Excavating in the Rupununi Savannahs

Intriguing remains of a culture long extinct have been unearthed in the Rupununi savannah close to Amuku Lake which in the 18th century was believed to be the site of the fabled golden city of El Dorado.

In June, Victor Pires, the owner of the Waikin ranch located in the North Rupununi, Region Nine was digging post holes outside the paddock when he hit a huge ceramic pot covered by another. The pot, which has all the characteristics of a burial urn, was excavated by employees and was in an “almost perfect condition” except

The burial urn in the ground at Waikin ranch
The burial urn in the ground at Waikin ranch

for a hole at the bottom. It is a unique situation for a burial urn to be found in a savannah environment buried in the ground, and it is the first time that such a find in the savannah has been reported, Guyanese archaeologist George Simon said.

Burial urns have been reported and recovered from the Pakaraimas and Kanuku Mountains but these urns were usually placed under overhanging boulders or in caves with the skeletal remains placed in them. There were no bones in the urn at Waikin but three stones were found inside and Simon, in an interview, said that the acidic soil of Amazonia would have ensured that the bones would not have lasted very long. The depth at which it was located ‒ 25 centimetres ‒ indicated that the people would have been living there long before the more “recent” indigenous inhabitants of the Rupununi, Simon said.

“It has not been recorded [in the savannah] before… this type of burial,” the archaeologist said. Little is known about the cultures that existed in the sprawling Rupununi Savannahs before the Wapishana and Macushi peoples came to live there in the eighteenth century and Simon said that he could not say which culture would have used this type of burial pattern.

He said that it was very likely that the urn is pre-Colombian as the Wapishana and Macushi do not practise this type of burial and ethnographic studies have found that caves and other sites with burial urns are taboo in their culture. “To have found this tells us another story about the people who lived in the Rupununi…  far from the mountains,” the archaeologist said calling the find important and significant. It shows how the people of the savannahs disposed of their dead, he said.

A reconstruction of how the urn was in the ground with the other urn covering it
A reconstruction of how the urn was in the ground with the other urn covering it

Archaeologist believe that in this type of burial, the corpse would first be left to rot and the bones later gathered and placed in urns and left at the sites in what is termed a “secondary burial.” At some of the cave sites, about six to eight urns are found together, but at Waikin, this appeared not to be the case though other pottery fragments were found. The archaeologist suggested that among the fragments would have been remains of a flat platter which researchers suspect would contain food. “We think it may have been placed there for the spirits,” he said. Another difference is that the urns in the caves would be left uncovered while the Waikin urn was covered.

In relation to the Waikin urn, Simon suggested that given that the Pakaraimas and Kanuku mountains are some distance away, it is reasonable to believe that human remains would not be left in the open to rot and decay and it could be deduced that there was a sacredness and respect for the deceased.

During an expedition to the area recently at the invitation of Pires, Simon and his assistants Kevin Thomas and Alexander Salvador ‒ who are from the Rupununi and received training in basic archaeology before venturing out into the field ‒ also recovered a pot as well as fragments of plain and decorated pottery and stone axes, which are all believed to be of pre-Colombian origin “The stone axes would have been used by people before Europeans,” Simon said.

Habitation sites were also identified and the decorated pottery fragments indicate the presence of a more ancient culture. Simon explained that archeologically, plain pottery is associated with recent arrivals. “We look for more decorative pottery,” he said, adding that these would have been made and used by the culture that is now extinct.

Excavating at Waikin ranch.
Excavating at Waikin ranch.

Pieces of charcoal were also recovered and these will be carbon dated to determine their age. Simon said that he hopes to do this before the end of the year.

Another intact pot was also recovered almost exposed at one of the sites. “We thought it was broken pottery but it turned out to be an almost intact pot,” he said.

Simon and his team also visited the sites of what locals referred to as a “Portuguese” fort and an English fort close to Yupukari. What local residents called a “Dutch canal” linking the Amuku Lake and the Rupununi River was also observed during their survey. Many of the pottery fragments collected were found on the surface and there was little ground excavation.

The artifacts remain at the ranch and Simon said that it is technically the property of the state even though it was recovered during a privately-funded expedition. It is part of the cultural heritage of the country, he noted.

It was not thought that there were permanent settlements in the savannahs but the habitation sites found close to the lake indicates that the people would have made use of the aquatic life and vegetation found close to the lake, Simon said.

Meanwhile, there have been other finds of interest in the area. Petroglyps, stone axes, decorated pottery shards, grinding sites and polishers were among the artifacts identified and recovered in Region Nine over the past few years.

The giant spearhead found at Sawariwau, Rupununi.
The giant spearhead found at Sawariwau, Rupununi.

 

At Sawariwau, a stone pestle and arrowhead have been found in recent times and are now in private collections. One of the more intriguing finds is a 51 centimetre spearhead. “The people who would have been hunting [using it] would have been pretty hefty people,” Simon said. He said that others have suggested that it was a ceremonial spearhead but he believes otherwise. “I believe it might have been used to ground one of those huge animals… the sloth that might have roamed around here in prehistoric times,” he said.

In 1999, the bones of a giant sloth, Megatherium, were discovered by miners around Omai and the Oko Creek, Cuyuni River. A replica now stands in the National Museum. The giant sloth, thought to be one of the largest mammals that walked the earth, died during the Ice Age. It is believed that it originated in the tropical rainforest in South America and carried a height of about 15 feet and weighed approximately three tonnes. Megatherium was a gigantic ground sloth that weighed as much as an African elephant with huge claws, much like tree sloths.

Simon said that the National Trust ought to mark the archaeological sites that have been identified. It is important to educate the people to protect and respect the archaeological sites that might have been identified or investigated, he said, adding that all have a responsibility to be watchful over our cultural heritage. “Once it is destroyed, it is lost and we really lose the history of our people,” he said.

The burial urn after it was excavated in June.
The burial urn after it was excavated in June.
The big arrowhead found at Sawariwau crossing.
The big arrowhead found at Sawariwau crossing.

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