The first human inhabitants may have arrived here as far back as 10,000 BC. Archaeologists have been investigating the human history of the region for over 200 years. But in what might be called the 'colonial Guianas' - Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana - only in the last 40 years has archaeology been 'indigenised,' and most fieldwork has been done by foreigners conducting their investigations with the inevitable biases of their own cultures and climates. It was only in the late 1960s that Denis Williams, the first true native Guyanese archaeologist, began his fieldwork, and only last year was his comprehensive work on the early human settlement of Guiana published.
When Williams died in 1998, he left Prehistoric Guiana more or less complete, though he and his companion and colleague Jennifer Wishart had covered the manuscript with handwritten notes. Thanks to the financial support of the Government of Guyana, archaeologist Mark Plew of Boise State University spent a year editing these papers into publishable form.
Prehistoric Guiana is the major work of the last phase of Williams's career - a career over which he reinvented himself several times, as artist, novelist, art historian, and finally as archaeologist. This book is not easy going for the non-specialist reader. Williams wrote it primarily for an audience of fellow scholars; though his prose is never unclear, it necessarily deploys squadrons of technical terms, and presupposes the reader's familiarity with principle and method. But there is a fascinating narrative here - a mystery story, almost - which the ordinary reader can follow with patience.
In the late 1940s, the American anthropologist Julian Steward assigned the term "tropical forest culture" to the indigenous inhabitants of Guiana and the Amazon basin. He hypothesised that these peoples originated in the circum-Caribbean area, and over the millennia spread along the coast of South America and into the Amazon. Researchers immediately set about looking for data to test and sometimes dispute this hypothesis. At its heart, the debate concerns two questions. Could complex cultures, defined by agriculture, technology, social systems, art, etc, have developed or thrived in the tropical lowlands of South America? And did cultural traits spread from more developed centres in the Andean highlands to the less developed eastern lowlands, or vice versa?
Early archaeologists, struck by the absence from Guiana and the Amazon of the kinds of ruins associated with Inca civilisation, and by the small, sometimes nomadic communities of present- day Amerindians, believed that the tropical lowland forests were incapable of supporting dense, long-term human settlements. This view was influentially summarised by Betty Meggers - who contributes a foreword to Prehistoric Guiana - in Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (1971). She argued that the green expanse of the tropical rainforest is misleading; jungle soils are shallow, acidic, and quickly leached by the heavy rain. The ecosystem's nutrients are mostly contained in the living vegetation, and when land is cleared for agriculture the soil is soon exhausted. "A society with advanced social stratification and occupational division of labour cannot evolve in a tropical forest environment where agriculture is by slash-and-burn," Meggers declared, and "should such a culture penetrate into the tropical lowlands, it will not be able to develop further... but will decline until it reaches the simplicity characteristic of forest tribes."
But the apparent lack of evidence for large, culturally complex settlements of the kind found in the Andes can be explained. In the wet tropics things decay rapidly - wood, baskets, textiles, human and animal remains, even some kinds of pottery. Heavy forest cover can obscure earthworks; fluctuating water levels can obliterate settlement sites on riverbanks. Archaeologists must look for other forms of evidence, and learn new methods of interpretation.
In the 1980s, Anna Roosevelt re-excavated sites at Marajo in the mouth of the Amazon, and concluded that the island had once supported a population of perhaps over 100,000 people for a period of a thousand years - hardly a failed offshoot of some Andean civilisation. Some botanists suggested that the diversity of Amazonian flora may have been the result of human activity - that some parts of the forest were in fact ancient orchards. Soil geographers began to chart areas where soils were not poor and thin but deep and fertile; some anthropologists theorised that these terra preta patches had been created and tended for hundreds of years by farmers. In other words, evidence of complex, large-scale settlement of the tropical lowlands had been there all along - not in the form of ruined cities, but in the landscape itself.
In Prehistoric Guiana, Denis Williams rejects "the notion of the inherent poverty of the Tropical Forest Lowlands as regards the availability of archaeological materials." Analysing pottery sherds, he notes the composition of the clay and tempering materials; correlating these with the geology of Guiana, he can hypothesise trade routes and patterns of migration. He uses the evidence of petroglyphs to deduce details of social, economic, and religious traits.
The very earliest human inhabitants of western Guiana, Williams suggests, may have been attracted to the area around 9,000 to 8,000 BC by the jasper outcrops of the Pakaraimas, so suitable for the manufacture of spearheads. They then spread outwards, following the drainage pattern north to the coast, east to the Essequibo, and south to the Amazon.
By 5,000 BC, a group Williams associates with today's Warrau had settled on the north-west coast of Guiana, between the mouths of the Orinoco and the Essequibo. Excavation of surviving shell mounds suggests they were shell fishers. Early on, they established trade routes with groups in the hinterland.
Around 2,000 BC, a sustained period of low rainfall lowered river levels across the tropical lowlands and stimulated widespread migrations. Williams suggests that a group from the mouth of the Amazon reached the north-west Guiana coast, bringing with them the knowledge of pottery-making.
Simultaneously, the early Arawaks began travelling from the upper Rio Negro down the Orinoco and the Amazon, bringing knowledge of cassava cultivation and preparation.
Some Arawaks of the Orinoco migration are thought to have colonised the islands of the Caribbean; others turned south-east from the Orinoco delta, where they encountered the Warrau. Meanwhile, Arawaks of the Amazon migration turned north along the Rio Trombetas and crossed the watershed to the Corentyne, which they followed to the sea, then moved along the coast in both directions.
Some time during the first millennium BC, the Karinya - today's Caribs - settled along the upper Pomeroon River, near the north-west Guiana coast. From here, some groups spread south-eastwards along the coast, occupying areas not already settled by Arawaks; others, the ancestors of today's Akawaio, spread south along the rivers into the forested Guiana hinterland.
In accounting for the distribution of these cultural groups across Guiana at the end of the prehistoric period, Williams presents a degree of detail daunting to the non-specialist. Certain repetitions are confusing, as are a number of typographical errors - including some entirely incorrect page references. Many of the maps and illustrations are reproduced badly or too reduced in size to be useful; others seem to be missing altogether. A single chart or table summarising the cultural sequence would be enormously helpful; I found myself trying to draft my own version on the flyleaf.
What are clear are Williams's opinions on the vexed questions of tropical forest culture. He knew the research of Betty Meggers and her husband and colleague Clifford Evans, and of Anna Roosevelt. He agrees with Meggers and Evans that the lowland rainforest is unfavourable to certain cultural traits. But he points out that on the West African coast the city states of the Yoruba and Benin kingdoms flourished in tropical rainforests: "there appears to be nothing inherently limiting on cultural development in the Tropical Forest environment."
Williams is suspicious of the 'Andes-to- Amazon' theory of cultural diffusion. He also seems to question the idea that for a society to be considered advanced, it must develop a complex social hierarchy; he argues that in the tropical forest lowlands "the egalitarian social structure of the typically small, self-contained settlement was evidently the most efficiently adaptive organisational stratagem." He notes the early development of "interethnic coastal-hinterland" trade routes along Guiana's rivers, and the careful balance of community labour exchange that made possible the intensive cultivation of cassava.
In some ways, Prehistoric Guiana can tell us as much about the Guyana of today as it does about the Guiana of the remote past. During the last 25 years of his life, Williams was one of the most influential people in the cultural life of Guyana. He worked for the government as Director of Art; he was the founder and first principal of the Burrowes School of Art, established the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, served as chairman of the National Trust, and was instrumental in the development of the National Gallery of Art. It's clear he saw himself as helping to script Guyana's national story - and saw his archaeological research as filling in the earliest chapters, the prequel, as it were. In his preface to Prehistoric Guiana he writes:
in the name "Guiana" is enshrined the several mutually distinctive histories of all these [Amerindian] peoples, our spiritual ancestors. There simply is no alternative route to a national self-image.
So it's intriguing to note how frequently he emphasises particular traits of the "spiritual ancestors" of today's Guyanese. These ancient peoples, he takes pains to explain, were egalitarian; their economy was based on reciprocity, tight-knit communities sharing the labour of cassava cultivation, thriving through collective effort. What better ancestry for a nation that in 1970 declared itself a co-operative republic? Williams also stresses that different prehistoric groups lived peacefully in close contact, exchanging ideas and technologies, in a kind of idyllic multiculturalism. What more exemplary past for a nation struggling to contain ethnic strife, with the violence of the 1960s still fresh in memory?
Indirectly, Prehistoric Guiana also raises some important questions about the place of Amerindians in modern Guyana. To an outside observer, it's striking how assiduously Guyana asserts the idea of an Amerindian heritage. Guyana's writers and artists have been especially keen to demonstrate some kind of continuity between Amerindian culture and contemporary creativity. From AJ Seymour's poem The Legend of Kaieteur to the timehri motifs in Aubrey Williams's paintings to the intricate allusions in Wilson Harris's novels, an Amerindian presence haunts Guyana's modern art and literature. This presence is usually portrayed as ancient, or timeless, with a special access to profound wisdom. Amerindian imagery often seems an easy shortcut to the mystical.
Above all, Guyana's idea of its Amerindian heritage is one of permanence. It's not hard to understand why this is attractive. "Two oceans, symbolic and real, impinge on modem Guyana," writes Harris. "The Atlantic has tested the coastland peoples for generations. They have fought a long battle with the sea to maintain their homes. The vast interior at their back is another, equally complex, ocean." Imperiled on both sides, and always struggling to keep the fragile balance between ethnic fears and ambitions, Guyana - or the cultural authorities who see themselves responsible for maintaining the story of 'Guyana' - longs for a foothold of certainty, for something as solid as the rock in which the petroglyphs of five millennia ago were cut.
How this carefully tended concept of Amerindian Guyana compares with the facts of life for the Amerindians of today's Guyana is a question beyond the scope of this review. Still, it is difficult to read Prehistoric Guiana and not feel that Denis Williams's patient, dispassionate presentation of his data is also a passionate claim to a spiritual heritage. And whatever you think of this claim, Prehistoric Guiana is a major achievement of scholarship. I hope some of the copies now languishing on the bookshelves of Georgetown will soon find themselves readers; and that some of those readers will ask themselves hard questions about the real Amerindian presence in this enigma trying to be a nation.