Re: amazing Amazonian pottery (cont.)

Yuri Kuchinsky (
20 Aug 1996 20:09:55 GMT

pottery and diffusionism.

By Yuri Kuchinsky --

OBSCURITY, by Anna Roosevelt, in THE EMERGENCE OF POTTERY, in John Hoopes
and W. Barnett, eds, Smithsonian, 1995.]

[Part 3 that concludes this article]


And now to come back to the Amazon, and to our earliest American
pottery. In the 1st part of this article I outlined the rather
interesting interpretative situation around the Ecuadorian pottery.
The (diffusionist) school of Meggers/Evans was extremely influential
for many years. It is interesting that their main opponent seems to
have been Donald Lathrap, another diffusionist. Lathrap is an
anthropologist with a strong interest in paleo-ethno-botany -- the
study of the origins of domestication of earliest agricultural
plants. In 1977, he published a seminal work, OUR FATHER THE CAYMAN,
OUR MOTHER THE GOURD. It is included in the important volume,
ORIGINS OF AGRICULTURE, C. A. Reed, ed., Mouton (Proceedings of the
IX International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences). This volume includes many more important works about
diffusion, including the article by George C. Carter, A HYPOTHESIS

One should note that if the historians of culture can argue about
diffusionism vs. parallelism forever, without the issues being ever
resolved -- among the botanists, the leeway for disagreement is a
lot narrower. After all, a few lab tests on the plants in question
will prove which one comes from where originally, what is the
relationship of one to the other, etc. Domestication of plants is
something that can be studied with much greater precision than the
transmission of mythological motifs, or of artistic traits. This is
why the evidence from botany can be extremely important in the
matters of diffusion or non-diffusion.

As regards the earliest Amazonian cultures, Lathrap proposed the
idea of the diffusion from Africa into S. America. He bases much of
his analysis on the case of the bottle gourd, the plant that was
extremely important for earliest societies around the world.

What I will attempt is a model relating to the events
which brought _Lagenaria siceraria_ (bottle gourd) to
Ayacucho by 13,000 b.p., and to various points in
Mesoamerica by 9,000 b.p. (op. cit, p. 725)

Further, he is saying that such an introduction of this plant was
the most likely to take place in northeastern Brazil (the Amazonian

A glance at the map should be enough to convince one of
this, and Schwerin (1970) has published an excellent
discussion of the relevant winds and currents which
facilitate a crossing at this point. (ibid, p. 726)

The importance of the bottle gourd is generally little known outside
of the narrow circle of specialists. It was probably the earliest
domesticated plant ever. It was important for both its utilitarian
and its symbolic/ritual value. The earliest peoples (besides the
important symbolic use) used it for food, and also made containers
out of it. It is interesting that much of the earliest pottery was
modelled on the bottle gourd shape.

Now, to come back to the work of Anna Roosevelt on Amazonian
pottery. One clear indication from her work is that the ceramic
stage at the sites that she studied in the Amazon seems to appear on
sterile levels.

... preceramic cultures have not yet been scientifically
documented at these sites. (op. cit., p. 120)

The earliest pottery manufacturing settlers at those sites were
fisher-folk who were obviously familiar with navigation. If we take
the work of Lathrap into account, these people may well have arrived
from Africa. And Roosevelt accepts this.

Having the earliest known American pottery in tropical
lowlands at the eastern edge of South America fit
neither the Japanese fishermen theory nor the Andean
invasion theory but was consonant with independent
invention or Lathrap's African origins hypothesis. (p.

There may have been many hearths (diffusion matrices) for pottery in
S. America.

The distinctive differences in pottery from region to
region suggest that there must have been several
hearths. (p. 128)

This of course will be in parallel with the usual several hearths
for pottery in other regions of the world. So, as we can see, many
of the theories about the diffusion of Andean pottery may still be
valid -- _if_ the ancient Amazonians did not interact with the

And Roosevelt does not make the claim of knowing if the early
Amazonian pottery cultures have influenced the Andean Valdivian
pottery. Obviously a lot of work needs to be done in this area, in
tracing possible connections. For all I know, the two cultures may
not have come into any productive contact with each other. The
parallel case for this exists, clearly, in western Asia; I have
mentioned the apparent inability of the Babylonian area agricultural
societies to learn for about 2000 years from the north african
pottery traditions.

Anna Roosevelt makes the following critique of Lathrap in her

... Lathrap's idea that pottery-using horticultural
people from Africa came into the Amazon at 13,000 years
ago does not fit the fact that there is absolutely no
pottery in the 11,200- to 9,800-year-old Paleoindian
site. (p. 129)

True. But this criticism does not really take into account what the
diffusionists are really saying. What they are saying is that
diffusion to the likely places on the coast was likely _more that
one isolated event_. If the winds and the currents in this
particular place (northeastern Brazil) were creating possibilities
for diffusion from Africa, then the arrival of migrants was likely
a multiple phenomena across the ages. Precisely this the
diffusionists are documenting in the case of the trans-Pacific
influence on ancient American cultures. The influences from Asia
(from various parts of Asia) were likely _continuous_ and _multiple_
over the ages. These influences are especially apparent in the later
pre-columbian periods.

So, to summarize, the amazing early Amazonian pottery may have been
invented independently in the Amazon. The impetus for it may have
also come from Africa. We don't know the answer yet.

In any case, this is my reading of the evidence as I have examined
it so far.

All the best,


#% Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto %#
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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