Groundbreaking archaeological discoveries being made in Guyana

—Archaeologist Mark Plew
Archaeologists have been making groundbreaking discoveries in Guyana in recent years, including unearthing the remains of a whale, a giant porpoise and a rock fish, all of which could be about 10,000 years old.  Another significant discovery is that of pottery, perhaps as old as 5,000 years, at Kabakaburi in the Pomeroon.

Dr Mark Plew

Spearheading these discovery efforts is Dr Mark Plew, Chair of the Archaeology Department at  Boise State University in Idaho.  Over the past few years, he has been one of the lead figures in the Denis Williams Summer School of Anthropology and has led teams comprising both local and overseas personnel into different parts of Guyana for field work.   These excursions, particularly those made over the last three years, have been rewarding for Plew.

The remains of the animals were discovered last year at the Wyva Creek Shell Mound in Region One.  A Shell Mound is a prehistoric refuse heap consisting chiefly of the shells of edible molluscs intermingled with evidence of human occupancy. The one at Wyva Creek is said to be one of the largest in Guyana and is believed to be about 6500-7000 years old, Plew told this newspaper during a recent interview.

According to Plew, when the bones were first discovered, he first thought that they were those of a giant sloth. But then after the remains were transferred to the USA, a specialist suggested that they may have been those of an elephant – a prospect which Plew was overjoyed about. However, when the bones were subsequently passed on to the British Colombia museum they were determined to be those of a whale, a giant porpoise and a rock fish.  And based on the location on Shell Mound where the remains were found, Plew believes that they could have been there since 10,000 years ago. Preparations are now being made to have all the remains returned to Guyana, since this is where they belong.

Plew says that these discoveries are “very, very interesting” since they outline what was happening in Guyana around that time. It is the discovery of the rock fish that Plew is particularly delighted about. The rock fish, he says, is an extremely rare species of which no record exists of it being found in this part of the world.

Explaining how the species could have reached so far inland, Plew believes it could either be that the tides were responsible for the species being transported from the ocean to fresh water inland or it could be that years ago this particular area of land was inundated. According to him, the late Guyanese archaeologist Dr Denis Williams had done research to support the latter theory.

Concerning the pottery discovered at Kabakaburi in the Pomeroon, Plew says that the artifacts are among the oldest ever found in the Americas.

The vessels found were of vast variety and included bowls and globular objects, the majority of which were fired and glazed.  Most of the pottery was plain while some had designs on it, Plew says. Importantly, further evidence was found to debunk initial views that the persons who occupied this area had settled there permanently. The new information reveals that the persons here were in fact seasonal visitors to the place.  Plew says too that more data continues to be found which suggests that areas that are now rainforest in territories such as Guyana were once large savannahs.

Meanwhile, an expedition by the team to Fairview, Iwokrama, revealed the diversity of Guyana’s archaeological heritage. This area had been explored in the past by Dr Williams and previously in the 1950s by archaeologists Drs Clifford Evans and Betty Meggers with varying findings this newspaper was told.

According to Plew, when Williams did an excavation some years ago he discovered some multi-coloured pottery among other things.  The team was hoping to unearth some more items of the kind that Williams found, but while they found bits of pottery their discoveries were not as exciting as those by the Guyanese archaeologist. These discoveries were more in keeping with the earlier reports of Evans and Meggers and according to Plew, while the findings of the duo were “relatively right” they did not adequately describe the “range or variations of pottery.”

An accurate description of the range would indicate that “something very unique was going on in Guyana 1000 years ago or 5000 years ago, Plew says.

The archaeologist is concerned at the prehistoric records that have been eroding due to vandalism and attrition, and says that this needs to be addressed.  These have suffered because of the limited infrastructure and resources in this area, especially at the University of Guyana. However, efforts are being made to improve this particularly at the university, he says.

“Archaeology is the only academic discipline… because it studies material things, that is in a position to talk about long term cultural change,” Plew says as he underscores the importance of this area of study.  And according to him, archaeologists are usually ahead of their time, adding that they “were talking about deforestation about 100 years ago.” Plew has been visiting Guyana for the past 25 years after being intrigued by the archaeological discoveries that were happening in South America. This interest intensified while in Graduate School and he initially targeted Brazil, but things didn’t work out there as he had hoped and he subsequently forged a relationship with the University of Guyana.  He says that “Guyana is pivotal” to the cause of archaeology especially when chronicling the development of the New World.

“Guyana is 75 per cent unexplored,” he says. According to him, the field work will continue and they are looking to explore the Rupununi in greater detail.  He says that so far some “tantalizing” discoveries have been made, including the uncovering of ancient burial sites and various forms of rock art. He hopes to lead more teams to unearth more gems in this vast “unexplored” land.

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