As it was in the beginning

By Nicholas Laughlin

Prehistoric Guiana, by Denis Williams
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 976-637-080-X, 471 pp)

Barabina East vessel shapes

Vessel shapes from the Barabina East excavation site, sketched by Denis Williams. Image courtesy Ian Randle Publishers

Look at a map of South America. On the continent’s north-eastern coast there is a region bounded by water: by the Atlantic Ocean, by the Amazon and its great tributary the Rio Negro, by the Orinoco, and by the anomaly known as the Rio Casiquiare, a natural canal connecting the Rio Negro and the Orinoco, breaching the watershed. This region — which some geographers call “the island of Guiana,” on account of its insulation from the rest of South America — covers an area of close to a million square miles, a third the size of Europe, and completely contains the territories of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, as well as nearly half of Venezuela and a sizeable chunk of Brazil. (Throughout this review, “Guiana” with an i refers to this entire geographical region, and “Guyana” with a y to the modern nation.) At its heart is the ancient Guyana Shield, a two-billion-year-old geological structure that rises to the heights of the Pakaraima Mountains. To the south are areas of tropical savannah, then the Amazon rainforests; to the north, swamps and mudflats run along hundreds of miles of Atlantic coast.

No part of the New World has more fascinated outsiders — from sixteenth-century explorers like Walter Raleigh, hungering after the supposed riches of El Dorado, to nineteenth-century natural historians astonished by the flora and fauna of these forests, mountains, and rivers, to today’s environmental activists. Legends abound: cities built of gold, tribes of fierce women warriors, people with faces in their chests, mysterious poisons, cannibals, deadly arrows whistling out of the dark, anacondas and piranhas, places where no man — or no white man — has ever set foot, or ever returned from alive.

The first human inhabitants may have arrived here as far back as 10,000 BC. Archaeologists both amateur and professional have been investigating the human history of the region for over two hundred years. But the political division of Guiana into five territories, and the fact that the histories of these territories have been written in five languages (English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese), have sometimes hampered consideration of the whole.

A strong indigenous archaeological tradition exists in Venezuela and Brazil — both independent nations since the nineteenth century, both equipped with cultural institutions to support the research of local archaeologists. But in what might be called the “colonial Guianas” (British Guiana and Suriname achieved independence only in the latter half of the twentieth century, and French Guiana is still a département of metropolitan France), only in the last thirty or forty years has archaeology been “indigenised,” and most fieldwork has been done by foreigners — curious colonial administrators and missionaries in the first phase, professional archaeologists from Europe or North America later on — who have conducted their investigations with the inevitable biases of their own native cultures and climates. It was only in the late 1960s that Denis Williams, the first true native Guyanese archaeologist, began his fieldwork, and only last year was his comprehensive work on the early human settlement of Guiana published.

When Denis Williams died in 1998, he left Prehistoric Guiana more or less complete, though he and his companion and colleague Jennifer Wishart had covered the manuscript with handwritten notes. Thanks to the initiative of Wishart and the financial support of the government of Guyana, anthropologist Mark Plew of Boise State University spent a year editing this bundle of papers into publishable form.

Prehistoric Guiana is the major work of the last phase of Williams’s career — a career over which he reinvented himself several times, as artist, novelist, art historian, and finally as archaeologist. Born in Georgetown in 1923, Williams spent nearly ten years studying and teaching art in Britain; in 1955 his Painting in Six Related Rhythms was runner-up to Lucian Freud’s entry in the Daily Express Young Artists’ Exhibition. From 1957 to 1967 he taught in the Sudan and in Nigeria. Here he wrote his first two novels, Other Leopards (1963) and The Third Temptation (1968), and here his interest in archaeology budded and blossomed; his research into classical West African sculpture led to the magisterial Icon and Image: A Study of Sacred and Secular Forms of African Classical Art (1974).

In 1967 Williams returned to newly independent Guyana, to “contribute to the development of his country,” as his second wife Toni Williams puts it. Living at Issano on the south bank of the Mazaruni, near the Pakaraima foothills, he began to investigate Amerindian artefacts from the vicinity. In 1974 he moved to Georgetown, eventually earning an MA from the University of Guyana and founding the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, which he directed until his death. Even in his last weeks he worked hard to complete the book containing thirty years’ research into his country’s distant past.

Prehistoric Guiana is not easy going for the non-specialist reader. Williams wrote it primarily for an audience of fellow archaeologists and anthropologists; though his prose is never unclear, it necessarily deploys squadrons of technical terms, and presupposes the reader’s familiarity with principle and method. He devotes careful consideration to questions no doubt of provocative interest to experts, but which may strike the non-expert as so narrow or so subtle as to be barely distinguishable as questions. He collects and sifts a mass of data — “archaeological, geological, ecological, ethnographic, climatic, botanical, and even nutritional” — on Guiana’s prehistoric inhabitants, and copiously illustrates his text with maps, charts, photographs, and diagrams. But there is a fascinating narrative here — a mystery story, almost — which the ordinary reader can follow (if imperfectly) with patience.

In the late 1940s, the American anthropologist Julian Steward, editor of the much-cited Handbook of South American Indians, assigned the term “tropical forest culture” to the indigenous inhabitants of Guiana and the Amazon basin. He hypothesised that these peoples originated in the circum-Caribbean area, and over the millennia spread south-eastwards along the coast of South America and into the Amazon basin.

Researchers immediately set about looking for data to test this hypothesis, and proposing alternative ideas. This question of “the origin and dissemination of Tropical Forest Culture” has become the subject of fierce, even intemperate dispute (with disagreeing parties going so far as to accuse each other of working for the CIA, or obtaining research funding under shady circumstances). At its heart, the debate concerns two related questions. Could complex cultures, defined by agriculture, technology, social systems, art, etc., have developed or thrived in the tropical lowlands of north-eastern South America? And did cultural traits spread from more developed centres in the Andean highlands to the less developed eastern lowlands, or vice versa?

Early twentieth-century archaeologists and anthropologists, struck by the absence from Guiana and the Amazon of the kinds of monuments and ruins associated, for instance, with Inca civilisation, and by the small, sometimes nomadic communities of present-day Amerindians, believed that the tropical lowland forests were incapable of supporting dense, long-term human settlements. This view was most influentially summarised by Betty Meggers — who contributes a foreword to Prehistoric Guiana — in Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (1971). She argued that the vast green expanse of the tropical rainforest is misleading; that the jungle soils are in fact shallow, acidic, and quickly leached by the heavy rain, that the ecosystem’s nutrients are mostly contained in the living vegetation, the centuries-old trees of the forest canopy; and that when land is cleared for agriculture the soil is soon exhausted. “A society with advanced social stratification and occupational division of labour cannot evolve in a tropical forest environment where agriculture is by slash-and-burn,” Meggers declared, and “should such a culture penetrate into the tropical lowlands, it will not be able to develop further or even to maintain the level it has already achieved, but will decline until it reaches the simplicity characteristic of forest tribes.”

To an observer from temperate regions, the idea that no sophisticated culture could have thrived in the tropical rainforest may seem almost obvious. The relentless, steamy heat can be debilitating; the darkness and closeness of the forest oppressive. Small hungry creatures of all sorts are constantly on the attack, and large hungry creatures are a constant threat. The term “green hell” recurs in written accounts.

But people born and bred in such an environment, who have no cooler, drier standard with which to compare it, needn’t find the rainforest hostile. And the apparent lack of evidence for large, culturally complex settlements of the kind found in the Andes can be explained. In the wet tropics things decay rapidly — the wood from which houses might be built or tools might be made, baskets, textiles, human and animal remains, even some kinds of pottery. Heavy forest cover can obscure evidence of earthworks; fluctuating water levels can obliterate settlement sites on riverbanks. Archaeologists must therefore look for other forms of evidence for human settlement, and learn new methods of interpretation.

Even when such evidence is uncovered — as it has been, at sites in Guiana and the Amazon basin, notably at Marajó Island in the mouth of the Amazon — the Meggers school argues that such settlements were founded by migrants from more culturally advanced centres in the Andes, and quickly devolved in the inhospitable forest conditions. But other researchers propose a different interpretation. In the 1980s, Anna Roosevelt re-excavated sites at Marajó, and concluded that the island had once supported a population of perhaps over one hundred thousand people for a period of a thousand years — hardly a failed offshoot of some Andean civilisation, but a complex culture, which evolved methods of intensive agriculture suited to the tropical forest. Some botanists suggested that the diversity of Amazonian flora may have been the result of human activity — that some areas of the forest were in fact ancient orchards on a scale unknown elsewhere. Soil geographers began to chart areas where soils were not poor and thin but deep and fertile; some anthropologists theorised that these terra preta (Portuguese for “black earth”) patches, covering ten per cent of the Amazon by some estimates, had been created and tended for hundreds of years by farmers. In other words, evidence of complex, large-scale settlement of the tropical lowlands had been there all along — not in the form of ruined cities, but in the landscape itself.

The debate rages on. And these theories do have real consequences. Meggers’s argument in Amazonia — that rainforest soils cannot support intensive agriculture and that clearing the natural vegetation inevitably produces a wasteland — fuelled the global campaign to save the Amazon forests. Green activists today fear that the opposing theory — that human activity has increased forest biodiversity — will encourage the opening of the Amazon to agricultural development, undermining thirty years of effort.

Less tangible but perhaps more profound is the effect on the self-image of today’s citizens of the region. For generations they have been told their way of life is primitive, their part of the world inhospitable to civilisation, their communities hardship posts. This part of the world has always been “undeveloped.” But now they are told that grand cities may once have existed here too, centres of innovation and trade; that the “green hell” of the jungle may actually be a vast garden planted by their ancestors; that they have an ancient heritage as impressive as that of the Inca, the Maya, or the Aztecs.

In Prehistoric Guiana, Denis Williams rejects “the notion of the inherent poverty of the Tropical Forest Lowlands as regards the availability of archaeological materials,” demonstrating that petroglyphs, earthworks, and pottery, patiently interpreted, can be remarkably revealing about the way of life of the people who made them. Analysing pottery sherds, he notes not merely the form and decoration of the original vessels, but also the composition of the clay and tempering materials; correlating these with the geology of Guiana, he can hypothesise trade routes and patterns of migration. He uses the evidence of petroglyphs to deduce details of social, economic, and religious traits.

The very earliest human inhabitants of western Guiana, Williams suggests, may have been attracted to the area around 9,000 to 8,000 BC by the jasper outcrops of the Pakaraimas, so suitable for the manufacture of spearheads. They then spread outwards, following the drainage pattern north to the coast, east to the Essequibo, and south to the Rio Branco and the Amazon.

By 5,000 BC, a group Williams associates with today’s Warao had settled on the north-west coast of Guiana, between the mouths of the Orinoco and the Essequibo. Excavation of surviving shell mounds suggests they were shellfishers. Early on, they established trade routes with groups in the hinterland, where rock outcrops provided raw materials for tools and beads.

Around 2,000 BC, a sustained period of low rainfall lowered river levels across the tropical lowlands and stimulated widespread migrations. Williams suggests that a group from the mouth of the Amazon reached the north-west Guiana coast, bringing with them the knowledge of pottery-making. Simultaneously, the early Arawaks began travelling from the upper Rio Negro down the Orinoco and the Amazon, bringing knowledge of manioc cultivation and preparation.

Some Arawaks of the Orinoco migration are thought to have colonised the islands of the Caribbean; others turned south-east from the Orinoco delta, where they encountered the Warao. Meanwhile, Arawaks of the Amazon migration turned north along the Rio Trombetas and crossed the watershed to the Corentyne, which they followed to the sea, then moved along the coast in both directions.

Sometime during the first millennium BC, the Karinya — today’s Caribs — settled along the upper Pomeroon River, near the north-west Guiana coast; Williams says the earliest archaeological record of their presence dates to 200 BC. From here, some groups spread south-eastwards along the coast, occupying areas not already settled by Arawaks; others, the ancestors of today’s Akawaio, spread south along the rivers into the forested Guiana hinterland and from there into the Rupununi savannahs and beyond.

Thus Williams accounts for the distribution of various cultural groups across Guiana at the end of the prehistoric period. He presents a degree of detail daunting to the non-specialist. Certain repetitions and complications are also confusing, as are a number of typographical errors — including some entirely incorrect page references. Many of the maps and illustrations are reproduced so badly or so reduced in size as to be more frustrating than useful; others are mislabelled, others seem to be missing altogether. A single chart or table summarising the cultural sequence would be enormously helpful; I found myself trying to draft my own version on the flyleaf.

What are clear are Williams’s opinions on the vexed questions of tropical forest culture. He knew the research of Betty Meggers and her colleague Clifford Evans, and of Anna Roosevelt. Meggers and Evans, he writes, “laid the foundation for all subsequent inquiry into the prehistory of the Guianas.” He agrees with them that the lowland rainforest is unfavourable to certain cultural traits. But he points out that on the West African coast the city states of the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms flourished in tropical rainforests; “there appears to be nothing inherently limiting on cultural development in the Tropical Forest environment.”

Williams is suspicious of the “Andes-to-Amazon” theory of cultural diffusion, and disagrees with Meggers’s conclusions about Marajó Island. He also seems to question the prevailing idea that for a society to be considered advanced, it must develop a complex social hierarchy; he argues that in the tropical forest lowlands “the egalitarian social structure of the typically small, self-contained settlement was evidently the most efficiently adaptive organisational stratagem.” He notes the early development of mutually beneficial “inter-ethnic coastal-hinterland” trade routes along Guiana’s rivers, and the careful balance of community labour exchange that made possible the intensive cultivation of manioc.

The available evidence now indicates that the “essential technology” of Tropical Forest Culture, including the slow development of the sociopolitical system that is required for the emergence of a full-blown manioc-based economy; development of the irrigation, water-table or slash-and-burn strategies of land use that ensure sustainability in manioc horticulture; development of the various processes of detoxifying the manioc root; . . . of the complex of trade networks that linked littoral, fluvial, rain forest and Andean groups . . . — all these represent a heritage of adaptation to one of the most complex environments ever peopled by man and certainly not a devolution from or adaptation of Circum-Caribbean culture.

In some ways, Prehistoric Guiana can tell us as much about the Guyana of today as it does about the Guiana of the remote past. During the last twenty-five years of his life, Williams was one of the most influential people in the cultural life of Guyana. He worked for the government as Director of Art, in which position he had enormous influence over the teaching of art at the University of Guyana. He founded and was first principal of the Burrowes School of Art; served as chairman of the National Trust; was instrumental in the development of the National Gallery of Art at Castellani House; all apart from his post at the Walter Roth Museum. It’s clear he saw himself as helping to script Guyana’s national story — and saw his archaeological research as filling in the earliest chapters, the prequel, as it were. In his preface to Prehistoric Guiana he writes:

in the name “Guiana” is enshrined the several mutually distinctive histories of all these [Amerindian] peoples, our spiritual ancestors. There simply is no alternative route to a national self-image.

So it’s intriguing to note the frequency with which he emphasises particular traits of the “spiritual ancestors” of today’s Guyanese. These ancient communities, he takes pains to explain, were egalitarian; their economy was based on reciprocity, tight-knit communities sharing the labour of manioc cultivation, thriving through collective effort. What better ancestry for a nation that in 1970 declared itself a co-operative republic? Williams also stresses repeatedly that different prehistoric groups lived peacefully in close contact, notably along the north-west Guiana coast, exchanging ideas and technologies, in a kind of idyllic multiculturalism. What more exemplary past for a nation struggling to contain ethnic strife, with the riots and massacres of the 1950s and 60s still fresh in memory?

Indirectly, Prehistoric Guiana also raises some important questions about the place of Amerindians in modern Guyana. To an outside observer, it’s striking how assiduously Guyana asserts the idea of an Amerindian heritage — from the cacique’s head-dress in the coat of arms to the golden arrowhead on the flag to the ecstatic prose of the tourist brochures. Guyana’s writers and artists have been especially keen to assert some kind of continuity between Amerindian culture and contemporary creativity. From A.J. Seymour’s recasting of an old folktale in “The Legend of Kaieteur” to the timehri motifs in Aubrey Williams’s paintings to the intricate allusions in Wilson Harris’s novels, an Amerindian presence haunts Guyana’s modern art and literature. This presence is usually portrayed as ancient, or timeless, with a special access to profound wisdom, a oneness with the physical world. Amerindian imagery often seems an easy shortcut to the mystical.

Above all, Guyana’s idea of its Amerindian heritage is one of permanence. It’s not hard to understand why this is attractive. “Two oceans, symbolic and real, impinge on modern Guyana,” writes Harris. “The Atlantic has tested the coastland peoples for generations. They have fought a long battle with the sea to maintain their homes. The vast interior at their back is another, equally complex, ocean that rises into a ‘sounding cliff’ or majestic waterfall within rainforest, savannah, rock, river.” Imperiled on both sides, and always struggling to keep the fragile balance between ethnic fears and ambitions, Guyana — or the cultural authorities who see themselves responsible for maintaining the story of “Guyana” — longs for a foothold of certainty, for something as solid as the rock in which the petroglyphs of five millennia ago were cut.

How this carefully tended concept of Amerindian Guyana compares with the facts of life for the Amerindians of today’s Guyana is a question beyond the scope of this review. (Though recall for a moment that as recently as last June the Amerindian residents of Moruca in Region One reported to the Ethnic Relations Commission that they were discriminated against, exploited by employers, and felt abandoned by the civil authorities. “People believe that Amerindians are at the bottom, every other race thinks they are above us and that is how it has always been,” said one elderly man.) Still, it is difficult to read Prehistoric Guiana and not feel that Denis Williams’s patient, dispassionate presentation of his data is also a passionate claim to a spiritual heritage. Whatever you think of this claim, Prehistoric Guiana is a major achievement of scholarship. I hope some of the copies now languishing on the bookshelves of Georgetown will soon find themselves readers; and that some of those readers will ask themselves hard questions about the real Amerindian presence in this enigma trying to be a nation.


The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2005

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.