The archaeologist's dream

Updated: Mar 11

Interview with Stéphen Rostain by Jean-Marc Desrosiers

(Version originale en Français ci-dessous - Original version in French below)

Jean-Marc Desrosiers: Stéphen Rostain, you are research director at the CNRS (The French National Centre for Scientific Research), thesis director, author, archaeologist, often in the field in the Amazon, but at the same time you are the leader of a rediscovery of the Amazon. This virgin forest in our collective imagination would in fact be a land shaped by its first inhabitants! How did this thesis come about?

Stéphen Rostain: In fact, it is a whole group of non-conformists who have helped to revise the prejudices that have long dominated people's minds. In the twentieth century, we followed the theory of ecological determinism, which suggests the culture was determined by the geography. In the 1980s a generation of anthropologists contradicted the passive alienation of Native Americans from the weight of nature. On the contrary, their research shows that current forest populations ingeniously manage their environment.

Later, I helped provide evidence that this intimate interaction between humans and nature was even more intense in the past. Pre-Columbian agricultural traces such as the immense flood-prone savannas covered with raised fields - like those I discovered in Guyana - or the enormous spaces of anthropogenic black earth along the Amazon which directly bear witness to this past grandeur.

JD: Let's take a look at one of the most exceptional sites, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018: Chiribiquete. For all those who discover the photos, Chiribiquete is a real shock: a site of exceptional beauty and breathtaking cave paintings. I believe that you are among the few archaeologists to have been able to go there?

SR: This is a place that at first glance is completely inhospitable to humans, sandwiched between the Andes to the west, the Guyanas to the east, the Colombian savannas to the north and the dense Amazon rainforest to the south. Seen from the sky, Chiribiquete, in Colombia, offers a lunar landscape of plateaus cut into sharp points and poor in vegetation. A few eerie rivers with dark waters at night, edged with Siberian white beaches and golden swirling eddies flow in narrow and deep gorges before disappearing. Out of this apocalyptic desolation emerge extraordinary rock formations with perfectly vertical walls and uneven terrain. They are tepuyes.

There, the Amerindians have painted for millennia grandiose panels on the site of Chiribiquete. The term site is also limiting because there are actually dozens of distinct decorated places. Each brings together a multitude of patterns and creatures and various signs that participate in a giant pictorial zoo. To date, more than 75,000 designs have been recognized on the walls of 58 rock shelters distributed at the foot of the various tepuis. Much more, La Lindosa, another set of tepuis further north, also preserve equally astonishing rock art.

JD: One cannot help but seek explanations for these cave paintings. What are the current possible meanings of these paintings?

SR: A first glance at the works suggests bats, tapirs, jaguars, fish and other animals. Yet a closer look reveals inconsistent details that invalidate a secure identification. They are striped jaguars, tailless and with too many claws, or figures with insect-like bodies. Neither animals nor humans, these beings probably belong to the wonderful world of Amerindian mythology. This strange community undoubtedly constitutes a set of mythical pictograms, involving animals, humans, non-humans, spirits, plants, masters of nature and other living beings of this world and beyond.

Rather than trying to decipher the animal species depicted, perhaps we should look at the figurative scenes, which are probably easier to understand and richer to teach.

JD: A sentence on the Unesco website catches our attention: “More than 75,000 paintings were made by indigenous peoples… and are still painted today by the isolated peoples protected by the national park. " What do we know about these peoples? Have they been approached to find out their relationship to these paintings and is there a continuity of an ancestral pictorial practice?

SR: The Colombian Amazon is today the melting pot of many ethnicities resulting from a long tradition of exchanges, conflicts, alliances and crossbreeding. On the other hand, the archeology of the Guaviare basin is almost unknown, in particular because of the dangerous presence of FARC for decades. Today, thanks to the peace agreements signed with the government, the political tension which prevailed has weakened, so excavations could be organized in La Lindosa. It has been dated as over 12,000 years old. The dates could be even older in Chiribiquete, where the timeline shows installations over several periods, until the present day. It has indeed been noted that there are very recent traces of Amerindian.

It is difficult in any case, to discern a pictorial continuity in the long term. On the other hand, certain motifs seem directly inspired by still vivid myths, such as those of the constellation of the four monkeys (Orion) or of the canoe-animal (jaguar) which transported the first humans and the spirits of nature.

JD: Your work and those of your colleague and friend Dimitri Karadimas have brought a new interpretation of Amerindian iconography, in particular by giving back to animals and plants the place they occupy in mythologies, cosmogony and also in the living world of the peoples of 'Amazonia.

SR: Dimitri Karadimas, a brilliant anthropologist, initiated a fundamental reversal of the iconographic paradigm of South American art. He analysed the many Native American myths and compared it to the art, which allowed him to rediscover the essence of the artist's intention. I felt very close to this vision since I myself had initiated a comparable reflection on Amerindian archaeological landscapes. Since his death in 2017, I have promised myself to continue his work and make it known to as many people as possible.

A striking example of this research is that of anthropomorphic beings showing their fangs and sometimes adorned with horns, common in Native American art. Many see it as jaguars, others as devils. In reality, they are anthropomorphized wasps, the two horns representing the mandibles of the beast. Not just any wasp, but a pompile, tarantula predator that lays its eggs in its body. The larvae develop internally, feeding on the living arachnid. This representation obviously resonates with the pervasiveness in the Native American world of notions and anthropomorphization, transformation and predation.

JD: Has this symbolism survived and is it still found today in Native American works, whether ornamental or works of art?

SR: This type of representation of the world still persists today among Amerindians, even if certain groups, closer to the industrialized world of the West, have absorbed external concepts, notably Christianity. Iconography has thus often evolved, intermingling by adding exterior features or by erasing tradit