Archaeologist Eduardo Neves on how indigenous peoples created Brazilian biomes

Feb. 22, 2021

On Friday, February 12, the Brazil LAB hosted an online discussion with Eduardo G. Neves, Professor of Archaeology at the University of São Paolo, and Tiffany C. Fryer, Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton’s Society of Fellows and Lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and the Department of Anthropology. The event was moderated by Carlos Fausto, Princeton Global Scholar and Professor of Anthropology at Brazil’s Museu Nacional. 

Eduardo Neves, who has been practicing archaeology in the Amazon for over 30 years, focused on his current work in the Madeira Basin (south-western Amazon), drawing attention to the past and future of Brazilian biomes, specifically the roles and responsibilities of indigenous peoples in creating and caring for them. Bringing to bear a wide range of evidence and analysis from LIDAR images, archaeobotanical remains, ethnoarchaeological insights and historical archaeology, Neves argued that Amazonian biomes result as much from natural forces as from indigenous forces. Such biomes – as they exist today, at the intersection of deforestation, agri-business, ecological ruptures and developmental intrusions –, Neves argued, cannot be understood without the critical role and stewardship of Amazonian indigenous peoples. 

Neves also reflected on the role that indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon have in collaborating on his project. Neves highlighted that his partners are beginning to use archaeology to further land-claims, reemphasize their roles as caretakers and creators of diversified landscapes, pushing the boundaries of colonial binaries between wild/domesticated, natural/cultural that continue to animate contemporary developmental and political thinking. 

In her response to Neves, Fryer reaffirmed the stakes in considering the role of indigenous peoples in a space like the Amazon, which is so often written off as being ‘natural’ and ‘pristine.’ Fryer also emphasized the need to use archaeology to enable and give life to alternate political imaginaries of what it means to care for and inhabit natural and cultural landscapes. Such evidence, Fryer argued, can also help reorient conventional notions of infrastructure by taking into account indigenous artificial mounds, geoglyphs, roads and landforms created by Amazonian tribes. Fausto, calling attention to the circulation of people, things, ideas, and trajectories of indigenous stewardship encouraged reflection on the social and political formations that go along with these distinctive archaeological signatures of the Amazon. 

The discussions that followed the presentation included graduate students and faculty from Princeton, and a range of other interdisciplinary collaborators and participants of the Brazil LAB. Based on the discussion, Neves highlighted specific cases of indigenous stewardship and the critical manner in which Amazonian archaeology can and must address questions of racism in Brazil exacerbated by the current political moment in the country, where the official discourse is against indigenous people who are seen to be holding back the potential of the Amazon. For Neves, the power of archaeology goes along with his indigenous collaborators’ pushes back against local and global imaginaries of the Amazon as a tabula rasa, whilst reviving and illuminating ancient signatures of indigenous guardianship over the land they inhabit today.

The event was co-sponsored by the High Meadows Environmental Institute, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Indigenous Studies Initiative, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.