Rock Art Research & Art History Home Reinaldo Morales Jr.
Ph.D. Dissertation

Chapter 1

6 July 2002



CHAPTER 1 (excerpt)



The Serra da Capivara Style


Entrada do Pajaú

These paintings represent a typical example of the Serra da Capivara Style (fig. 1).1 The most apparent quality of this style is the predominance of small, red monochrome anthropomorphs, juxtaposed with same-size or larger red monochrome zoomorphs.2 The pigment is red iron-oxide, occasionally altered by fire or geochemical reactions to resemble deep blue or purple.3 White (probably kaolin or gypsum) and yellow paint (probably yellow ochre) is rare. The paint is very durable. Many Serra da Capivara Style paintings (and similar Nordeste Tradition paintings elsewhere) remain thick and clearly visible on the rock support, even as later over-painting in different styles with different paint recipes has exfoliated or faded.

The anthropomorphs are generally between five and fifteen centimeters tall. Zoomorphs, the vast majority probably representing cervids, vary in size between five and forty centimeters (generally).4 The paintings were, for the most part, executed with small brushes of some material (about three to four millimeters wide, of hair, wood, or fiber, most likely). Torsos are oval or single lines. Appendages are depicted with single lines terminating in small dots or a few small lines resembling stylized heads, hands or feet. In the zoomorphs, the convention is to use two small lines in an inverted "v" shape or three small lines radiating from the end of the appendage. Anthropomorphs are shown with small two- or three-lined hands and feet, or none at all.

The compositions generally take advantage of any available painting area, from large expanses of smooth support, to small niches in the rockshelter. At several sites, where the support is a conglomerate of quartz pebbles of varying sizes, figures occur on protruding pebbles, some as small as four centimeters (the sites of Pedrinhas Pintadas [fig. 2] and Paraguaio, for example). Figures are arranged in vertical, horizontal, and circular groups, often taking advantage of available pictorial space at the expense of maintaining any consistent tableau. Two recurring compositional conventions include: a central zoomorph surrounded by many, much smaller anthropomorphs; and, long horizontal lines of minute figures. These latter figures are usually anthropomorphs, sometimes abstracted down to simple stick-figures or lines.5 Isolated or single figures are rare (even figures painted on individual pebbles, mentioned above, are generally grouped together). Usually the compositions feature figures arranged in several groups.

The Serra da Capivara Style features dynamic poses suggesting movement. For example, in some figures legs are shown with one straight and the other bent at the knee. Torsos are sometimes twisted or leaning. Arms are shown in all manner of positions, occasionally holding an implement (perhaps sticks, clubs, lances, and dart-throwers) or a plant of some kind. Ithyphallic figures are common and sex (gender, and the act) is clearly indicated in many compositions. Cervids and other zoomorphs are frequently shown with their legs outstretched, as if in full gallop. Occasionally their heads are turned back giving a rather naturalistic depiction of flight from a predator or danger.

The early dates of the style, as provided by the excavations at Baixão do Perna I (c. 7700 B.C.), suggest that the Serra da Capivara region was the genesis of the tradition which then spread to other areas of the Nordeste.6 Absolute dates from paintings in these other areas would help to understand the comparative chronology of these disparate styles. Locally, the Serra da Capivara Style is considered to have evolved into the enigmatic Serra Talhada Complex, so similar in form that it was not considered a separate style by Guidon. Iconographic interpretation was the primary concern in delineating this complex from the Serra da Capivara Style.

The Serra Talhada Complex


Pessis proposed that the differences in "the chosen themes and the techniques utilized" in the Serra da Capivara Style and the Serra Talhada Complex "are the manifestation of a transition within the same ethnic group." The Serra Talhada Complex was "the last phase of this transition" and "gave birth to a new style: [the] Serra Branca [Style]." The "authors" of this subsequent style "belonged to a community that managed to differentiate itself from the original cultural lineage by the adoption of a different system of graphic presentation."7 The formal consistencies between paintings considered Serra da Capivara Style and Serra Talhada Complex, as illustrated thus far, suggest a single style of rock art, regardless of the iconographic variations. The open-contour figures from Invenção, however, are stylistically unique and represent an exception to this Serra da Capivara / Serra Talhada Style.

When the "peoples of the Northeast tradition," as Pessis proposed, "reached their technological apogee, their graphic representations showed the first scenes of violence, executions, individual struggles and collective sexual scenes of a ritualized character."8 However, a group of figures from João Arsena (fig. 10; see also the composition from Serrinha I, fig. 6) wielding dart-throwers and involved in, what certainly appears to be, a violent or execution scene, are formally consistent with the Serra da Capivara Style (this composition is not addressed in the published literature). Likewise, a group of figures from Baixão da Vaca (fig. 11) suggests a collective sexual scene (whether or not it could be considered of a ritual character—something only the painter would know). Guidon identified this as an example of the Serra da Capivara Style.9

It is unclear what is implied by individual struggles (Pessis provides no illustration of this). Other compositions formally consistent with the Serra da Capivara Style show strongly suggestive sexual acts, such as those at Baixão da Vaca, Roça do Raimundão, and Sobradinho (fig. 12). Perhaps the struggle of one individual to either avoid or engage in sex meets Pessis' criteria. But the desire to avoid or engage in the act is impossible to determine from the gestures of the partners or adversaries in these compositions. These scenes could be recreational, ritual, or simply misogynistic fantasies. The violence of rape should also be considered as a possible reading of these scenes, which would likewise qualify them as concomitant with "peoples of the Northeast tradition" reaching "their technological apogee." Stylistically, however, these figures are consistent with the earliest paintings from Baixão da Perna I (fig. 13) and, as such, might share their antiquity rather than representing the last phase of a transition from the Serra da Capivara Style to the Serra Branca Style. A detailed formal analysis of examples of the Serra Branca Style is necessary to clarify these apparent contradictions.

The Serra Branca Style

The Serra Branca Style (of the Varzea Grande Subtradition) and the Salitre Subtradition represent the final phases in the evolution of Nordeste Tradition rock art in southeast Piauí, according to Pessis and Guidon.10 As mentioned in the Introduction of this dissertation, they considered that the fewest actors and simplest actions—"lively staging of joy and playfulness"—represent the earliest authors and the most complex—"decorated religious vestments, ...symbols of hierarchy, ...ecstatic figures"—represent the most highly evolved, hence last, chrono-style.11 This section addresses the formal and iconographic qualities of the Serra Branca Style and the Salitre Subtradition as defined by Pessis and Guidon. The following examples address the formal and iconographic qualities of the Serra Branca Style and the Salitre Subtradition (as defined by Pessis and Guidon) and illustrate both consistencies and inconsistencies in their attribution of specific compositions to either the style or the subtradition.


Certain formal differences are apparent between the cited examples of the Serra da Capivara Style, the Serra Talhada Complex, and the Serra Branca Style. The Serra da Capivara Style is dominated by small red monochrome anthropomorphs and larger zoomorphs with occasionally outlined torsos. The compositions take advantage of a wide variety of available surfaces, and the arrangement of figures is not limited to a single ground plane. The problems surrounding the designation of the Serra Talhada Complex stem from slight variations in the iconographic programs associated with certain compositions of figures which are otherwise formally consistent with the Serra da Capivara Style.

The elongated rectilinear anthropomorphs of the Serra Branca Style represent a unique manner of depicting form. The figure types associated with the Serra Branca Style also occur (though much less frequently) in Serra da Capivara Style / Serra Talhada Complex compositions. They are, however, limited in size, color, and technique to the conventions of those styles. In other words, they share a similar iconography but represent different styles. While the specific characteristics of the most sophisticated Serra Branca Style are found at only a few dozen sites, the figure type—orant figures with outstretched arms, patterned torsos, and head ornamentation—is a pan-American phenomenon, occurring from Chile to Colombia (fig. 35) and Venezuela (fig. 36 and 37), and into the western United States (figs. 38 and 39).

Two distinct examples of clearly non-Serra da Capivara / Serra Talhada forms were introduced in the discussion of the site of Caboclo: the large yellow anthropomorph, and the small isolated open-contour anthropomorph. Both of these figures exhibit a sophisticated approach to the technical limitations of depicting form, and the use of negative space as a design element. Having established the formal qualities of these styles, specifically the unique qualities of the Serra Branca Style (of the Varzea Grande Subtradition), the following discussion of the Salitre Subtradition illustrates the salience of Ogel-Ros's reluctance to consider it a completely separate subtradition.12

The Salitre Subtradition

In her original 1984 analysis, Guidon differentiated the Salitre Subtradition from the Varzea Grande Subtradition by means of "certain distinctive traits of composition and graphismes of action." These traits included: face-profile scenes; chase/hunting scenes; linear organization of the panels; predominance of figures executed in contour lines, predominantly with geometric patterns and less frequently solid fill; and, the use of several colors (red, yellow and white). Guidon also made it clear that this description of the subtradition was at that time not yet detailed nor definitive, and it was premature to propose a division of styles within it.13 Three examples of the Salitre Subtradition cited by Guidon illustrate the diversity of styles encompassed by this designation: a composition from Caldeirão do Rodrigues I, the eponymous site of Salitre, and the single composition at Angelim do Barreirinho.14 Representative compositions from Caldeirão do Rodrigues I and Salitre will be discussed in the following pages. The site of Angelim do Barreirinho will be discussed in the following chapter.


The Salitre "Style"

The criteria given by Guidon for the Salitre Subtradition15 also characterize many Serra Branca Style compositions. "Face-profile scenes" are found at Caboclo (figs. 15 and 18), Boqueirão do Paraguaio II (figs. 30 and 31), and Morcego (figs. 50 and 52).16 "Chase/hunting scenes" are found at Serrinha I (fig. 6), as well as in the Serra Talhada Complex and Serra da Capivara Style examples from Baixão da Vaca (figs. 3 and 6). "Linear organization of the panels" was shown to have been a necessity of the bedding at Salitre, but also occurs at other sites with Salitre Subtradition figures (Fig. 44), as well as in Serra Talhada Complex compositions (fig. 16).

The "predominance of figures executed in contour lines, predominantly with geometric patterns and less frequently solid fill" is characteristic of the elaborate anthropomorphs and zoomorphs of the Serra Branca Style, as previously shown. The "use of several colors (red, yellow and white)" is most apparent at Salitre, but also found in several Serra Branca Style figures at Boqueirão do Paraguaio II, and in the Serra Talhada Complex cervid from Pedra Furada (fig. 9). In fact, polychrome figures occur throughout the Serra da Capivara region, but few examples (those listed here) have been specifically identified in the literature.17

These iconographic similarities are at the heart of Ogel-Ros's proposition that there is no "Salitre Subtradition," rather a separate phase of the Serra Branca Style—salitroïde or Serra Branca final.18 Considering the formal characteristics of the elaborate figures from Caboclo, Boqueirão do Paraguaio I and II, Morcego, and Salitre, and considering the nature of style, it is apparent that these are two separate styles: a Serra Branca Style, and a Salitre Style. These are very closely related styles, perhaps opposite ends of the spectrum of a single style. However, there are very few compositions that share the formal qualities of both—no mean, as Grieder put it—hence, little justification for considering the Salitre Style as a Serra Branca variant or phase.

As this chapter has shown, three distinct styles of Nordeste Tradition rock art have been introduced: the Serra da Capivara Style, the Serra Branca Style, and the Salitre Style. The cited examples of the enigmatic Serra Talhada Complex are for the most part variations of the Serra da Capivara Style. Certain compositions were introduced that clearly represent a style of painting separate from the three addressed thus far: the white cervids from Invenção (fig. 8), the polychrome cervid from Pedra Furada (fig. 9), and the solitary anthropomorph from Caboclo (fig. 20). Despite being considered as an example of the Salitre Subtradition, Chapter 2 will show that the composition from Angelim do Barreirinho is also in this separate style: the Angelim Style. Chart 3 summarizes the Serra da Capivara, Serra Branca, and Salitre Styles, according to the formal analyses put forth in this chapter:



1. Pessis and Guidon, "Registros rupestres," 28 fig 8a; Guidon, Peintures préhistoriques, 64-65, 68, 96 fig. 1.

2. "Anthropomorph" simply means "human-shaped" or "looks like a human." "Zoomorph" simply means "animal-shaped" or "looks like an animal." This does not necessarily imply the figures are humans or animals. In this regard, terms like "hand," "head," and "torso" are used for clarity-to refer to a particular part of a human- or animal-like figure (cf., Clegg, Mathesis Drawing, 24-25, 65; and, "!Pictures and Pictures of."). John Clegg uses an exclamation point before a word (e.g., !man, !koala), to indicate that "the word is used as a NAME in order to designate without prejudice to interpretation or meaning" (Mathesis Drawing, 261) (i.e., "!koala" means "looks like a koala to me").

3. Meneses Lage, "Análise química de pigmentos;" "Datações de pinturas rupestres;" and "Dating of the Prehistoric Paintings."

4. These qualities of style are generalizations, or more accurately, the mean of a particular stylistic convention. Grieder's observations on style cited at the beginning of this chapter, must be kept in mind.

5. Pessis considers these arrangements as a characteristic of the Serra Talhada Complex, despite the figures' formal consistency with Serra da Capivara Style motifs and compositions. (Pessis, "Graphic and Social Representation," 118.) Independently, some of these figures have no identifying features, looking like mere "tally" marks. When seen in the context of the larger body of Serra da Capivara Style compositions, however, it is apparent that they most likely represent highly stylized anthropomorphs.

6. Guidon, "Tradições rupestres," 7-8; Guidon, "Ocupações pré-históricas," 45; Prous, "L'art rupestre du Brésil," pl. 1; and Martin, Pré-História, fig. 67. The proposed chronology and archaeological evidence is addressed in the Appendix.

7. Pessis, "Pré-História da Região," 70-71.

8. Pessis, "Chronology and Evolution," 47.

9. Guidon, Peintures préhistoriques, 38 fig. 7, 50-51.

10. See the Appendix.

11. Pessis, "Pré-História da Região," 69; and Pessis and Guidon, "Registros Rupestres," 24.

12. Ogel-Ros, "La notion," 67-68.

13. Guidon, "L'art rupestre du Piaui," 192-194. See the Literature Review for the discussion of the term graphismes of action.

14. Salitre was the site the subtradition was named for, but in her doctoral thesis, Guidon also cited examples from Caldeirão do Rodrigues I (Guidon, "L'art rupestre du Piaui," 192). In her 1991 text, Guidon also identified the single panel from Angelim do Barreirinho as and example of the Salitre Subtradition (Guidon, Peintures préhistoriques, 55).

15. Guidon, "Sequëncia cultural," 192-194. See the introduction to the Salitre Subtradition section.

16. In her discussion of the Salitre figures ("L'art rupestre du Piaui," 192) she also mentioned that certain panels at "Boqueirão do Paraguaio" (no specific reference to the precise site [I, II, or III] or panel), Caldeirão do Rodrigues I, Morcego, and Brejinho III and IV, present traits seen in the Salitre Subtradition. In Peintures préhistoriques (1991:89) she cites a pair of figures from Boqueirão do Paraguaio II (fig. 31) as Serra Branca Style. This same pair was cited the following year as Salitre Subtradition (Pessis and Guidon, "Registros rupestres," 27 fig. 6a).

17. Only four texts provide specific illustrated examples of each style, complex, or subtradition: Guidon and Pessis' doctoral theses (unavailable to the public), Guidon's Peintures Préhistoriques, and Pessis and Guidon's "Registros rupestres." All other publications do not provide specific examples to illustrate the text, merely general illustrations of Nordeste Tradition figures and compositions, if any.

18. Ogel-Ros, "La notion," 67-70.

Additional Excerpts:

Sample Illustrations

Table of Contents

Excerpt from the Introduction

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Excerpt from Chapter 2

Excerpt from Chapter 3

Excerpt from Chapter 4

Excerpt from Conclusions

Excerpt from the Appendix

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