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


6 July 2002




This dissertation addresses the Nordeste Tradition1 of rock art from southeast Piauí, Brazil, as part of a sacred aesthetic still reflected in the living arts of the Brazilian Indians. Two major points are presented in this dissertation. First, a previously unrecognized style of rock painting, the Angelim Style, is identified. Second, a deeper understanding of the Nordeste Tradition is proposed through a detailed study of the historic arts of the Brazilian Indians. This provides a historic significance for the rock art and contextualizes the historically known arts as part of a long-lived tradition of visual expression. The rock art of the Serra Branca and Angelim Styles, and the Salitre Subtradition is characterized by elaborate, elongated anthropomorphs that bear a significant resemblance to several living mask types used by Northeast and Central Brazilian Indian groups. The historically documented ceremonies associated with seasonal resource procurement, death, and ancestors, most likely have a functional and conceptual basis in the same ceremonial structures that gave rise to the rock art.

The value of "style" as a highly effective culturally diagnostic tool is well established. The formal qualities of style, when properly understood, can accurately identify when and by whom a work was produced. Style itself can also carry meaning beyond subject matter (this is discussed in detail on pages 10-13). The term "art" is used in this dissertation (e.g., "rock art") as is a typically Western art historical and critical approach. This is not only appropriate but very useful despite the non-Western material addressed in this dissertation. The entire debate over "art" or "not-art" is inconsequential to the analyses of style and meaning put forth here.2 While there has been a significant amount of material published on shamanism, altered states of consciousness and associated entoptic phenomena as the fundamental source for prehistoric rock art production, the ethnographic evidence indicates that these have only circumstantial significance with regard to the actual production of rock art in Brazil. Among each of the groups discussed in this dissertation art production is not the purvue of the shamans, but that of the sponsors of a specific ceremony where the presence of the spirits is required (this is discussed on pages 173-175).

Due to the yawning gulf of time that separates the prehistoric art from the modern arts it is impossible to conclude that specific meanings have remained intact through the millennia. George Kubler considered continuity the "principle substance" necessary for any accurate iconological study of an artistic tradition through time.3 In her study of Zuni rock art and living ceremonialism, M. Jane Young acknowledged that "contemporary identifications must be projected onto prehistory or even recent history with only the greatest caution and a full recognition of the dynamic aspects of tradition—the changes as well as the continuity."4 As Terence Grieder noted:

Analogy is the method by which verbal narrative traditions may be brought to bear on ancient forms. The modesty of the claim for analogy is worth pointing out: it merely states a comparison. Usually the observer has a narrative tradition for which he can only imagine a possible material form, and a set of ancient symbols in material form for which he can only imagine a possible narrative. The coincidence of the imagined form with the extant one, or the imagined narrative with the preserved one, is the basis of comparison. The onus rests on the observer to show that more than mere comparison is valid. But the analogist can take courage from the fact that the extinction of one tradition does not imply the extinction of other traditions, each of which depends upon particular circumstances.... With a full catalogue of images, with the archaeological record, including ceramics, with an awareness of evidence of disjunction, and with historical and ethnographic records to provide one end of the traditions of content, we can attain reasonably good descriptions of the more recent prehistoric cultures, and at least increase the evidential base for speculation about the remote ones.5

These concerns are acknowledged and taken into account in the analyses presented in this dissertation. Based upon ethnographically reinforced ideas of how, when, and why the historic forms appear in indigenous Brazilian art, an informed approach to a better understanding—not a literal reading—of the rock art is proposed. This approach is necessarily conservative, as required by the exigencies of the materials at hand.

Several Serra da Capivara Style and Serra Talhada Complex compositions are reviewed to provide a basis for a detailed analysis of specific Serra Branca Style and Salitre Subtradition compositions. The primary sites addressed in this dissertation are Caboclo, Boqueirão do Paraguaio II, Salitre, Morcego, and Angelim do Barreirinho.6 Representative, well documented mask types and the mytho-historic narratives associated with them are used to inform a comparative analysis of the possible meaning and function of the rock art. These include the elevated radial diadem of the Kayapó; the conical full-body masks from Northeast and Central Brazil; and the rectangular wood and fiber masks of the Upper Xingu cultural area.



1. The various painting traditions, subtraditions, and styles are summarized in Chart 1, p. 17.

2. For a thorough discussion of the "but is it art?" debate, see the author's forthcoming chapter, "Considerations on the Art and Aesthetics of Rock Art," in Rock Art and Aesthetics (provisional title), edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg. For an excellent example of a Western (if that can even be considered an appropriate adjective) art historical and critical approach to non-Western art, see Babatunde Lawal's analysis of Yoruba masking and performance in The Gèlèdé Spectacle.

3. Kubler, History of Things, 27. Kubler was specifically referring to the relatively unbroken chain of texts from Greco-Roman times to the present as the necessary sources for iconological studies of Western art.

4. Young, Signs from the Ancestors, 220.

5. Grieder, "Interpretation of Ancient Symbols," 853-854.

6. All the site names begin with "Toca do/da" (shelter of), e.g., "Toca da Boqueirão do Paraguaio II." For clarity and brevity the words "Toca do/da" will be dropped in this dissertation; e.g., " Boqueirão do Paraguaio II " instead of "Toca da Boqueirão do Paraguaio II."


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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Department of Art History,
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA.
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