The Amazon Trail

Anna Roosevelt's ventures into the jungles of South America have turned up traces of human settlements far older than archaeologists ever suspected

By John Dorfman
May 1, 2002 5:00 AMDec 21, 2020 2:45 PM


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"When I have a goal," says Anna Curtenius Roosevelt, her voice emphasizing the word, "everything else is secondary. And I don't let anything get in my way." At the moment, her goal is a site deep in Brazil's Amazon region, where no scientist has ever set foot. Four years ago, a gold prospector found a large, unusually shaped spear point and a well-preserved wooden harpoon on that spot. When Roosevelt first laid eyes on the miner's artifacts at a makeshift museum in a rural hotel in the Amazon two years ago, she knew she had to get to the spot and look for signs of an ancient settlement. It wouldn't be easy, but archaeology rarely is, particularly in the Amazon.

Archaeologists visiting remote sites in Brazil must rely on the skills of local pilots to locate—and land on—small airstrips in the rain forest. "The pilots here are very good," says Roosevelt, a veteran Amazon explorer, because the mining industry depends on them.

To reach the site, she and her crew will travel by single-engine plane to a small jungle airstrip. From there, we take open skiffs down a tributary of the Xingu River. The site happens to be underwater, so the boats will also have to carry a heavy load of scuba gear and a gasoline-powered air compressor to fill the tanks. This is what exploration looks like at the beginning of the 21st century.

At 55, Roosevelt, who is curator of archaeology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a veteran of more than 50 expeditions. She has spent her career taking risks, both by exploring remote sites and by challenging prevailing dogma. In doing so, she is helping to rewrite the history of humankind in this hemisphere.

"Anna's gone against the current by working in enormously forbidding areas," says Richard Burger, the director of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History and an archaeologist who specializes in Peru. "The tendency is to go to places where there's running water and stable governments, where you can buy food in stores instead of having to bring in your own, where you don't stand much chance of being murdered in your bed."

Amazonia was long neglected by archaeologists because human presence there was assumed to be recent and scant. In this terra incognita, Roosevelt saw an opportunity. She began her fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes, then worked in Mexico and Venezuela, and ultimately got permission to dig in the Brazilian Amazon in the early 1980s. One of her most important discoveries was made on Marajó, a barren island the size of Switzerland at the mouth of the Amazon. There she found traces of an advanced mound-building culture 1,800 years old.

What has won her the most renown—and shaken up the archaeology establishment—is her 1996 report on her excavation of Caverna da Pedra Pintada in Brazil. This cave, adorned with rock paintings, is situated in the hills overlooking the Amazon floodplain near the town of Monte Alegre. Though long known to locals, it had never been excavated. What Roosevelt unearthed there appeared to contradict the standard explanation of how the New World was settled.

She found stone projectile points buried near the mouth of the cave and, in the same layer of deposit, ancient remains of such foods as palm seeds, Brazil nuts, and fish. The settlement proved to be unexpectedly old. Using a combination of carbon-14 dating for the organic matter and thermoluminescence dating for the stone artifacts and sediment, Roosevelt placed the original occupation of the cave between 10,900 and 11,200 years ago, making it contemporaneous with the earliest dates of the mammoth-hunter settlements in North America.

But the most interesting feature of Pedra Pintada was the shape of its projectile points. The conventional scenario of New World settlement has long hinged on distinctive stone points known to archaeologists as Clovis points, after a town in New Mexico where many were found beginning in the 1930s. So-called Clovis points have turned up at a number of sites throughout North America, and the earliest dated examples are between 10,900 and 11,200 years old. Narrow and fluted in shape, Clovis points appear well formed to fit on the ends of spears and penetrate the bodies of large animals, and indeed, the bones of mastodons, mammoths, bison, and other large ruminants have often been found near them. A whole generation of archaeologists was schooled in the notion that these points were proof that the original progenitor culture of ancient America was built around big-game hunting and that all other ancient Indian cultures had to be its descendants. The Clovis paradigm holds that because of their big-game-hunting technology, the hunter-gatherers who migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Strait land bridge about 13,000 years ago were able to prosper and propagate their culture across the New World all the way to the southern tip of South America.

Anna Roosevelt contends that Amazonia has been inhabited longer and more densely than archaeologists have guessed. In 1988, she won a MacArthur "genius" award for her research on how prehistoric humans interacted with the tropical rain forest and influenced its composition.

The Pedra Pintada points were of a type completely different from Clovis—triangular, with a barbed base more suitable for spearing fish and smaller game. And they are not the only non-Clovis points to have been found in South America, Roosevelt notes, although she contends they are the best documented. She thinks discoveries like Pedra Pintada show that ancient American culture was more diverse and widespread than the conventional wisdom holds. In her report in the journal Science, she wrote: "Clovis is evidently just one of several regional traditions. Clearly, Paleoindians were able to adapt to a broad range of habitats. In the Amazon, they developed a long-term adaptation to the humid tropical forest."

Challenging the Clovis-only model was bound to ruffle feathers. While it's generally agreed that Roosevelt's excavation and dating methods are careful, many archaeologists continue to differ with her on matters of interpretation. C. Vance Haynes of the University of Arizona, for example, urged a more conservative statistical reading of her evidence that would make Pedra Pintada no older than 10,500 years and allow its culture to be a descendant of Clovis. Roosevelt countered that Clovis itself, if analyzed by the standards Haynes was using on her site, would be too recent to be the ancestor culture.

The best way to settle the question is simply to gather more evidence, and the miner's site may hold some clues. The point the prospector found is not triangular like the ones from Pedra Pintada, but it's not like a Clovis point either. It's oval-shaped, with small barbs on the edges that suggest it may have been used to harpoon large fish. "The point was huge, beautifully made, and the right shape," she says. "It was from a gold mine, and gold and diamond mines tend to be wet sites." The brackish waters of so-called wet archaeological sites can preserve organic matter remarkably well. "Ancient people went to these places to find materials to make their tools," she explains, "and also because little rapids are excellent places to catch big fish. So it was very promising."

I met Roosevelt in Belém, a lively port city of about a million people at the mouth of the Amazon River. Lying on the Atlantic coast just below the equator, Belém, founded in the 17th century, has few modern buildings but plenty of crumbling palazzi in tropical shades of green, pink, and yellow, interspersed with 19th-century neoclassical public edifices. Right beneath my window at the hotel was the top of a spreading mango tree, reaching eight stories into the air. Across the harbor, I could see Marajó, the vast, desolate island where Roosevelt excavated the mound-building culture.

We flew west to a smaller city called Santarém to join the rest of the team, including archaeologist Maura Imazio da Silveira, who is on the staff of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém; Carlos Palheta Barbosa, a young archaeologist with a talent for digging and spotting artifacts; and two military firefighters from Belém, Captain Mário Morais and Sergeant Jedalias Barata Monteiro, whom Roosevelt had recruited as scuba instructors and safety experts.

From Santarém we flew southward to Novo Progresso, a town dedicated to mining and logging and rarely marked on maps. It consists mostly of tire-repair shops, huge stacks of corded lumber, and unpaved streets of red clay churned into dust by 18-wheelers. A bush pilot named Eduardo was scheduled to take us from there to the miner's village. He arrived late, landing after dark on an unlit airstrip.

We took off for Castelo dos Sonhos ("Castle of Dreams"), the home of Waldemar Caitano, the miner who had collected the artifacts. When we arrived, Roosevelt sat on the porch with Waldemar and his family and began persuading him to join our expedition. Her strategy combined charm, cash, and a refusal to take no for an answer. "Just sit back and gaze limpidly at someone as though you had all the time in the world," she told me in her slightly girlish, fluty voice. "That's the way to negotiate."

Into the Heart of the AmazonThe yellow line marks the route Roosevelt's team took to reach the underwater site where an intriguing spear point was found. Graphic by Matt Zang

Waldemar is 75 and has a heart condition, but he was the only person who could guide us to the site. After a half hour or so of give and take, he agreed to come along. With his sinewy frame and full head of salt-and-pepper hair, he looked younger than his age. Given his years as a miner in the Amazon, I suspected he was probably a good deal more prepared for a trip into the malaria-ridden Xingu than I was. As for Roosevelt, she's a diet-and-exercise fan who intends to live to be 95. And when she told me she feels like the same person she was at 16, I didn't find it hard to believe.

Roosevelt is not the first member of her family to be drawn to Amazonia. In 1913 her great-grandfather Theodore Roosevelt joined an expedition to map an uncharted river in Brazil called the Rio da Dœvida, or "River of Doubt" (later renamed Rio Roosevelt). The party was beset by accidents, disease, and mutiny, and at one point Roosevelt became so ill, he begged to be left to die rather than be a burden. Although he made it back home, his death five years later was due in no small part to health problems from his Amazon misadventure.

Roosevelt bristles at any comparison to her great-grandfather. "He wasn't a real explorer," she says. "He did two little explorations and I've done 50. No one would mistake what he did for research or exploration." A few years ago, she was asked to participate in a reenactment of her great-grandfather's ill-fated journey and flatly refused. "The interest in Theodore Roosevelt competes with interest in me," she pronounces.

She prefers to identify with the legacy of strong, smart Roosevelt women, who at any rate had greater longevity than the men. Her father, Quentin Roosevelt II, an airline executive, died in a plane crash when she was 2 years old. His father, Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., put himself in the line of fire on D-Day only to die of a heart attack a few weeks later. Roosevelt grew up with her mother, paternal grandmother, and two sisters in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where the extended Roosevelt clan has made its home since the 1880s. Roosevelt says her mother, an artist with a strong interest in Southwestern American Indian antiquities, gets the credit for inspiring her to pursue archaeology and adventure. Since the age of 9, Roosevelt says, she has known exactly what she wanted to do with her life.

"It was lucky that all the men had died before I began growing up," she says, "so I could grow up in a matriarchy and know that it was perfectly fine for women to run everything and have men be the decoration. So that helped me form my personality and therefore have success. Because I never had any sense that I had to be meek and mild and put myself behind someone else."

As is to be expected for one of the first female members of New York's Explorers Club, she believes that prehistoric women did not always play the submissive role assigned to them by traditional models. The Clovis paradigm, for example, conspicuously consigns women to the Paleolithic kitchen while the men are out felling mammoths. Roosevelt finds more diverse roles for women in prehistoric life, particularly in the procurement of food.

As we flew deeper into the Xingu River backcountry, silvery bands of water curled beneath us, catching the sun. Finally, Waldemar pointed down to the site, and Eduardo took a GPS reading of the latitude and longitude. Before we could land there, we had to get clearance at a field station called Entre Rios.

About 15 soldiers with automatic rifles met us on the tarmac because we hadn't radioed to say we were coming. We could have been illicit miners, drug dealers, or worst of all, madeireiros, or wood pirates. Despite the display of weaponry, everyone at Entre Rios was friendly. They told us we had two travel options: One was to land nearby, on territory occupied by Indians; the other was to land at a more distant airstrip and proceed by boat. We decided on the latter plan.

We set down on a jungle airstrip next to a scruffy settlement on a tributary of the Xingu. The family living there were what Brazilians call caboclos, people of mixed Indian and European ancestry who eke out a living by subsistence agriculture, mining, and lots of ingenuity. We spent the night in hammocks under a tin roof on stilts, and to fend off mosquitoes, which in Amazonia may carry a virulent strain of malaria, we threaded nets around our hammocks and doused ourselves with insect repellent.

The next morning, Bené, the chain-smoking patriarch of the caboclo family, and Chico, his savvy 16-year-old nephew, took Roosevelt, Waldemar, Captain Morais, and me down the river in two rickety motorboats. The plan was that they would return to bring the rest of the party. But after three hours on the water, both motors sputtered out, fouled by tainted gasoline that we'd been sold in Novo Progresso. It was three in the afternoon, and the sun was due to set at 5:30. Between the two boats, we had one oar. However, there was a shovel in the other boat that could be used as an oar, and we could cut tree branches for poling.

During Roosevelt's excavation of Pedra Pintada, a cave shelter near Monte Alegre, Brazil (above), she turned up spear points that looked unlike those found in North America. They proved to be more than 10,000 years old. Last October, Roosevelt began preliminary study of an underwater site in Brazil's Xingu region, where an unusual spear point had been found. She and her team (below) are preparing to retrieve material that will establish the site's age.

Roosevelt wanted to continue down the river at all costs, but Bené and Chico decided we needed shelter in a familiar place. The river was shallow and rocky, and our guides had a tough time navigating in the starless, moonless night. In my boat, Bené and Morais alternated poling with wading over jagged rocks and pushing, while Roosevelt rowed with the shovel and I lit the way with my flashlight. The current was against us, and we often had to retrace our steps. Even the seasoned outdoorsmen among us seemed rattled when one boat spun around in a circle, completely out of control. Once we glimpsed a pair of glowing orange points at the water's surface—the eyes of a jacare, a type of crocodile. After about eight hours, we reached the small but comfortable settlement of Chico's parents, where we spent the night.

The next morning, we had the good luck to run into some more gold miners who had a spacious wooden boat for hire. Three of them joined us: Francisco Sauza da Silva, the boat's pilot, and his sons, José Maria and Sebastião. It was smoother sailing from then on, but it still took nearly 15 hours to reach the site instead of the four we had been told. At last, Waldemar spotted the site, marked by a little beach where the riverbank dipped inward. As we waded ashore, he muttered in Portuguese, "Plenty of piranhas here," but none of them took a bite out of any of us. As the air compressor purred on the riverbank, filling tanks, Roosevelt and Captain Morais changed into their wet suits and flippers. On their first dive, they combed the riverbed, first north-south, then east-west. On the second pass, they found the spot, and José Maria, who had mined there before, pointed out a sloping portion of the bottom, 13 feet down, where they could brush away the sand to expose the strata beneath.

Like archaeologists, Amazonian gold miners spend about three or four months a year in the bush, using simple technology to unearth their quarry. Roosevelt considers them kindred spirits because they preserve ancient artifacts, apparently without desire for profit. She tries to get them interested in contributing to the scientific study of their own region, saying, "There should be Amazonians studying Amazonia."

Roosevelt also cultivates relationships with people she calls "forest savants," locals who, despite their lack of formal education, have an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna. She has tried to make their lore her own, matching local names for plants with the Latin nomenclature. Throughout this trip, she pointed out certain trees and plants that are telltales of an environment that has been inhabited by humans, historic or prehistoric. The Brazil nut, which has been consumed by Amazonians for thousands of years, is one example. Not that these flora are necessarily nurtured by people; they simply thrive under the kinds of conditions produced by such natural human acts as lighting a fire, defecating, or scattering the seeds of fruit after a meal.

The traces of settlements that Roosevelt has seen lead her to believe that the most ancient Amazonians probably lived in small bands, with men, women, and children all taking part in food gathering and hunting. Fish was their main source of animal protein, but they also ate turtles, small lizards, and, she says, "little toads with juicy, fat legs." Oily tree fruits like those from palms were also a large part of the diet, along with tree legumes and the Brazil nut.

Roosevelt contends that the human impact on Amazonia has been so deep and of such long standing that the so-called virgin forest should be consigned to the realm of mythology. "If conservation biologists came this way," she adds, "they wouldn't see the signs of habitation. That's why anthropologists are important. The biologists think this forest is virgin, but it's not. They both underestimate what has happened here and overestimate the impact of these kinds of indigenous early settlements, and that's because they don't teach historical thinking to biologists. If you don't understand how old the forest type is and why it has the character that it does in terms of diversity and representation of plants and animals, then how are you going to be able to conserve it?"

Groping about in near-total darkness, the divers were looking for a sparkly green-colored layer of volcanic matter in which the miners often find gold, a stratum they call lagresa. Waldemar said the spear point came from within this layer. They took GPS readings of the spot and anchored a plastic buoy there so they could find it again the next day. Meanwhile, Bené and Chico had rowed their boats home to clean the engines and get the rest of the team.

This unusually large spear point and partial wooden shaft ignited Roosevelt's interest in the underwater site deep in the Xingu region. She speculates that the point, which is about 7 3/4 inches long and 21/2 inches wide, may have been used for hunting dolphins or manatees.

That evening, dinner was grilled piranhas. Better we eat them, I thought, than the other way around. The side dishes were feijão, or black beans, a Brazilian favorite, and farinha, or manioc, an all-purpose flour made from ground tubers, a staple food in the Amazon for millennia. The city folk chose to sleep on the boat, but Waldemar and the other locals strung their hammocks between trees and hung up plastic tarps to keep off rain and the snakes that sometimes drop from the branches.

The next morning, the other members of our party arrived at the site with Bené and Chico, having motored downriver all night. Descending for another dive, the archaeologists swept away the sand with their fingers to expose the thin layer of lagresa, which lay just under a thicker layer of varicolored gravel. From right above the greenish substance, they removed samples of organic matter, including wood and seeds, that could be dated. They also took samples of the lagresa itself, which may be datable. Next year Roosevelt will return to do a full excavation, but for now her work was done. We packed up and headed upriver.

Now two days behind schedule, Roosevelt was unsure if our "air taxi" would be waiting for us at the jungle airstrip. Without a radio, all we had been able to do was send a note ahead with our boatmen. When we got there, we were told that Eduardo would be picking us up a day later than we had requested. As we sat by the airstrip and the appointed hour came and went, we began speculating as to how long it would take to reach the nearest town, Altamira, in Bené and Chico's boats. Opinion was divided—either 36 hours or 48 hours. Just as the debate was heating up, we heard the drone of an approaching plane.

What if we had lost the boats that night on the river or the plane simply hadn't shown up, I asked. Roosevelt laughed, "It would've been fun to be lost!" We could have survived, she said, on fish, Brazil nuts, and boiled river water. And we wouldn't really have been lost, because all the rivers in the area flow toward Belém. Was she just trying to reassure me? During the trip, I had accepted as perfectly normal that we were traveling with no cell phones or radios in an extremely remote region. Looking back, it struck me that Roosevelt, though meticulous in her scientific work, seemed to have gotten us there and back on pure willpower. "I'm like a knife," she says proudly, as if to defuse criticism of her outspoken style. But maybe she's more like one of her beloved projectile points, hurled by sheer force of will at the target.

For a collection of articles about the recent debate on Clovis and pre-Clovis sites, visit:

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