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


6 July 2002



CONCLUSION (excerpt)

Interpreting the Nordeste Tradition Rock Art

Problems and Perspectives


Two avenues of investigation are pursued below. The first begins in the present, with the ethnographic record, and moves back in time to hypothetically reconstruct the last few thousand years of indigenous life in the region at large. The second begins with the proposed terminal date of Nordeste Tradition rock art (4000 B.C.), and moves forward in time to suggest the ways in which the exigencies of the ecological conditions affected the lives of the people who made the rock art. The possibility of a wholesale ethnic abandonment is considered ("the disappearance of the Nordeste tradition peoples"1), as well as the possibility that there was, instead, an adaptation of the existing populations to changing environmental conditions. By comparing the 'new' (post-4000 B.C.) world of the Serra da Capivara hunter-gatherers with the ethno-history of living populations from nearby regions, it will be proposed that there was most likely a continuity of certain ideologies and a corresponding series of social innovations that provide a reasonable bridge between the rock art and the living arts—formally, cognitively, and functionally.


Rock Art and Social Change:

Innovation and Continuity


The original premise—that the changes in lithic sophistication c. 4000 B.C. is evidence of a change in the "ethnicity" of the local populations—is problematic, but perhaps not out of the question. The alternative explanation offered here—a change in adaptive strategies and site use—would not require a wholesale "ethnic" replacement. The transition from hot and dry (c. 4000 B.C.) to hot and wet (c. 2000 B.C.) would have initiated a gradual development of a new economy suited to the increasing contrast between dry-season hunting and the new wet-season collecting and foraging opportunities. It would not require a change in the "ethnicity" of the populations to explain the changes in site use. An important aspect of the increasing diversity of seasonal hunting, gathering, and foraging strategies would have been more distinctly defined gender roles within the societies. If the living populations are any indication, this would have meant a refinement of both the men's roles as hunters and ritual specialists, and the women's roles as processors of plant resources and central figures in the domestic realm of the aldeia or camp.

This is, of course, speculative. But considering the significant formal similarities between the rock art and the living masking traditions, it is quite possible that very similar seasonal ceremonial cycles were a vital element of social cohesion and survival among the late archaic (post-4000 B.C.) populations—just as they are today. In fact, this is consistent with Guidon's original hypothesis that the Salitre "subtradition" was a very late development in the region. If, as she proposed, site use at Morcego is any indication, the Salitre Style dates to somewhere between 2340 and 890 B.C.2 Other sites, primarily in the northern Serra Branca region, with Salitre and Angelim Style paintings have also yielded post-4000 B.C. dates.3 It is quite possible that Nordeste Tradition rock art survived well beyond 4000 B.C.; perhaps until the advent of established agricultural communities at the end of the last millennium B.C. If the social "evolution" was reflected in the rock art (as Pessis proposed), then the culmination of that evolution, the establishment of the current seasonal ceremonial cycles, should also be reflected.

"Ethnicity" aside, there was certainly a diversification of the regional populations with the establishment of the c. 1500 B.C. climate. This coincides with the period when, presumedly, the Macro-Jê language stock (which developed in the Southeast and Northeast highlands c. 4000 - 3000 B.C.) first expanded out of the São Francisco and Araguaia basins. This diversification might have manifested itself on a local level through fissioning into related, yet independently identifiable communities (having some character that served to distinguish them from the original source group—a style, perhaps). Regarding the development of the Serra Branca Style, Pessis considered that the painters "belonged to a community that managed to differentiate itself from the original cultural lineage by the adoption of a different system of graphic presentation."4 Perhaps rather than a differentiation from an "original cultural lineage," there was instead a degree of differentiation within the existing culture around Serra da Capivara. This probably would have included the beginnings of expressed identities beyond the nuclear family (perhaps as moiety or clan divisions), a degree of ranking beyond mere age/sex (initial hierarchies developing, including that of the ritual specialist) and, perhaps most importantly, the refinement of certain ceremonial rites as specific reactions to the exigencies of the new ecological and social circumstances.

This new relationship with the landscape might have resulted in a change in the significance of the previously inhabited rock art sites. With the primary population centers concentrated closer to the plains or chapadas, the hunting forays into the canyons (with the rockshelters serving as temporary camps) would have likely engendered a new attitude toward the rock art painted there by their ancestors (in their ekwimyatipa). This might have been similar to that of the historically known indigenous cultures. The Gorotire Kayapó consider the Ken kikre (rockshelters or "Stone Houses" in the serras) to be the home of the men karon—spirits of the terrestrial animals and the dead (m karõ for the Canela). The rockshelters in the hills near Nambiquará territory are likewise considered sacred and visited for sacred and secret reasons, but are no longer occupied. The same is true for other southern Amazonian groups, such as the Wauja, Sarare, Alatesu, Hahaintesu, Mamainde, and Negarote. These groups maintain permanent villages closer to waterways, but use the nearby highlands for hunting and rituals. The rock art sites are places to access the spirits of the past— culture heroes, ancestors, and deities —not to conduct the profane duties of everyday life.

Recall from the previous chapter, that the Akwé Xerente annõrowá representatives escort the nan into the aldeia from the nearby hills, just as the Gorotire Kayapó "monkey" maskers escort the tamanduá into the aldeia space during the Koko ceremony. For the Mebengokre Kayapó, "the aldeias of the ghosts are always located near outcroppings of white clay or rocks,"5 similar to the Gorotire Kayapó Ken kikre. Most of the living ceremonies associated with the dry season seem to have a common component: this going outside the domestic sphere (the aldeia), into the surrounding landscape to summon important spirits, which are then brought back as masked performers. The world far outside the village is the realm of those spirits.

The rock art sites in the canyons and along the outcrops of Serra da Capivara were likely a very similar destination for approaching the spirits associated with dry season or hunting ceremonies (especially those first ancestral hunters, culture heroes, or deities). But instead of donning masks and heading back into the village, the spirits were made present by painting, in the context of an exclusive (private, perhaps men-only) ritual that likely included other arts (body painting, masks, dancing, music, singing, and/or oration). This would have served to bond the increasingly complex societies of hunter-gatherer-foragers with their past; specifically, the hunters with their ancestral hunting past when the rockshelters were more frequently occupied. This would have grown increasingly important as the social divisions between hunters and food processors became more pronounced. The era just before the advent of horticulture or agriculture would have been, perhaps, the climax of this ceremonial tradition.

Therefore, it is proposed here that the Serra Branca, Salitre, and Angelim Styles date from the late Climatic Optimum transition: c. 3000 - 500 B.C. This proposal effectively broadens the chronology of the Nordeste Tradition in southeast Piauí by several thousand years—from the earliest confirmed date of 7700 B.C. (or 10,000 B.C. according to Guidon's proposed earliest date). This same date range probably applies to the very similar styles in the northern Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, as there is no evidence of either of these styles having been introduced from one region to the other, despite speculations to this effect.6 Most likely, the similarities in the Piauí and Bahia styles reflect a pan-regional ceremonial structure reinforced by intermittent contact or population movements. Due to the limited research on the styles in the northern Chapada Diamantina, it is very likely that as yet unidentified examples of these styles exist. But considering the current preliminary findings in the region, it is clear that a very substantial cultural connection existed between southeast Piauí and central Bahia when this rock art was a living tradition. Formally (i.e., stylistically) this connection is as substantial as other proposed Nordeste "subtraditions" (regional derivations of the Piauí rock art); arguably, even more so.

It is interesting to note here that the end of the Serra Talhada Phase of material culture (the original proposed date of the end of the Nordeste Tradition rock art and the proposed 'Nordeste abandonment') corresponds to the onset of the middle Holocene drought (the "Altithermal") in the Southwest United States (c. 4000 - 3000 B.C.).7 Remarkably similar styles of painting in this region8 have been dated to c. 2200 - 100 B.C.,9 corresponding to the Late Archaic onset of increased humidity (the sub-boreal interval, or "Medithermal") after the drought.10 Absolutely no cultural connection between the Southwest and Nordeste rock art traditions is in any way implied here. Rather, this is introduced as an example of a very similar, and well-dated phenomenon occurring in an arid ecosystem, when a return of more humid conditions followed a major drought event, and just before the advent of agriculture. This is merely a corollary case reinforcing the revised dates proposed for the Serra Branca, Salitre, and Angelim Styles; if, that is, the similar environmental changes and subsequent changes in adaptive strategies had some influence on the genesis of the rock art styles.11

Final Considerations

The Serra Branca, Salitre, and Angelim Styles of rock art were probably the product of dry season game or hunting-related ceremonies which developed (or which became increasingly important) after the onset of specific ecological conditions c. 3000 B.C. As incipient horticulture gave way to organized agricultural communities, this ceremonialism likely shifted from the rockshelters to performances within the aldeia. The same "characters" continued to play elemental roles, but the mediums used to make them "present" underwent changes—innovations in the materials and techniques, with a degree of continuity of the basic forms.

As for the "ethnicity" of the groups responsible for this rock art, the ethnographic and linguistic evidence only suggests that common ancestors of the Eastern Timbira, Northern Kayapó, and Akwé would have likely populated the region as early as the last millennium B.C. The formal similarities between the rock art and the living traditions suggest that a substantial degree of diffusion occurred, perhaps with the grand expansions of the Jê and Tupí language trunks that effectively dispersed certain mask types and associated ceremonial structures throughout northern and central Brazil. The likelihood of movements between the Nordeste and neighboring regions over the millennia is not out of the question.12 The long-distance raids of groups along the upper Tocantins River into Bahia was mentioned earlier (Chapter 2, p. 111, footnote 169). Additionally, Heckenberger discussed similar warfare-related movements into the Upper Xingu:

Xinguano oral history also documents numerous attacks by cannibalistic groups, clearly Tupian peoples who historically were concentrated to the north and northwest of the Upper Xingu. The Tupian groups to the north of the Upper Xingu, included various members of the Tupi-Guarani family (Kagwahiv / Pirintintin, Apiaká, Cayabi, Tapirapé and other groups of the lower and middle Tocantins and Xingu Rivers), the Mundurucu (and Kuruaya) and the Juruna (and Shipaya), among others. [emphasis added]13

The two oldest language groups in Central and Northeast Brazil, the Jê and Tupí, are known for their tradition of long-distance dry season hunting expeditions and raids against other villages.14 The similarities between the rock art and the masks need not have been the result of wholesale cultural diffusion (i.e., movements of entire populations from one region to another), but rather a less dramatic stimulus diffusion where the ideas and forms were gradually dispersed in successive populations fissionings or intermittent contacts with other groups.15


The Angelim Style, with its unique approach to form and noticeable lack of hunting or warfare iconography, represented a more individually expressed style of rock art. It was possibly involved with rites that did not necessarily have specific hunting or warfare implications, such as the Xerente name-giving ceremonies when they bring out their nan masks (metaphors for the ungainly seriema, recalling that bird's role in the origin of women) or the annual Imbú harvest festival of the Pankararu. Perhaps this indicates a gender-specific style or function (ceremonies more related to women's concerns than to men's). Again, this is highly speculative and mentioned here as simply a possibility.

The evidence and analyses presented in this dissertation reveal a sacred aesthetic that might very well have a direct connection to the living arts of the Brazilian Indians. The purely formal evidence suggests this, but no absolute archaeological or ethno-historical connection can be proved from the available data. The pitfalls of using living sources to inform interpretations of prehistoric art have been noted by Grieder, Kubler and Young, among others.16 Hence, the conclusions drawn here have been necessarily conservative and general. Some of Guidon and Pessis' original hypotheses have been confirmed. Modifications or alternatives have also been proposed here, which should be seen as complementary hypotheses based upon a different theoretical approach supported by the observable formal and iconographic similarities between the rock art and the living art. This approach has relied primarily upon the living arts of the Brazilian Indians and the rich sources of information available from their collected mytho-historic narratives. While it might seem somewhat futile to investigate the living arts in order to inform speculations about a long dead art form, especially considering the paucity of detailed conclusions offered here, it is nonetheless a most fruitful approach. Any conclusions or interpretations offered on the indigenous arts of Brazil (historic or prehistoric) must take into consideration every available source of information from the Indians themselves. Even if, as is usually the case in rock art research, the ultimate answer is: we just don't know what it means.


1. Guidon, "Ocupações pré-históricas," 48.

2. Guidon, "Seqüencia cultural," 142. Guidon considered only the earlier date in her proposed Salitre "subtradition" chronology, and even then stated that this was a working hypothesis.

3. Perna I (in the Serra Talhada, 3410, 3250, and 2970 B.C.); Extrema II (2780, 1400, 1150, 1010 B.C., and A.D. 530); Pinga do Boi (1370 and 1060 B.C.); and, Vento (1000, 930, and 840 B.C.) (FUMDHAM database).

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

5. Verswijver, Kaiapó, Amazonia, 33.

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.

7. Geib, "Radiocarbon Record," 121-123.

8. Morales, "Nordeste Paintings."

9. In Texas, direct samples of Pecos River Style paintings have confirmed the expected 2000 - 1000 B.C. date of the style (Chaffee, Hyman, and Rowe, "AMS 14C Dating;" Hyman and Rowe, Plasma extraction and AMS 14C dating;" Ilger et al., "Dating Pictographs;" Russ et al., Radiocarbon dating;" and, Russ, Hyman, and Rowe, "Direct radiocarbon dating"). In Utah, direct samples of Barrier Canyon Style paintings have yielded dates of 1880 - 1520 B.C., 1010 - 780 B.C., and 340 B.C. - A.D. 10 (Tipps, "Holocene Archaeology").

10. Jennings, "Prehistory: Introduction," 113; Curtis Schaafsma, "Settlement Patterns," 64. See also Geib, "Radiocarbon Record," and Glen Canyon Revisited, for a discussion of the continuous occupation of the Colorado Plateau during the Late Archaic drought, rather than a wholesale abandonment of the region and subsequent re-population by a different culture, or "ethnic" group.

11. See Turpin, "Wing and a Prayer," for a discussion of scalar stress as a possible impetus for the advent of Pecos River Style rock art.

12. Pedro Agostinho, personal communication 2000.

13. Heckenberger, "War and Peace in the Shadow of Empire," 236.

14. Ibid., 237.

15. See Fingerhut, Explorers of Pre-Columbian America, x; and, Grieder, Origins of Pre-Columbian Art, 10.

16. As mentioned in the Introduction (pp. 2-3) and also in the discussion of ethnographic analogy versus Structuralist semiotics at the beginning of Chapter 3.

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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