diffusion and the amazing Amazonian pottery

Yuri Kuchinsky (yuku@io.org)
20 Aug 1996 19:31:02 GMT

[ Article crossposted from alt.mythology,alt.archaeology,sci.archaeology ]
[ Author was Yuri Kuchinsky ]
[ Posted on 18 Aug 1996 19:47:34 GMT ]

[John Hoopes and others in sci.archaeology asked me to give my opinion
about the work of Anna Roosevelt and how it may relate to diffusionist
theories that have been discussed here recently. It's a big and
challenging subject, so here we go...]

pottery and diffusionism.


As some readers in these newsgroups already know, I've been introduced
into this specialised area because of discussions of diffusionism,
hyperdiffusionism, the theories of Joseph Campbell, and the trans-Pacific
contacts theories. My previous interests have been more generally in the
earliest human cultures, from the points of view of both anthropology and
archaeology. (Also to be noted is my strong interest in socio-biology.)

First, about diffusionism, and specifically about the across-the-sea
diffusionism. Again, my first introduction to these theories came
from Joseph Campbell, who was their strong proponent. I have read up
on those theories since (Joseph Needham, Donald Lathrap, George F.
Carter), and I must state unequivocally that I believe that so much
evidence exists for across-the-sea diffusion, from the earliest pre-
historical times, onwards to the most recent pre-Columbian period,
that I consider these theories as proven. Separate discussions have
been going on in some of these newsgroups as regards this, and I
will not dwell on this in this article.

As far as the diffusionism proper, this is a very complex matter the
discussion of which will take us far into the arcane areas of
anthropological and psychological theory. As is well known, three
theories exist to explain the emergence in different parts of the
world of complex cultural traits that are obviously similar. Viz.
_diffusionism_, _parallelism_, and _convergence_. Myself, I tend to
diffusionism. Am I a hyper-duffusionist? (Opponents of diffusionism
are fond of labelling diffusionists as _hyper-diffusionists_, but it
is not clear if this term has anything more than rhetorical value.)
I really don't know, and neither do I care... In any case, I will
not be discussing these complex theoretical matters in this article.

What this article is about is the recent discoveries in the area of
earliest American archaeology, specifically, the work of Anna C.
Roosevelt, of the University of Illinois at Chicago (EARLY POTTERY
OF POTTERY, John Hoopes and W. Barnett, eds, Smithsonian, 1995.)
Well, to tell the truth, these discoveries are not really _that_
recent, as it turns out. So, hence, the _strange goings on_...

First, a bit of background. The field of earliest archaeology in the
Americas was until quite recently dominated by such distinguished
older researchers as Betty Meggers, Clifford Evans, and John Ford.
I think they can be broadly characterised as diffusionists. These
scholars built much of their work around the archaeological
discovery in the 50s and 60s in coastal Ecuador of a large find of
pottery, now known as Valdivia type. This was then believed to be
the most ancient pottery in the Americas (dating from about 4000
b.p. -- before present), and some connections of that pottery with
some Jomon-type Japanese ware was hypothesized. These two types of
pottery do have some similarities in decoration techniques. The
theory was proposed that some (perhaps involuntary) migrants from
Japan, i.e. shipwrecked sailors, ended up in Ecuador, and set up
some sort of a civilization there.

Further, theories were proposed about subsequent diffusion of these
cultural traits throughout the Americas from this Ecuadorian matrix.
This is connected with the theories about the Olmecs as the "mother
civilization" of the Americas -- a debate that is still ongoing. (As
is well enough known, J. Campbell was a strong supporter of these

And now, let's fast-forward up to the present. What's going on now
in the field is that those theories are being challenged most
dramatically. The publication of Anna Roosevelt is leading the
charge. What emerges from Roosevelt is rather mind-boggling. She
documents in her work the existence in the Amazon basin of the
pottery that is some _3,500 years_ EARLIER than the Ecuadorian

In fact, more than that emerges from her work. Perhaps what she
documents is something that is close to scandalous. As it turns out,
the existence of early Amazonian pottery was known to some
specialists already for more than 20 years, and yet, this work, one
perhaps can say, was _swept under the rug_ for reasons and in
circumstances that are not yet entirely clear.

Briefly, as early as 1975, some materials from the Amazon have been
excavated _and tested_ (by the Smithsonian) using radiocarbon
methods. 13 dates were obtained, all very early. (The records in the
Smithsonian are available.) And then...

These potential revolutionary dates were consigned to
obscurity without explanation. (Roosevelt, op. cit. p.

It is to be noted that something about this _was_ published in 1981,
after all. But it came out in Portuguese, and in a rather obscure
Brazilian publication (Boletim do Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi).

Nevertheless, only seven of the thirteen dates were
published in Brazil in an article by the excavator,
Mario Simoes (1981). ... six of the dates that had been
run by then, including the earliest and
stratigraphically one of the deepest dates, a charcoal
date of 5570 b.p., were withheld from publication.

It turns out that the existence of the complete set of all those
1970s tests (13 dates) in Smithsonian archives (Roosevelt gives them
in her article) was eventually discovered almost accidentally by a
Brazilian researcher Jose Brochado. Later, he made them available to

So here we go. This truly revolutionary and very important data has
been gathering dust, while people theorised about the origins of the
civilization in the Americas in the dark. Strange indeed!

More generally, what can be said about all these matters in light of
the new data about earliest American pottery? Will it discredit

As this post is already becoming longish, I will return to this
subject at a later opportunity.

All the best,


#% Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto %#
-- a webpage like any other... http://www.io.org/~yuku --

The world is governed more by appearance than by realities, so
that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as it
is to know it === Daniel Webster

#% Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto %#
-- a webpage like any other... http://www.io.org/~yuku --

Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness === W. Allen