Monday, December 10, 2012

A flaring rim vessel

This is an illustration of a flaring rim, based on reconstructions carried out in 2003 and 2004 while working at the Museo Yacuma. The provenience code "sj-394" refers to a shovel test probe (a small test excavation) at the modern ranch of San Juan (on the southern bank of the lower Iruyañez River). The shovel test was located in the middle of a dense scatter of ceramics, and all of the rim sherds that were recovered from that small probe are arranged into a histogram of rim radii. If you double the radius to make a diameter, then this vessel was about 40 centimeters across. The notes also indicate that it was painted on the upper surface (which would have been easily visible to a user, perhaps someone eating or drinking from the vessel. I used a feature in Adobe Illustrator to try and quickly turn rim profiles into approximations of vessel shape, by rotating the rim profile around an imaginary point at the appropriate distance.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ichapekene Piesta Moxos

The heritage and culture of the people of the Beni has been recognized by UNESCO, as the Ichapekene Piesta Moxos was inscribed yesterday on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is a great honor for San Ignacio de Moxos, for indigenous people in the Beni, and for all the people of Bolivia. UNESCO's list contains all kinds of fascinating heritage from all over the world. The Fiesta of San Ignacio is more than three hundred years old, and brings together indigenous culture, Baroque music, costumes and dance into a month long party every year. Make sure to see the photographs (click on the tab) and the video. You can also download the documentation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finding Black Earth

This project, presented by Crystal McMichael of the Florida Institute of Technology and reported on by Nadia Drake for Wired magazine, uses satellite data to try and tease out the difference between vegetation growing on terra preta (black earth or Amazonian Dark Earth) and other soils. Because black earth is so strongly associated with archaeological sites, this research could allow the vegetation signature (defined by how the trees and plants reflect energy to the EO-1 satellite) to be used to find cultural remains, at a continental scale. When this kind of satellite imagery is combined with field survey (called ground truthing) then the reliability of the imagery is tested, and the survey results can be used to address larger questions.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fine line painted pottery

This is a "raw" photo showing twelve different rim sherds from along the Iruyañez River. This is a style of pottery that seems to be associated with a site called San Juan, which we dated through radiocarbon dates to the mid-first millennium AD. The distinctive feature is the broad flared rim with the repeating fine lines painted on it. There are a few locations along the Iruyañez (including near the San Juan site) where large scatters of these kinds of sherds are present on the surface. Sometimes we can even see faint incised lines cutting across the parallel zigs and zags of the painted lines, almost as though to guide the painting process.  The artifacts are of course all in the Museo Yacuma.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Another book written on a large scale

Debt is another book that takes aim at a very large topic: the economic history of the world over the past several thousand years. David Graeber's book has been reviewed in many places, including here, here and here, as well as here. I know that I am many years behind on blogging and social media, but I do find it fascinating to read academic debates online. I think that it's an excellent and thought provoking book, and for my part I will say that I have been studying and thinking about the Conquest of Mexico for a long time, but had never seriously considered the idea that Cortez had big debts, and that this motivation might be important to the history of the New World.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New book about almost everything

The Creation of Inequality is the new book from Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, archaeologists at the University of Michigan, and well-known in the field both for their research and for their engaging writing style. The book has been reviewed here, here and here, and it will surely get more attention, because of the authors and the publisher, but also because the book engages questions about the origins of contemporary society in the archaeological past, but also taking archaeological interpretations of the past and using them to re-imagine society today. It's the kind of archaeological book that should get attention outside of the narrow field of archaeology.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Traveling priests and big parties

Here is another revealing quote from a Spanish priest in Mojos, this time directly from a letter written by Zapata, describing how the missionaries interacted with Mojeños:

Habiendo quitado las borracheras de estos indios, que la hacián por paga de los que les ayudaban á carpir sus chacras y haces sus casas, se han conmutado en darles de comer; y así viene el indio á avisar al Padre que le han carpido su chacra ó hecho su casa sus parientes, y se les da medio novillo ó más para que festeje á los suyos y les dé de comer y no haíga borrachera. Y esto lo tengo yo notablemente observado.... pues, fuera de pecado común, hacían otros de vengarse los sentimientos en las borracheras, y había muchas muertes entre ellos; pero esto hace mucho tiempo que no se usa, y ellos han conocideo que es mejor comer á costa agena que no dar beber á la suya, y á nosotros nos está más á cuento de esa suerte y evitar tanto pecado junto. (Zapata 1906:27-28*)

Having kept these Indians from their drunken parties, which were payments to those who helped them clear their fields and build their houses, I have changed them by giving them food to eat. And thus, the Indian comes to tell the priest that his relatives have helped him clear his field or build his house, and the priest gives him half of a young bull or more so that he may celebrate with his relatives, and feed them, and not have a drunken party. I have observed this kind of party.... Outside of the ordinary sin, they have committed other sins in order to take their revenge at these drunken parties, and there are many deaths among them. This hasn't happened in a long time, and they have learned that it is better to eat at another's expense, than to drink at one's own. This is lucky for us, to avoid so many sins at once (translation by the author).

Although we don't have a lot of ethnohistoric evidence, what we do have does yield some insight about how Mojeños organized themselves for agricultural labor.

* Zapata, A. 1906 [1693] Carta del Padre Agustín Zapata al Padre Joseph Buendía, en la que da noticias del Paititi. In Juicio de límites entre el Perú y Bolivia, edited by V. M. Maurtua, pp. 24-28. Imprenta de Henrich y Comp., Barcelona.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Excavating a fish

It's not some kind of Lovecraft-inspired horror, although it was dug up from out of the ground. It is a buchere, or armored catfish, which turned up in excavations in 2011. We actually found two of the fish in one of our excavations, and another one scampering along in the woods. Buchere survive the dry season in Mojos by looking for mud puddles, and they can "walk" on their fins to find another damp spot. Because we were excavating in the ring ditch at Estancita Island, the location was just right for a buchere to spend the winter. Even a small difference in elevation changes the drainage pattern, and therefore the habits of plants and animals.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Clark Erickson's Publications

Clark Erickson's list of publications is a chronicle of more than three decades of research in South America, much of it in the Llanos de Mojos. Full disclosure: he was my PhD advisor at the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to have a tremendous influence on how I research, write and teach. He has consistently advocated the position that in order to understand people who live in the Amazon, that anthropologists have to be directly and persistently engaged with them. From that long list of publications, I would single out this one on the bottom-up perspective, and this one reviewing landscapes in Mojos.

Update: I was a little embarrassed that I had not posted about Clark until now, but then I figure out that linked to his homepage in a previous post. So now I am a little embarrassed for forgetting. I will try to figure out how to get the search function to work better on this blog.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The US and the Amazon compared

This map shows the Amazon River system in comparison with the continental United States. The area drained by the Amazonian rivers is almost exactly the same, about 7,000,000 square kilometers. The rivers highlighted in red are the ones that drain eastern Bolivia: the Beni, the Mamoré and the Guaporé/Itenez, which then are a large part of the Madeira River system, which then links to the Amazon itself. All by itself, the Madeira River moves more water than the Mississippi.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mission Culture

David Block's Mission Culture on the Upper Amazon is the definitive account of Mission history in Mojos. The book was published in 1994 by the University of Nebraska Press, which makes it hard to find in print. On Barnes and Noble they have copies, starting at $224.48. Fortunately, the book is also available here on the Cornell eCommons, which certainly reflects well on Cornell University and their library. You can download the entire book in PDF format.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movima Linguistics and Katharina Haude

Katharina Haude is a linguist associated with the Documentation of Endangered Languages project from Germany. She is part of a new generation of linguistic scholars who are describing and analyzing the array of mutually unintelligible languages of eastern Bolivia and Southwestern Brazil. Among other specialties, she has written the definitive account of the Movima language. The area made up of Mojos and the part of Brazil just to the northeast, across the Itenez or Guaporé River, is unsurpassed in language diversity. Only the interior of New Guinea has the same number of distinct languages in a small area. Haude and others are conducting excellent research, and the first linguistic research of any kind in the area in decades.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Floodwater data

Here is an image of flooding in eastern Bolivia from the Dartmouth Flood Observatory, which is under the direction of Dr. G. Robert Brakenridge, [that's a pdf of his Curriculum Vitae] at the University of Colorado. The Observatory uses satellite imagery to automatically search for and document anomalous surface water across the entire earth, on a daily basis. A wide range of data products are available for free from the site, including maps of individual flood events from around the world, and records from measuring stations along rivers, including the Amazon. GIS has really brought a huge amount of data within reach of researchers in many fields, because GIS software can easily be run on a laptop computer, and so much more data is now available. More precise information on flooding is important to understanding how raised field farmers in Mojos lived with these annual cycles.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tropical barn

This photo was taken by Jaime Bocchietti at the Monterey ranch, a few kilometers north of Santa Ana. The ranch is located on a triangular piece of high ground sticking out into the Quinato Swamp, a larger permanent wetland that was created by a river many thousands of years ago, before the river changed course and moved on. The horses (or perhaps more properly ponies) behind me are taking a break after carrying the visiting archaeologists for about a half-hour. Under the thatched roof is a small room for storing saddles, bridles and other horsey things. The open space alongside has several inviting hammocks. For those who are interested in horses and styles of riding, I have always been told that these are saddled in the Spanish style. with a belt around the girth of the horse, on top of the saddle. Cowboys can attach lassos and ropes to that metal loop on the side of horse, in order to pull and move cows. In the English style, the horn of the saddle is the point at which the lasso or the rope is attached.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Words from 1695

…y habiendo entrado en un pueblo muy grande, puesto en forma, con plaza y calles, halló á toda la gente de él junto á la puerta de un templo dedicado al demonio, á quien actualmente estaban ofreciendo sacrificios, puestos sus dioses todos en la puerta del templo, vestidos muy curiosamente de plumas, con unas mantas vistosas, todas labradas….y delante de ellos muchos cuartos de carne de ciervos, venados, conejos y avestruces puestos en sus palanganas, con una hoguera de fuego el medio, que continuamente arden de dia y de noche, y todo el pueblo alrededor del sacrificio. (Eguiluz and Torres S. 1884:35-36)
…and entering a large, well-formed town, with a plaza and streets, he discovered all of the people together at the door of a temple dedicated to the Devil, to whom they were offering sacrifices, placing all of their gods in the doorway of the temple, curiously dressed with feathers, with colorful garments, entirely worked….Ahead of these were many quarters of meat from deer, brocket deer, rabbit and rhea, placed in their platters,  with a bonfire in the middle, which burns continually, day and night, and all of the people were gathered around the sacrifice [my translation, from my 1999 dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania].

This quote is from one of the early Jesuit accounts of travels in Mojos. In this particular case, the priest (a man named Zapata) traveled along the Mamoré and Iruyañez Rivers, to the north of Santa Ana. Interpreting historical records like this is an important part of Amazonian archaeology, and Amazonian studies in general.

* Eguiluz, D. and E. Torres S. 1884 [1695] Historia de la misión de Mojos en la República de Bolivia. Imprenta del Universo de C. Prince, Lima.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Google Maps Update

View Larger Map

Google Maps, which is an inside-the-browser way to access satellite imagery and other geographic data, now has terrain data build into their maps. You do have to select for that option (in the upper right corner of the map), and when you look in the Bolivian Amazon there is not a lot to look at, but there are some interesting comparisons that you can make. In this map you can see the town of Santa Ana del Yacuma, and if you grab and drag, you can move to the north and "travel" along the Yacuma River. The relief in eastern Bolivia is very slight, but the differences in elevation make a big difference in hydrology.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Heiko Prümers, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

After posting about Umberto Lombardo's blog yesterday, I realize that there are many researchers and websites that need to be mentioned. Heiko Prümers, of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, has conducted excavations in Eastern Bolivia for many years, in some of the large mounds near Trinidad, and also in some of the large ring ditches in northeastern Mojos. His projects are well published, in great detail with very high production values. This photograph is taken from this page, and the caption reads: Abb. 6. Grabungsflächen am Fundort "Granja del Padre" (BV-2), or Surface excavations at the "Granja del Padre" site (BV-2) [copyright DAI]

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Up and Down in Moxos

Umberto Lombardo is a postdoc at the Institute of Geography - Bern University, and he has a fantastic blog called Up and Down in Moxos, where he posts about the archaeology of Moxos, providing a lot of detail on the geographic background to that archaeological record. The blog has links to a wide variety of scientific journals and papers, as well as other blogs relevant to Amazonian environments. One of the themes that I am in complete agreement with is that we need more communication and collaboration between scholars who are trained in different disciplines, like geographers, archaeologists and anthropologists.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Excavating at Estancita

Thanks to Jorge Garcia, who took this photograph while working in Bolivia this summer, we have an image of excavations at Estancita Island, just north of the Yacuma River near Santa Ana del Yacuma. Two students from the University of Central Florida joined two students from the University of San Andres in La Paz (including Mary Luz Choque Azapa, in the far left corner of the excavation. You can also see two archaeological technicians (Jose Pedro Rossell Rivero and Juan Pablo Avaroa Rossell) who have worked with us for two years. The excavation was under the woods, about 100 meters outside of a circular ring ditch. The excavation contained a layer of occupation debris and established that people were living here on a permanent basis, perhaps 1500 years ago, or even longer.

Friday, November 2, 2012

It seems unlikely

A new movie set in the Peruvian Amazon is apparently in "pre-production," according to the online movie database IMDB. If stories like this one describe how the producers of the movie will interact with people living in a small town in the Peruvian Amazon, it seems unlikely that the movie is going to present anything other than a reflection of previously held ideas about people in the Amazon, rather than anything having to do with people in the Amazon. But what do you think?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Franz Keller Leuzinger

 Without loss of time, then, one of them, having carefully fashioned a strong loop of raw hide at the end of a long pole, and having dexterously slipped off his bast shirt, creeps slowly through the shallow water, pole and sling in hand, as near as possible to the alligator, which looks on at these preparations with perfect apathy, only now and then betraying a sign of life by a lazy movement of of its powerful tail. But it does not take its eyes off the Indian as he crawls nearer and nearer. The fatal sling is at arm's length from its muzzle, and yet it does not see it. As if under the influence of witchcraft, it continues to stare with its large protruding eyes at the bold hunter, who in the next moment has thrown the loop over its head, and suddenly drawn it to with a strong pull. The other Indians, who the while have been cowering motionless on shore, now rush into the water to the help of their companion, and four or five of them land the ugly creature that with all its might struggles to get back into the water, lashing the sand with its tail and showing its long teeth; but a few vigorous blows with an axe on the tail and skull soon render it tame enough....I never thought of sending a rifle-bullet through the thick skull of one, except on one occasion, when I was afraid that one of our Canichanas was about to make too close an acquaintance with the hard, jagged tail of an extraordinarily strong monster, which measured full 16 1/2 feet.

This quote is from page 90 of "Amazon and Madeira Rivers: Sketches and Descriptions from the Note-Book of an Explorer" by Franz Keller Leuzinger, published in 1875, and describes hunting caimans on the Madeira River, into which the rivers of the Llanos de Mojos flow. The book was once almost impossible to find, but was first reprinted by the Cornell University Library Digital Collections, and then posted as an open access document. It's one of the best 19th century accounts of the upper Madeira river, including Mojos, and it is illustrated with astounding woodcuts.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

El Museo Etnoarqueológico "Kenneth Lee"

The Museo Etnoarqueológico "Kenneth Lee" in Trinidad, Beni, Bolivia, matches its subject matter with innovative and well-executed architecture. The Museum contains replicas of artificial mounds and experimental raised fields, along with more conventional displays of archaeological material and interpretive text and images. Kenneth ("El Gringo") Lee was one of the founders of archaeological studies in Mojos, and with Denevan, he helped spread the word about the vast pre-Columbian landscapes of raised fields in Eastern Bolivia. After his death, he is now remembered by a large community of scholars and interested laypersons in Trinidad.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Maned Wolf

I have never been able to photograph the Maned Wolf myself, but I have been fortunate to see the animal twice in the time I have spent in eastern Bolivia. The first was early in the morning from the back of a pickup truck, as we headed down the road between San Ignacio and San Borja, on our way to gather our crew and begin excavations, in 1995. The second was again in the morning, walking on a cattle trail along the Iruyañez River in 1997. That time, as we approached from the east and the wolf approached from the east, the mane of the animal did produce a confusing visual effect, and at first it seemed like a horse approaching. But when it saw us, it quickly took to its heels. Maned wolves hunt at night, and so are not commonly seen. They are listed as Near Threatened on the Arkive website.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Experimental Archaeology in the kitchen

Grater plates (or ralladores) are wide flat dishes crossed by deep grooves, sometimes wide and deep enough for your finger. In 2003 I had a conversation with a colleague who works in the Near East, and they opined that a grater made from clay would probably not work as a processor for foods. So later that year in Santa Ana we gave it a try, using two grater plates to turn several kinds of vegetables into pulpy mush: corn, cassava, carrots, beets, and several others. Georgina Bocchietti of the Museo Yacuma (wow! check out their new front page) is grating, I am taking notes, and two of Georgina's grand-nieces and nephews look on. Of course, this doesn't prove that pre-Columbian Mojeños used ralladores for processing cassava (for example), but it does establish that they could have. Soon we hope to answer the question more directly by analyzing the residue left behind on ralladores and other ceramics, to see what kind of foods might have been prepared.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Wide Urban World

Michael Smith is an archaeologist at the Arizona State University School of Human Evolution and Social Change. He has been blogging for a long time, which is a bit of an inspiration. His Wide Urban World blog has a lot of great material, including this post about the connection between the archaeological study of raised field farming in the Titicaca Basin (both Peru and Bolivia) and the possibility of farming that way today. That post highlights the work of Clark Erickson, which has come up before on this blog. The archaeological study of cities might at first seem like a bit of a reach for the Amazon, or for the study of intensive agriculture, but many scholars have focused on links between the "urban" and the "rural," in societies around the world.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ring villages by Wüst and Barreto

Wüst and Barreto 1999:16
This map shows an example of a ring village from Southern Brazil, described by Irmhild Wüst and Christiana Barreto, in an article in Latin American Antiquity *. Many of the earthworks are about 100 to 200 yards across, and several dozen of them are described and mapped. In the article they call on Amazonian archaeologists to investigate the distribution of this kind of occupation across the Amazon, the role such rings might have played in the pre-Columbian past, and their relationship to the ethnographic record. Many archaeologists have taken up this challenge, both in Brazil and Bolivia. As the rainforest is cleared, more and more of these landscape features become visible from satellite imagery. 

[*(Wüst, Irmheld and Cristiana Barreto, 1999, The Ring Villages of Central Brazil: A Challenge for Amazonian Archaeology, Latin American Antiquity 10(1):3-23)]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Squeezing manioc

The collections of the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois include several of these mysterious artifacts, called tipiti. They are long tubes of basketry, with a strongly woven loop at one end. Manioc (also known as cassava) is grated into a wet pulp, and then placed into the tipiti. When the tube is attached to a sturdy structure (like the beam of a house, or a tree), a pole or branch can be attached to the bottom, and when pressure is applied (by standing on the pole), liquid is squeezed out of the pulp. This liquid contains hyrdocyanic or prussic acid. The processed manioc is then ready to be made into flour. An fine photo essay from the Smithsonian can be found here. Processing manioc with the tipiti is a basic domestic task in many parts of the Amazon, although it is not common in Mojos. On a side note, the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois has a long and distinguished history of Amazonian and Andean archaeology and cultural anthropology.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Turismo en Santa Ana del Yacuma

This sculpture sits on top of a pedestal on the circumvalación of Santa Ana, on the eastern side of town, as I recall. It depicts the leader of a cattle drive, using a trumpet made from the horn of a cow to rally his cowboys. The photo comes from the municipal government's tourism department, which has a large Spanish language website, with local music, photographs, and information about restaurants, hotels, parks, and pharmacies. Although it can still be challenging to get to there during the wet season, Santa Ana has a lot to offer, especially during the fiesta, which is celebrated on the 26th of July. The town was founded in 1708 as a Jesuit Mission.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Although it is not a work of art, this photo shows clearly the relationship between Santa Ana del Yacuma and the annual floodwaters. The circumvalación, or dike, is maked by the curving road that runs from the top of the picture down to the left. The boats that have pulled up to the shore are river barges, from the Yacuma River, about a mile away. Depending on the year, these boats can put in at the town itself for several months, transporting cattle and other cargo, as well as passengers. Just off the photograph to the left is some of the highest ground in Santa Ana. The road to the right leads to the Bolivian Navy Base. Despite being a landlocked country, Bolivia has a proud naval tradition, because of it's 19th century history.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Off to Boston

The blog will be on a brief hiatus this weekend, as I head out to the Northeast Conference on Andean and Amazonian Archaeology and Ethnohistory, at Boston University. One of the reasons this is such a fun conference is that it is not so huge as many academic conferences, so that it is possible to find and talk to the people you are interested in meeting. It's a great chance for a student to hear papers about the latest research, and to interact with professors outside of the classroom. The Northeast meetings are where I gave my first professional paper  in 1992 at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shipibo ainbo chomo

Please follow this link to see an intricately decorated vessel was made by a Shipibo potter, from the Upper Amazon in Peru. It is part of the National Museum of the American Indian's Infinity of Nations exhibition, which is now on tour in New York. As described by Peter Roe of the University of Delaware, the designs on the outside of the vessel represent Shipibo ideas about how the universe is patterned. This ceramic tradition is many thousands of years old, and significant continuities persist between the archaeologically recovered ceramics of the Peruvian Amazon, and the pottery produced by Shipibo potters today.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

1491, by Charles Mann

Charles Mann's 1491 is a very readable and wide ranging introduction to many of the big issues raised by archaeological research in the New World. And it begins with the example of eastern Bolivia. Mann spent time with Clark Erickson, seeing firsthand the extent and complexity of the pre-Columbian earthworks in the Llanos de Mojos. He wrote a cover article for the Atlantic magazine, and then developed it into a full-length book. This is a new way of looking at one of the most important moments in modern history, and 1491 deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the archaeology, history, geography, and modern societies of the Americas.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Baroque music

The Jesuit missionaries who came to the interior of South America late in the 17th century were determined to create a new kind of society in the New World, based on different principles. One of the most powerful expressions of those ideas is the Baroque musical tradition, which flourished as indigenous children learned how to play the music of Bach and other composers on instruments which were also made in the missions. The Jesuits were expelled from the missions in 1767, but the musical tradition continued, and is now experiencing a revival. Although the Chiquitos missions to the south are better known in this regard, the Mojos missions had a musical tradition as well. This radio report comes from National Public Radio.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ambling anteater

This Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) is shown here wandering across a swampy bit of grassland next to a seasonal creek. The photo was taken on July 10, 2008, in the afternoon on our way back to town. My friend Jaime Bocchietti thought that the reason the animal was not so easily alarmed as I got closer to take a picture with my point-and-shoot camera, was that I was wearing a motorcycle helmet, and so therefore perhaps I didn't look like much of a threat. He also thought that, as I wandered farther and farther from the safety of the motorcycle, that it might not be such a good idea to let the gringo interact with the wildlife on quite such an intimate basis. About ten seconds after this photo was taken, the anteater noticed me and dashed off back across the swamp in the direction he came from.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

UNESCO and San Ignacio de Moxos

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, will hold a meeting in Paris this December. Included on the agenda is the consideration of thirty-six nomination files, each of which supports the petition of an "element" of intangible cultural heritage. The UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage is truly amazing in its beauty and diversity, drawing from peoples around the world. One of this years files is in support of Ichapekene Piesta, the biggest festival of San Ignacio de Moxos. The festival of San Ignacio is a spectacular display of music and dancing, costumes and artistry that is more than 300 years old. San Ignacio was one of the first places I visited in Bolivia, when I worked with Clark Erickson in 1992. My full disclosure is that I was asked to be on the team of scholars who prepared this file (and I said yes). I very much hope that the intangible heritage of the Ichapekene Piesta is recognized in this international venue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Traduciendo a castellano...

Espero que este "post" va a explicar por que no estoy escribiendo en español. Aun que he apredido todo mi español viviendo en el oriente de Bolivia, mi abilidad escribir facilmente y rapidamente no esta muy desarollado. Por esta razón, estoy escribiendo en inglés. Pero, hay una cosita (o cosinga, como pueden decir en Santa Ana) que puede ser útil; al lado derecho de esta ventana, hay un botón diciendo "translate" o "traducir." Ojala si viene alguien quien no quiere leer Amazon Walker en ingles, por lo menos pueden obtener una traducción con este servicio. De lo que he visto, parece que funciona mas o menos bien. Pero que piensas? Gracias por venir.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Avatar in the Amazon

In 2010, Public Radio International ran this story about Avatar, the blockbuster science fiction movie, and the Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The movie seems to make statements about the relationship between humans and nature, the extraction of natural resources, and indigenous peoples, all set on an vividly presented imaginary future world. One of the many reasons why this video clip is so interesting is that it presents several perspectives on the movie from the present day, but from indigenous people in the Amazon, whose opinions on Hollywood movies with $280 million dollar budgets are not often given much attention. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Open access satellite imagery

This image, brought to you by Google Earth, and the SPOT satellite, shows a typical scene in eastern Bolivia, but from a few thousand feed in the air. Flowing from the bottom right corner off towards the center of the image is the Iruyañez River. IThe dark green areas are the flooded forests that line the Iruyañez and other small rivers. The grid layout of Santa Ana del Yacuma is in the upper right corner of the image, in the background. A white road runs along the river (on the north side) following the high ground and connecting Santa Ana with a series of ranches and small villages. In the foreground are many more lightly colored lines or rectangles. These are large raised fields, which are several hundred yards long, about 20 yards wide, and perhaps 2 or 3 feet tall. The extent of these agricultural fields illustrates the difference between pre-Columbian times and the present day, when this same land is used much less intensively, as cattle pasturage.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Denevan's Book

If you are interested in the archaeology, ethnohistory, or geography of the Bolivian Amazon, then there really is no replacement for William Denevan's The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia. It's not easy to find a copy for sale, but many university libraries have a copy of the book. It is a clear, well-written summary of everything that was known about the topic in 1966, and it is still indispensable. Although George Plafker and Kenneth Lee were also part of the same historical moment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was Denevan who brought the earthworks of the Llanos de Mojos to a wider English speaking audience.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A horse called "Relámpago"

Here is a valiant old horse, "Relámpago," who served as my field vehicle from the fall of 1996 through 1997. His name (which means "lightning") was a bit of a joke, because he was a very slow, even tempered horse, just right for someone like me who obviously had no idea how to ride. We rode both to survey agricultural fields and forest islands, and also to get back and forth between Santa Ana and our study area, a trip of about 12 hours on horseback. In the background, the different colors of grass indicate the outlines of pre-Columbian agricultural fields. The slight rise (in this case about a foot or two) causes some grasses to grow more readily on the higher, drier ground. The small lumps that can be seen on the ground both to the left in the foreground and on fields in the background are anthills and termite mounds. The colors in the photo are a bit off because a long time passed between when the film was exposed and when it was developed. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

River Dolphin law

Several news sources this morning (including the BBC, Fox News, and allvoices) are reporting the story that a new law protecting river dolphins has been signed in Bolivia, by president Evo Morales. River dolphins are smaller, with longer snouts than saltwater dolphins, with a gray to pink color, and they are often seen at the confluence of smaller rivers in the Llanos de Mojos. This photograph was taken by Jorge Garcia along the Yacuma River, and shows a dolphin rising to the surface near the thick vegetation that lines the riverbank. River dolphins figure prominently in Amazonian folklore, often as seducers of women.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Not everyone loves the Amazon

This clip is from the end of a documentary called Burden of Dreams, which in turn is about the filming of another movie, Fitzcarraldo. The project of making Fitzcarraldo was an amazing logistical struggle, and in many ways it was quite unlikely that the film would ever make it to the screen. Herzog’s films and the analysis of them is part of a long tradition in western art and thought, in which the Amazon and The Jungle occupy important places in how westerners think about themselves and about how they relate to nature, and to other groups of people.  Thanks to Peter Stahl and Manuel Arroyo-Kalin for pointing this clip out to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Finding research on Google Scholar

If you are trying to find out more about Amazonia or Amazonian archaeology, one of the best ways you can quickly find a lot of published information, and at the same time screen out a lot of less useful information, is to use Google Scholar. Entering keywords, including the names of authors, or of books or articles, brings up a list of scholarly sources that are relevant to the terms you selected. You can even follow individual authors and keep up to date on what they have published. It's much like any other search engine, but it only scans the scholarly literature. If you are connected to a university library, then you will have access to many of those books and articles with just one more click. Usually you have to be a student or on the faculty to have that access, but not always.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Bat Dish?

The Penn Museum has a fantastic, searchable online collection of objects, including 4134 that correspond to the keyword “Amazonia.” This one is a dish from Marajó Island, and is dated by the Museum to 1000-1500 AD. Marajoara culture is one of the best known archaeological cultures of South America, and is particularly well known for elaborate ceramic art. The piece was also featured in a 2011 exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. In the book accompanying that exhibition, the curators suggest that the figure on the bottom of the vessel represents a bat. Marajó pottery is known for elaborate and stylized representations of people and animals.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Schultes, Plowman and Davis

One River by Wade Davis combines the story of Richard Evan Schultes, the great pioneer of ethnobotany, with the story of Davis and his colleague Timothy Plowman, a generation later (that last link is behind a paywall). The book is a great introduction to the Amazon, but also to the scientific study of plants with the help of the indigenous peoples who use them everyday. The systems of knowledge used to classify and combine a huge variety of plants in the Amazon contain a tremendous amount of information, but that information is not necessarily organized and deployed in the same way that it has been in a biological understanding of plant life.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Making a whisk

In this image, Adalberto Rapu Lucu is making a whisk broom, using a wooden mallet. His raw material is the stalk that connects a cluster of fruits to a motacú palm (Attalea phalerata). These whisk brooms are very useful when floodwaters are rising or falling, to ward off swarms of biting insects. Behind him is a wattle-and-daub house, and the skin of an ox hanging under the roof. The picture was probably taken during March or April of 1997. Originally taken on Kodachrome film on a Pentax K-1000 camera, it was scanned and processed several years later. Adalberto worked with me as a guide and field technician from 1996 through 1997.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tsimane health

Freelance journalist JeanFriedman-Rudovsky has an excellent story out in the New York Times about medical research on the Tsimane, a group of people who live in the Bolivian Amazon. They have been participants in The Tsimane Health and Life History Project since 2002, and the results of that work are building a foundation of information not just for indigenous Amazonian people, but for comparisons with populations around the world. A key aspect to this story is how Tsimane people benefit from improved medical care, while at the same time anthropological and medical studies move forward. The Tsimane live in the southwestern part of Mojos, many near the town of San Borja.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From Florida to the Amazon

The Roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja) is a beautiful bird that ranges from Florida to the south even as far as the Bolivian Amazon. It mixes with all kinds of other wading birds (egrets for example) in large flocks. Oftentimes raptors such as the Crested Caracara or the Snail Kite are nearby, watching the grasslands for snakes, frogs, and other prey. These photographs and the online database that organizes them are from BirdWalker. Full disclosure: my brother and sister-in-law, Bill Walker and Mary Wisnewski, are the eyes and brains behind BirdWalker. The photos are from around the United States, but I hope to lure them to Bolivia (with their camera) someday soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From the Museum

Moleadores are fired clay artifacts that are found in many locations around the Llanos de Mojos, in the Bolivian Amazon. They are roughly 20 cm long, 10 cm wide, and often show signs of having been worn down on two sides (rarely on three). They are particularly common along the Apere River, to the west of the Mamoré River. They might have been used for grinding some kind of food. It is perhaps less likely that they were used for pounding, since many are worn in comparison to how many are found broken. They often have patterns of lines incised into the surface, incisions which are worn off through use. Ethnographic accounts speak of clay supports for cooking pots, and it is possible that moleadores were used for this, although they rarely show any sign of having been repeatedly burned. This example is from the collections of the Museo Yacuma, in Santa Ana del Yacuma.

Monday, September 24, 2012

From the library

The Upper Amazon by Donald Lathrap is now more than 40 years old, but is still an interesting read, and presents a vision of the archaeology of South America and the Amazon Basin which is still unfamiliar to many outside of American archaeology. The book is often compared with Amazonia, by Betty Meggers. Lathrap argued forcefully for the importance of the Amazon as a setting for cultural innovation, while Meggers argued that the achievement of pre-Columbian Amazonians was in how they adapted to the rigors of this “counterfeit paradise.” The conflict between these two ideas would shape Amazonian archaeology for decades, and comparing the two contemporaneous books (they were published in 1970 and 1971) is a great way to access that argument.

Friday, September 21, 2012

About the photograph

The photograph at the top of the page was taken on June 30, 2008, at 4:12 in the afternoon, while crossing the Quinato swamp, near Santa Ana del Yacuma, Bolivia. After a day of motorcycle travel and conversation with the residents of Miraflores, a small community on the edge of the wetland, my colleague Jaime Bocchietti and I headed back to where our motorcycle was parked. We still had at least a one hour ride to get back to town after getting back on the motorcycle, so I certainly had one eye on my watch to make sure that we would arrive before dark. The swamp holds water year-round, even through the dry season, which is very pronounced in Eastern Bolivia. The “shores” of the well defined swamp are lined with islands of forest, as well as drier grasslands. The forests are full of ceramics and earthworks, indicating that they were occupied in pre-Columbian times, and the grasslands are marked by raised fields, the remains of intensive agriculture. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

For more reprints, please see my page at For academics, especially graduate students, is a good place to get access to reprints, look up other scholars, and learn more about other disciplines.