as it could have been, it can still serve as a good introduction to the archaeology of Amazonia for anyone who wants to get into the heart of the current debates.

Betty J. Meggers (2011). Handbook of South American Archaeology reviewed by Betty J. Meggers Revista de Antropología Chilena, 43 (1), 147-157


  1. Reviewing a review offers the advantage that even us outsiders we can understand it, good job Umberto.
    As for the volcano, i don't see why it is needed. You have earthquakes erasing Japan's coast every thousand years with M9.0, with huge tsunami waves like last March. I have the feeling that the role on migration of these events is underestimated. A camel has difficulties to survive a Tsunami if dragged into the ocean; humans have proved to survive for more than 20 days.

  2. Yes, you are right. There are several potential triggers to human migrations. And we should not exclude the most powerful of all: curiosity. I think the same force that pushed Columbus 500 years ago has been pushing many more people for millennia, far before Columbus.