Published On: October 14, 2013

Brazil Cave Art Alters Theory of Earliest Civilizations

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A new exhibit in Brazil showcases artifacts dating as far back as 30,000 years ago — completely altering the commonly held theory that humans first crossed to the Americas from Asia 12,000 years ago.

The 100 items on display in Brasília, including cave paintings and ceramic art, depict animals, ceremonies, hunting expeditions — and even scenes from the sex lives of this ancient group of early Americans.

The artifacts come from the Serra da Capivara National Park in the northeastern state of Piauí, on the border of the Amazon and Atlantic Forests, which attracted hunter-gatherer civilizations.

Serra da Capivara National Park

Since the 1970s, the French-Brazilian archaeologist Niede Guidon has headed a mission to carry out large-scale excavation of Piauí’s interior. “It’s difficult to think there exists a site anywhere with a higher concentration of cave art,” the 80-year-old Guidon said.

Other traces of the civilization include charcoal remains of structured fires, explained Guidon, who is from São Paulo. “To date, these are the oldest traces of human existence in the Americas”, she emphasized.

A widely held theory known as the “Clovis model” has suggested human beings only reached the Americas 12,000 years ago from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska. The cave paintings at Serra da Capivara critically challenge that theory, and will force scientists to rewrite the history books. If human beings arrived as early as 30,000 years ago in North, Central, and South America, a new set of questions must be answered: Where did they come from? Was it Africa, Asia, Australia? What did they look like? How did they get here? Could they have arrived from Africa by boat?

Serra da Capivara Cave Art

Guidon believes the ‘Serra dwellers’ may have come originally from Africa, and she says the cave art provides compelling evidence of early human activity. The paintings are estimated to date back about 29,000 years. “When it began in Europe and Africa, it did here too.”

Other sites, including Valsequillo in Mexico and Monte Verde in Chile, also indicate the presence of communities tens of thousands of years ago. These sites have led archeologists to speculate that ancient people traveled various routes to reach the Americas and at different stages of pre-history.

UNESCO conferred World Heritage status on the Serra da Capivara in 1991, but few tourists have visited the caves, which frustrates Guidon. “After putting in a great amount of effort to promote the site, we are up to 20,000 visitors a year,” the archeologist said. “But World Heritage sites get millions of visitors, and we are prepared to receive millions,” she added.

Serra da Capivara Cave Art

The interior of the Piauí region is marked by widespread poverty, which has much to gain from tourism, Guidon stressed. However, resources are lacking to promote the cave site in a remote corner of Brazil. The nearest city is the small town of São Raimundo Nonato, which has spent years trying to have an airport built.

The European Union is promoting both the new exhibit as well as a group of conferences on the area with the help of UNESCO, Brazil’s Institute of Parks, and the Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage. 

The foundation behind research into the park is also promoting development projects — including a ceramics factory that reproduces images of the cave art, a program aimed at giving local women work experience. “We would like to help in the economic development of a region where women suffer from domestic violence,” says Guidon.

Serra da Capivara Cave Art

“The idea is to promote cultural, historic, and nature-based tourism in order to aid the development of areas adjoining Brazil’s major parks — and especially the Serra da Capivara, which has the most modern infrastructure,” and 172 sites to visit, said Jerome Poussielgue, European Union cooperation and development officer for Brazil.

The Serra da Capivara National Park bears exceptional testimony to one of the oldest populations to inhabit South America. It constitutes and preserves the largest ensemble of archaeological sites, and the oldest examples of rock art in the Americas. Moreover, the iconography of the paintings provides information about the region’s earliest inhabitants.

Over 300 archaeological sites have been found within the park, the majority consisting of rock and wall paintings dating from 50,000-30,000 years ago.

On October 16, 2013, a conference took place in Brasília in honor of the cave art exhibition. The conference was coordinated by professor Gisele Daltrini Felice, researcher and member of the Consultative Council of the Foundation Museu do Homem Americano (FUMDHAM) in Piauí, and professor at the Federal University of Vale de São Francisco (UNIVASF). The Archaeologists Adriana Soares and Tânia de Castro Santana also participated in the presentation. 





[This article appeared on the website of Agence France-Presse and was edited by CIE. On March 28, 2014, The New York Times published its own article on this important discovery. The Times article is entitled, “Discoveries Challenge Beliefs on Humans’ Arrival in the Americas.”]


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