Pre-Columbian Tribes Had BBQs, Parties on Grave Sites

Alexis Okeowo
for National Geographic News
December 05, 2008
Some pre-Hispanic cultures in South America had elaborate celebrations at their cemeteries, complete with feasting and drinking grounds much like modern barbecue pits, according to a new archaeological study.

Excavations of 12th- and-13th-century burial mounds in the highlands of Brazil and Argentina revealed numerous earthen ovens. The finds suggest that the graves were also sites of regular festivals held to commemorate the death of the community's chief.

"After they buried an important person on the burial grounds, they feasted on meat that had been steamed in the earth ovens and drank maize beer," said archaeologist and study co-author José Iriarte.

Large rings of raised earth surround the mounds, with paths leading to their centers. The rings are composed of a series of the ovens, which were built up over generations.

"This monumental tradition spread across kilometers, from southern São Paulo state in Brazil to Río Grande del Sur in Argentina," added Iriarte, a professor of archaeology at the University of Exeter in the U.K.

The Jê people, who occupied the area Iriarte refers to during the 12th and 13th centuries, are recorded as having often consumed an alcoholic beverage of maize and honey.

"They carried out these festivities in a period of the year when pine nuts [eaten at celebrations] and maize were abundant," Iriarte added. "These were important resources to them."

Researchers found ceramic vessels such as bowls and small drinking cylinders that still contained residues of corn. Unidentifiable animal remains were also discovered.

The findings are published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity.

Complex Societies

Archaeologists traditionally viewed the Jeê people as small, nomadic groups. But these discoveries prove that theory wrong, Iriarte said.

"This is an unexpected development in this part of southern America," he said.

"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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