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.