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Acts, practices, and the creation of place: Geoarchaeology of a Terra Preta de Índio site in the Central Amazon


My dissertation investigates inconsistencies in the ways Amazonia has been presented to the public and within archaeology as a discipline. It does so by bringing methods from the earth sciences to bear on sites that resist interpretation under widely accepted models for habitation of pre-Columbian Amazonia. Terra Preta de Índio, a type of Amazonian Dark Earth, is a dark soil produced by deliberate human action that functions as key evidence for intensive environmental and landscape remodeling in pre-Columbian Amazonia. Terra preta sites have been recognized in recent decades as likely resulting from large, permanently settled populations previously believed to be absent from Amazonia. My dissertation reconstructs patterns of daily life and village organization at a terra preta site, Antônio Galo, as a means of constructing an alternative narrative about Amazonia's past.

Prevalent narratives about Amazonia cast the region as homogenous and static, exotic, yet culturally decadent. These deeply embedded images of Amazonia have roots in early narratives of `discovery' and `exploration,' which are tightly interwoven with colonialist projects. Historically, archaeological contributions to knowledge about Amazonia, which make use of notions of social complexity that emerge from colonialist notions about `civilization,' also cast Amazonia as empty and its people as passive in its development. Through an exploration of place, I examine the construction of these narratives, and then employ data that speak to Native Amazonians' active role in constructing the landscape to propose alternative narratives for Amazonia and its people.

In order to detect material traces of past acts of remodeling embedded in the archaeological soil and sediment matrix, I developed a geoarchaeological approach to investigating the household scale at Antônio Galo. I approach the matrix as a particulate body that mediates the relationship between people and their environments and also serves as the stage upon which lives are enacted. Moving away from indices of social complexity, which do not adequately address the scale of daily life in Amazonia, I examine macroscopically visible and invisible traces of the past to reconstruct places created and inhabited by people in the past. Field observations of landscape and environmental remodeling are supplemented by chemical, sedimentological, and microartifactual signatures that help to identify and characterize ancient habitation surfaces and features. Through this nuanced understanding of the various iterations of activity areas, houses, and villages that existed at Antônio Galo, I consider village organization, spatial parsing of activities, and the movement of bodies, in an attempt to recapitulate the lives of people that created and inhabited these places in the past.

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