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Postcard from Brazil: anthropology PhD student uncovers the history of ancient indigenous communities

I am a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Toronto. My research focuses on two areas. The first is the degree of human impact and modification in the Amazon landscape; the second is to contribute in the discussion of Tapajó social and political organization.

The Tapajó lived in the Santarém and surrounding area between the 10th and 18th centuries until they disappeared due to European conquest and the mercantile expansion of the Americas. Archaeological and ethnographic data in the region shows that they produced elaborate Santarém pottery. The region is also distinguished by the presence of various archaeogical landscapes consisting of anthropogenic soils, ancient trail networks, and inland wells.

During the second year of my PhD, I travelled to Santarém, a beautiful Brazilian city located at the junction of the Tapajós and Amazon Rivers. I participated in digs at the Porto Site, a major archaeological site for the Tapajó.

While in Brazil, I met Dr. Denise P. Schaan, a professor at the Federal University of Pará. We agreed to collaborate on an archaeological survey project at the National Forest Tapajós (Flona-Tapajós), located 50 kilometres south of Santarém. The Flona-Tapajós is an area of great biodiversity, housing several native species and 29 communities. Most of these communities consist of ribeirinhos (“riverine people”) whose main economic activities are subsistence architecture, sustainable logging, hunting, and ecotourism.

Upon my return to Toronto, a colleague sent me information about the Mitacs Globalink Research Award. After speaking with my advisor Dr. Edward Swenson and Dr. Schaan, I began writing my application. The Globalink Research Award, along with two grants from my department, allowed me to collect data for my PhD project, and develop and manage my own archaeological project, “Landscape Changes and Place Making in Santarém Region, Lower Amazon: From Late Pre-Columbian until Contact Periods.” 

In October 2014, I returned to Santarém for three months. I conducted archaeological surveys in six communities in the northern area of the Flona-Tapajós and mapped 13 new archaeological sites associated with the Tapajó, as evidenced by the presence of ceramics and anthropogenic soils. My project team also mapped certain anthropogenic landscape changes, such as old indigenous paths and small depressions that could have been used as wells, dug test pits, and collected soil and charcoal samples.

In all six communities, I hired locals to act as my research assistants and guides through the jungle. With each of them, I learned about the location of archaeological sites, their history, customs, symbologies, ways of subsistence, challenges, and the rewards of living in the forest. I was occasionally joined in the field by Dr. Lilian Rebellato, a professor from the Federal University of the Western Pará, and some of her students. We had the opportunity to teach field survey techniques to the students and, with their help, process and catalogue all the archaeological material collected during my last two weeks in Santarém.

The Globalink Research Award has given me many opportunities: it offered me a longer field season. I had the chance to work in new aspects of fieldwork, such as logistics, hiring, training, and budgeting. I got to work with new collaborators like Dr. Schaan and Dr. Rebellato. In addition, I established a great foundation for future work with the communities inside the Flona-Tapajós. I believe this field season will have been the first of many for my research in the region.

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec their support of the Globalink Research Award program. In addition, Mitacs is pleased to work with international partners to support this award, including Campus France and Inria, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and Mission Universitaire de Tunisie en Amerique du Nord.