DFG Serra da Capivara Exhibition Makes First Appearance in Brazil

Young visitors from the indigenous Xukuru-Kariri people


(31.07.18) As part of the 70th annual meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), which took place at the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL) in Maceió between 22 and 27 July, the DFG Office Latin America and the German House for Research and Innovation São Paulo presented the exhibition ‘The Brazilian World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara – The Oldest Traces of Settlement in America?’. The stunning photographs illustrating the region’s biodiversity and archaeological sites, which were being exhibited in Brazil for the first time, attracted a large number of visitors.

About 60 people attended the opening event organised by the DFG to hear a discussion between archaeologist Prof. Dr. Demétrio Mutzenberg, photojournalist André Pessoa and historian Uwe Weibrecht on research into the settlement of the Americas.

In the 1980s, excavations led by Prof. Dr. Niéde Guidon in Serra da Capivara resulted in the discovery of finds that were many thousands of years old – possibly the oldest traces of human settlement in America. Guidon’s first article in Nature in 1986 described the finds as being 32,000 years old and called into question the generally accepted theory that America was settled no earlier than 15,000 years ago. Prior to this, the oldest known artefacts belonged to the Clóvis culture, which existed 12,000 years ago in what is now the US state of New Mexico.

“Most researchers stopped excavating when they reached the 10,000- to 12,000-year-old layers, assuming that there was nothing further to be discovered. But Niéde Guidon kept on looking, and at the time she was the only one finding such old artefacts, with the result that many people doubted the credibility of her conclusions,” explained Pessoa, who has been following and photographically capturing the research work in the Serra da Capivara for 25 years.

Today, the Clóvis culture theory is no longer the only recognised reconstruction of the complex process regarding the settlement of the American continent. “New findings are increasingly casting doubt on this theory, but at the time Niéde’s discoveries were an anachronism that created a mystery. Today this data serves as the basis for further research in the semiarid north-east of Brazil, Chile, Mexico and the USA,” said Prof. Dr. Mutzenberg.

Northeastern Brazil, particularly Serra da Capivara in the state of Piauí, still offers considerable untapped potential for researchers. “Unfortunately the region has faced prejudice for a long time due to its slower pace of development, especially in social terms. But Piauí is also home to the world’s largest intact caatinga landscape. For scientists it offers a wealth of biodiversity and other unique characteristics which have yet to be studied,” said Pessoa. The fact that the natural landscapes and archaeological sites are still largely intact is due to the fact that unlike the neighbouring states of Pernambuco, Bahia and Ceará, Piauí has seen no major development projects.

A visitor watches the documentary film on Serra da Capivara


However, the differences in temperature between day and night, so typical of this kind of terrain, cause cracks to develop in rock formations, causing the gradual breaking-off and destruction of rock slabs with their prehistoric paintings. To preserve the World Heritage Site of Serra da Capivara, researchers from the specially created FUMDHAM foundation are using three-dimensional documentation techniques and georeferencing technology.

200 of the 800 archaeological sites have already been surveyed using these techniques, which allow uneven surfaces such as boulders to be surveyed and the depth of drawings to be mapped. This generates data in the form of videos, photographs and high-precision 3D models, which can be used to analyse degradation over time and design suitable protective measures.

The work of photographer André Pessoa plays an important role in this process, as the 3D surveys are planned by first analysing high-resolution photographs. In the case of more complex pictures, comparing two-dimensional photos and 3D projections also gives researchers new perspectives with which to interpret the paintings.

Geographical surveying allows data on the archaeological sites to be integrated in national and international databases. There are more than 2,300 entries for the semiarid north-east, containing extensive material for future research. Mutzenberg explains how this information can be used to draw up statistics and identify particular patterns of representation. The identification of common features and differences in the paintings may help us better understand the process and history of prehistoric settlement in the region.

“But it will fall to future generations of researchers to fit together the pieces of the puzzle to answer these questions. For this reason, it’s very important to recruit more researchers to this project and, as the DFG for example is doing, create and promote international cooperation,” adds Uwe Weibrecht, moderator of the opening event and initiator of the exhibition.

Over the last few years the DFG has been funding a joint project between the FUMDHAM foundation and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). “We are keen to support important research projects of this kind and make it possible for even more bilateral projects with this relevance to be funded,” said Dr. Kathrin Winkler, director of the DFG’s Latin America office.

The exhibition also attracted a great deal of media interest, being featured on the daily morning news programme Bom Dia Alagoas broadcast by TV Gazeta, part of the Globo group.