ARCHAEOLOGY OF VIOLENCE
THE FOREST AS EVIDENCE
In 2012, nearly three decades after its transition to democracy, Brazil’s truth commission was established to investigate State crimes between 1946 and 1988.
One of the most contentious issues examined refers to the violence inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of Brazil after the US sponsored coup of 1964. This situation was particularly acute in Amazonia, where large-scale programs of development and resource exploitation were implemented on native habitat.
The investigation uses remote sensing techniques to locate the village clusters of the indigenous Waimiri-Atroari people, nearly exterminated in the 1970s.
Differentiating old-growth from young forests that overgrown on village ruins, the images manifest the way in which the botanical composition of the forest can be read as archaeological evidences. The cartographies presented here interpret Amazonia as a “constructed landscape”, an environment historically shaped by political and cultural forces.
In 1966, the government launched “Operation Amazonia”, a large-scale program of regional development that sought to convert practically the entire Amazon Basin into a vast frontier of resource extraction and agricultural colonization. Aided by cold war mapping and imaging technologies, Amazonia was visualized as a deep territory upon which governmental decisions and grand planning strategies would be projected, leading to dramatic changes in both its natural and social landscapes.
In order to identify zones of strategic resources, a large-scale mapping survey named Radar Amazonia — or RADAM — was initiated in the early 70s. Employing radar-based remote sensing technologies firstly used in the Vietnam War, RADAM was responsible to produce the first detailed biophysical and geological inventory of Amazonia, and completely altered the ways by which Amazonia was visualized, interpreted and intervened upon. Pages extracted from RADAM’s geological inventory for the region of the city of Manaus.
The “Service for the Protection of the Indian” (SPI) was a state agency created in 1910 to establish “peaceful contact” with indigenous groups and oversee their welfare. The SPI employed a similar strategy to the colonial ‘reductions’, concentrating indigenous groups in “Posts of Attraction”, which later turned into agricultural colonies where the Indians were gradually “nationalized”.
The agency founding ethos was simultaneously pacifist and expansionist, humanitarian and governmental, ideologically opposed to the extermination of the Indians while at the same time serving as one of the most efficient mechanisms to open up their lands for colonization. By late the 1960s, when the SPI was composed of a network of more than a hundred posts distributed throughout the Brazilian territory the agency has become complicit in the extermination of indigenous groups.
BOTANICAL ARCHAEOLOGY OF GENOCIDE
Located just a few hundred kilometers to the north of the city of Manaus the territory of the Waimiri-Atroari was subjected to a series of violent raids during the nineteenth century. Rich in mineral resources, this zone was defined as a central ‘pole of development’ within the planning schemes designed for Amazonia.
Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, it is estimated that nearly two thousand Waimiri-Atroari disappeared, either because of direct action of military forces, (who were responsible to conduct the road-building works), or indirectly through the deadly epidemics brought by workers and settlers. By 1984, when Brazil was entering into civilian rule, 321 Waimiri-Atroari have survived.
Before the massive population depletion and the subsequent process of directed re-settlement conducted by FAWA in the late 70s and early 80s, the spatial organization of the Waimiri Atroari territory could be described as being similar to other Carib groups of the Guiana shield such as the Yanomami and the Akawaio.
Networks of small and autonomous villages were distributed throughout the margins of the tributaries of the Camanaú, Alalaú and Abonari Rivers, forming larger clusters interconnected by several pathways.
Rigorously geometric, the architecture of the villages was formed by a communal house, circular or oval in shape and extending up to 18/20 meters in diameter, situated at the centre of a larger ellipsoid plaza surrounded by gardens of fruit and nut trees and fields of swidden agriculture. Clearings were gradually expanded around the central nucleus, encircling the village within another ring that could reach over hundred of metres.
Villages were periodically abandoned and moved to different areas, performing a constant movement through the forest landscape. Fallow swiddens tend to re-attract quantities of game and concentrate species of fruit trees and medicinal plants, so the abandoned villages continue to be utilized for several years. Archaeological evidences also demonstrate that most probably the new settlement is located within an area that had been inhabited in the past, since sites of ancient indigenous occupation in Amazonia, which are characterized by the presence of a black soil of anthropogenic nature known as “dark earths”, are extremely fertile and indigenous peoples can identify this.
The nomadic architecture of the mydy taha with its multiple rings of swiddens, gardens and fallows––the historical movement of occupation and abandonment, forest clearings and re-growth performed by the Waimiri Atroari villages––left a traceable footprint in the landscape, whose archaeological record can be identified in the botanical structure of the forest. These secondary forest formations, which began to grow in the 1970s, when the violence was most intense, evidence the location of villages that were destroyed or forcibly evicted.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE FOREST
The apparent impossibility of finding architectural records of the Waimiri Atroari settlements, the seeming disappearance of their villages into the forest, requires a shift in the methods of reading the terrain and harvesting spatial data. For rather than leaving no ruins, it is the very nature of the ruins that is radically different from traditional archaeological evidences. When the forest is interpreted as an archaeological resource on its own terms, and patterns of distribution and composition of the living vegetation are read as inscriptions of social-political history, the architecture of the villages erased by the politics of pacification appear registered in the forest fabric. Their geography demonstrates that the Brazilian State was not intervening upon an empty territory, thereby revealing the existence of a planned strategy aimed at disrupting, transforming and annihilating modes of inhabiting the forest that were considered inimical to the project of national development.
This cartography also uncovers an image of Amazonia that radically opposes the colonial ideology fostered by the military regime, according to which the forest was a de-populated, underdeveloped, primitive territory. This ideological edifice was inherited from evolutionist descriptions that portrayed Amazonia as a pristine natural environment inhabited by collectives that were incapable of transforming the landscape, but instead of a lack of traces of anthropogenic interventions in the landscape, this botanical archaeology of genocide show signatures of highly manipulated environments. The violent reconfiguration of the socio-ecological architecture of the forest was the means by which the state assumed tighter control over the Waimiri Atroari territory, and despite the lack of all other possible forms of evidence, the history of the violence and its victims survive in the memory of the living forests of Amazonia.