The Brazilian World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara – The Oldest Traces of Settlement in America?

Photographic exhibition on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara with images of archaeological sites, the natural environment and local culture.

Serra da Capivara in north-eastern Brazil is known for its unique archaeological sites, including famous rock paintings, which are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscape of Serra da Capivara is dominated by a type of desert shrubland known as Caatinga, also called mata branca (‘white forest’). The name refers to the white-coloured bark of the trees and shrubs, which turns the vegetation entirely white once the green leaves have dropped during the dry season.

The exhibition ‘The Brazilian World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara – The Oldest Traces of Settlement in America?’, featuring photography by André Pessoa, showcases not just archaeological research but also the fascinating flora and fauna, and local cultures and traditions. As part of the exhibition, the ZDF documentary film ‘Sensational Find in Brazil – the Oldest Americans’, part of the ‘Terra X’ series, is being shown, as well as the research findings of the DFG-funded project ‘The beginning of food production in semiarid north-east Brazil: the example of Serra da Capivara, Piauí’, carried out by the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). The project ‘Viveiro Mata Branca’ being carried out by the IEC - Caatinga Ecological Institute and the ProBrasil Association aims to protect and replant plant species which are native to the Caatinga.

A broad-tipped hermit nibbles on a cactus blossom

A broad-tipped hermit nibbles on a cactus blossom

© André Pessoa

Visitors also gain an insight into the research results of the DFG-funded project ‘The beginning of food production in semiarid north-east Brazil: the example of Serra da Capivara, Piauí’, carried out by the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures at the German Archaeological Institute.

The exhibition also presents the project ‘Viveiro Mata Branca’, conducted by the organisation [A1] of the same name, with the aim of protecting and replanting plant species which are native to the Caatinga. In dialogue with local schools, the organisation especially wants to raise awareness among young people of the uniqueness and conservation of Serra da Capivara.

The exhibition demonstrates in an awe-inspiring way the importance of the World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara to archaeology, biodiversity and culture both within the region and beyond.

Opening on 17 May 2017

At the opening of the exhibition at its first venue, the Brazilian embassy in Berlin, the Brazilian ambassador to Germany, Mario Vilalva, expressed how pleased his government was to be able to support German-Brazilian cooperation in science. He was inspired by the quality of the collaboration: “This exhibition is just one example of what both countries have already achieved through scientific collaboration.” Wellington Dias, the governor of the state of Piauí, where Serra da Capivara is situated, travelled to Berlin specially for the opening of the exhibition, and emphasised the responsibility associated with the fact that the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “We must look after the Serra with the care it deserves,” Dias noted. At the same time, the state is home to the poorest people on average in Brazil. “Above all, we must invest in education – that is the key,” the governor said.

DFG Secretary General Dorothee Dzwonnek stated the two aims of the exhibition. Firstly, it enables visitors to discover the natural beauty of Serra da Capivara, and secondly, it highlights a scientific and archaeological question: the search for the oldest traces of settlement on the American continent. “If research actually shows that the settlement of America took place much earlier than we thought, this cannot be regarded highly enough,” said Dzwonnek. She pointed out that archaeological research can answer universal questions of identity, such as “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where do we go from here?”

Although these philosophical questions had to remain open, a panel discussion organised by the DFG addressed some of the concrete questions surrounding what may be the oldest traces of settlement in America. Researchers whose work is directly connected with the archaeological sites of Serra da Capivara, explained the current state of their research.

According to prevalent scholarly opinion, especially in US archaeology, the only reliable evidence of the first settlement of America is to be found in the Clovis culture, named after a site in North America. The traces left by this culture are mainly carefully worked flint spearheads – finds which are about 13,000 years old. “For American researchers it’s almost inconceivable that in Serra da Capivara we’ve found artefacts which can be dated to much earlier,” said archaeologist Professor Dr. Eric Boëda from Paris, who has been researching in the region for a long time. His colleague Professor Dr. Eduardo Góes Neves from the University of São Paulo added: “The scientific dispute as to whether there is evidence of settlement in America that is older than Clovis also has a political dimension – which shows that archaeology isn’t just concerned with the past, but also influences the present.” Dr. Markus Reindel from the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) believes that the Clovis theory is no longer tenable: “All that remains to be discussed now is how far back we can date the finds.” In his view, the rock art and artefacts in Serra da Capivara are of crucial importance – but certainly not the only ones to predate the Clovis culture. He believes that much older signs of settlement are probably waiting to be found in Chile, Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

The question remains as to where the people who decorated the rock walls in Serra da Capivara with their paintings, leaving their mark for future generations to find, came from. Until now the theory was that humans first reached North America via an ice-free corridor, in other words after the retreat of the continental ice sheet, crossing the Bering Strait, which was then above sea level (Beringia), before spreading rapidly across the continent.

Now it is speculated that the first settlers may have moved along the coasts or even crossed the ocean – which of course presupposes that they were already using boats. Whether this was possible is just one of many unanswered questions.

As well as signs of occupation, archaeology addresses the question of when the early people of America changed from living as hunter-gatherers to establishing permanent settlements. A DFG-funded research project at the DAI is dedicated to this very question. In Serra da Capivara, Reindel has also studied botanical remains which could be from food production in a period from approximately 4,000 BC to 1,000 BC. It is hoped that these will help to determine when the transition from a hunter-gatherer economy to agriculture took place.

The many different research projects and the numerous questions still to be answered by research, which were addressed during the panel discussion, illustrated once again what DFG Secretary General Dzwonnek had already mentioned in her welcome address: “Publicly funded archaeological research,” said Dzwonnek, “is of immense importance to the public. This exhibition demonstrates exactly that.”

Exhibition venues:

  • 17 May - 30 June 2017: Brazilian embassy, Berlin
  • 11 July 2017 - 15 January 2018: German Research Foundation (DFG), Berlin
  • 25 January - 8 April 2018: Wissenschaftszentrum, Bonn