Pre-Columbian Tribes Had BBQs, Parties on Grave Sites

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"We think we are in the presence of a sizable, regionally organized population."

Along with the ovens, the team found big subterranean houses complete with roofs in a region rich with diverse plant and animal species, a desirable place to settle down, Iriarte added.

"They were able to combine hunting and gathering, horticulture, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture to sustain large populations," said Iriarte, who has been conducting archaeological digs in the area for years and is considered an expert on Jê culture.

Michael Heckenberger, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Florida who specializes in the Amazon, explained that the environment in southern Brazil was previously believed to be difficult for sustaining large populations.

"But I think it is very clear that [Iriarte and colleagues] have demonstrated that these were more than marginal tribes," Heckenberger said.

"This is part of a growing body of research that shows that groups of people in lowlands in Brazil had large, socially complex groupings, sociopolitical organization and social patterns including feasting," he added.

The new evidence also shows that, opposed to other peoples in the region, the Jê had settlements and celebrations that were more dynamic and permanent, Heckenberger added.

(See related: "Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network" [August 28, 2008].)

Social Status

Other evidence has shown that the burial parties were reserved for renowned chiefs—who inherited their leadership positions—demonstrating "a moderate degree of political complexity," said Iriarte, whose work was funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

The chief's son usually sponsored the festivities, Iriarte added. That way, "the relative reaffirmed ties to ancestors and to his position in society."

The Jê were also reaffirming their territory, according to Iriarte. Around A.D. 1000, several other groups of people were migrating around the Brazilian and Argentine highlands. The burial monuments, situated on hilltops or ridges, clearly outlined Jê communities, Iriarte said.

"They are really marking their land," he added.

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