Sambaqui Research in Brazil: A Review and Recent Trends (Coastal Archaeology from Southern Shores of Brazil)

  • MaDu GasparEmail author
  • Paulo DeBlasis
Living reference work entry


Sambaquis (from native Tupi language, literally meaning shell mounds or concheros) are archaeological mounded sites distributed all over the Brazilian coast, concentrating mostly at ecologically patchy areas involving brackish waters, mangrove, and forests such as lagoon, bay, and estuarine inlets, including coastal islands. These sites achieve impressive dimensions especially toward the southern shores, where they may reach up to 70 m height and 500 m width (Prous 1992; Gaspar 2000). They usually display heterogeneous stratigraphic sequences, intercalating expressive shell layers to darker strata richer in organic materials, including abundant funerary structures in specific portions of the mound. In fact, several burials are reported in most sambaqui descriptions, disposed in specially prepared places, frequently accompanied of artifacts, food offerings, and hearths (Gaspar 1998, 2000; Gaspar et al. 2008, 2013; Klökler 2014) (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Sambaqui Garopaba do Sul, Santa Catarina

Even though constantly present in Brazilian archaeological literature since the nineteenth century, the meaning of the sambaquis as archaeological structures is still poorly known, and modeling coastal occupations all along the extensive Brazilian coast is just at the beginning. Systematic studies have started only on the 1950s, focusing more intensively at the southern Atlantic shores, from Rio de Janeiro to Santa Catarina. Regional approaches are rare, prevailing typological descriptions or site-specific reports. Only recently systematic and articulated studies about the relations connecting sambaqui regional settlements and dynamic coastal environments have taken place, though recognition and analysis of this theme appeared in former studies.

Traditionally seen as remains of successive camping locations of very mobile mollusk gathering and fishing bands, sambaquis have occasionally been described as places of residence or mortuary structures. The great diversity of sambaqui sites, nevertheless, suggests a certain amount of functional variability still to be adequately explored. Only recently sambaquis have been recognized as intentionally built structures, full of symbolic signification to their builders.

Despite arguments favoring coastal/hinterland connections, Gaspar (1994) suggested that, at least in Brazilian central southern coast, these sites are remains of societies endowed with proper cultural identity, quite distinctive from other hinterland cultures and traditions. Moreover, such an identity seems to be common to most of the extensive Atlantic Brazilian coast.

Two multidisciplinary research projects aiming at the regional scope of sambaqui occupation and, at the same time, the formation processes involved in mound building have changed the sambaqui research scenario since the 1990s (Gaspar et al. 2008, 2013). Studies on Quaternary natural landscape evolution and human occupation patterns were integrated by means of environmental and archaeological approaches, teaming up researchers and specialists from a number of institutions. One of these projects took place in the southern shores of Santa Catarina, at the lagoon/strand plain area between Laguna and Jaguaruna, and the other at the Lakes Region from Rio de Janeiro, extending northward from Guanabara Bay to Cabo Frio (DeBlasis et al. 1998; Fish et al. 2000; Gaspar et al. 2013; Fig. 2). In both projects, a regional approach using systematic dating and careful stratigraphic profiling, together with horizontal expositions in a few sites, allowed for both the analysis of the regional settlements and the careful study of site formation processes in some key contexts.
Fig. 2

Sambaquis distribution along the Brazilian coast

Two mounds stand out as prominent foci of research. Jabuticabeira II, a large shell mound located in the southern Santa Catarina shores, has been excavated between 1996 and 2006. Several Brazilian and foreign researchers and students have been working on it, and the studies at this mound have had an important role regarding the expansion in the investigation of sambaqui formation processes, bringing in unprecedented new approaches and insights, taking new interdisciplinary research avenues still open today (Klökler 2014; Villagrán 2010). The other mound is Sernambetiba, at the northeastern part of Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. This site was excavated in the 1980s (Heredia et al. 1982), leaving behind open areas that have, recently, been carefully reexamined with fresh eyes (Bianchini 2015). Thus, most examples used in this text will come from these areas and sites. The other areas will be but quickly appreciated, since they have been less investigated but with very interesting recent contributions.

Early Research: Evolutionary Perspectives

Scientific interest in sambaquis has been present since the beginning of archaeology in Brazil, and these shell mounds constitute a research theme that has remained active since the nineteenth century. They have been reported from early sixteenth century, having furnished ever since tons of shell for lime production. In fact, most of the first coastal colonial settlements have made extensive use of it for paving and construction, and massive mound destruction has ended not before the 1980s. Economic interest aside, early researchers were puzzled by their large dimensions, as well as the conspicuous presence of human burials, sometimes accompanied by superb sculptures in stone and bone. In fact, these faunal-rich shell mounds, highly visible on the coastal plains along the Brazilian shores, sometimes deliver hundreds of burials per site, appearing frequently as they were mined.

Despite these undisputable archaeological features, the question whether these mounds were natural or human-made phenomena has dominated the debate up to Leonardos (1938), who established sound criteria for distinguishing sambaquis (human-made mounds) from the natural shell beds, also conspicuous throughout Brazilian coast. On the next decades, research on these mounds has multiplied and diversified; in the 1960s and 1970s, they have been extensively excavated and dated, and the first technological and stratigraphic studies appeared, as well as the first modern bioanthropological analyses. Following the strict historical-cultural approach then in vogue, sites have been organized into phases, and some different coastal traditions have been created (Prous 1992; Gaspar et al. 2013).

Research has focused mostly on identification, quantification, and sizing of the specimens directly responsible for the volume of the mounds; particularly as regards their most visible components, shells of Anomalocardia brasiliana, Ostrea sp., and Lucina pectinata are thought of as food remains and taken as the staple diet of the sambaqui mound builders. In Santa Catarina and Rio de Janeiro, compositional phasing clearly revealed a shift from earlier shell mounds to later dark earthen deposits rich in fish remains and reduced amounts of shell, where the downsizing of shells was taken as evidence for the exhaustion of local resources. These darken layers are frequently deposited over the shell mound in stratigraphic sequence and occasionally also displaying ceramics.

This approach stands at the basis of the long-standing interpretive perspective of these people as shellfish collectors that, lately, have become mostly fishers (Prous 1992). Following this evolutionary perspective, economic (and social) changes derive from environmental transformations due to climatic and sea level oscillations, affecting the availability and distribution of resources, thus leading to high mobility of small bands of shellfish collectors across coastal areas. Mobility, in this way, has been used as explanation for the mounds’ complex stratigraphic sequences, interpreted as successive camping episodes. Thus, large amounts of accumulated food debris has led to interpret these sites as habitational, despite the also large amounts of burials, that have led earlier researchers such as Wiener (1876) and Duarte (1968) to think about them as funerary monuments.

Human remains recovered at the excavations (with interest almost exclusively in the crania) were taken to physical anthropologists that, in Brazil, were very much influenced by deterministic racial theories from nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century French and German authors (Seyferth 1995). Until the first half of the twentieth century, the goal of most archaeological excavations was to produce skeletons used to establish the human physical types considered representative of the past. Human bones, particularly skulls from sambaquis, were analyzed apart from their original archaeological context. The sambaquis were considered merely as jazidas (or mines, a term used widely at the time) from which the bones – the sole focus of anthropological interest – were extracted.

The impressive small sculptures in bone and stone recovered at the sambaquis are relatively rare (only about 300 pieces have been reported), not bigger than circa 40 cm long. They have been acknowledged since the nineteenth century, when some authors (e.g., Lacerda 1885) have considered them too sophisticated to be created by such a “primitive culture,” being probably crafted by later civilizations. Prous (1992) calls attention to their elegant and beautiful design, noting that most of these sculptures have come from mound dismantling; the very few excavated pieces are securely associated to funerary contexts. Some exhibit geometric designs, but sea creatures, such as ray, shark, whale, dolphin, and anchovy, are among the most commonly represented in the effigies, an evidence of the deep connection that sambaqui societies have with the aquatic world (DeBlasis et al. 1998). Flying species (albatross, owl, kingfisher, bat) and terrestrial species (armadillo, turtle, alligator, penguin), among others, are also depicted. Very few of them have anthropomorphic figurines, eventually evoking a human/animal entity. Prous (1992: 102) refers to these sculptures as depicting “an animated world, creatures that swim, run and fly, can be taken by surprise having sex” (Fig. 3). Some sea creatures are so realistically depicted that their anatomic details allow for species identification. Terrestrial animals and fowl are usually less realistic (with some exceptions), sometimes just evoking bird or mammal morphology.
Fig. 3

Rock sculptures of sambaquis

Most of these sculptures have a cavity in the ventral face, suggesting a relationship toward fertility and reproduction, and Prous (1992) points out that several pieces have sexual organs represented or have phallic extremities. One sculpture depicts fishes copulating; others show birds about to do it; another one depicts a bird with four younglings in the nest. The geographical distribution of these sculptures is exclusive of the southern shores, between São Paulo and Uruguay. This has led Prous (1992: 223) to consider the existence of an ideological unity along that area, evinced by thematic recurrence and rigid stylistic rules, suggesting some degree of endogamy. In contrast, the remaining lithic industry was described as simple, “primitive,” because of being cobble-based, with a large number of used but not technologically modified pieces, and little finishing, except for a variety of polished ax blades (e.g., Bryan 1993).

The Brazilian archaeological scene by the 1960s to the 1980s was marked by the nationwide North American-influenced PRONAPA project, with strong historical-cultural theoretical orientation, mostly concerning regional approaches to the study of ceramic and preceramic hinterland occupations. In contrast, French archaeological missions, and their local followers, conducted rock art studies and extensive excavations on punctual sites (Barreto 2000). Occasional sambaquis have been excavated in French structuralist-based style (décapage), while others have been tested in a prospective way, in order to provide for chronological sequences and detect sociocultural changes by means of analyzing economic (diet) variability in the faunal record.

Figuti (1993) has expanded this approach by introducing sampling methods (thus allowing for quantitative analysis) and investigating the relationship between the preserved bone or shell parts and the edible amount of food therein represented. His analysis made it clear that fishing has always been the staple economic activity of the sambaqui mound builders and that the idea of evolution from shellfish collecting toward fishing (mainstream up to that point) was fallacious. On the other hand, against a trend to consider mounds as entities isolated in space and time, studies point out the need for systemic and regionally integrated site studies and the fact that shell has been used as construction material for volume accretion at the mound building process. De Masi (1999), using for the first time isotopic analysis in sambaqui studies, has demonstrated that shellfish has no significant contribution in mound builders diet. Finally, studies on fluvial sambaquis in the coastal hinterland of the Ribeira valley have shown intensive settling of patchy coastal inland areas by mound builders, a very long-lived occupation (11.5–1.2 kyBP approx.), evoking the presence of coastal mound building societies even before the Holocene sea transgression, dating from the fringe of the Pleistocene (Figuti et al. 2014).

New Perspectives

Around the 1990s begins to appear studies on mound builders lifestyle, technology, diet, health, and behavioral habits (Scheel-Ybert et al. 2009). Bioanthropologists team up with archaeologists and focus on meticulous exhumation of the burials, with attention to depositional and postdepositional patterns and careful recording of the contextual setting, including artifactual and faunal materials. This has led to a much better understanding of the depositional sequences and mound building processes. The former historical-cultural premises were heavily criticized, the archaeological research on sambaquis has taken a new impulse, and, in this sense, the Sambaquis & Landscape project has been paradigmatic, as follows.

The objectives of the studies at the sambaquis from the southern shores of Santa Catarina were twofold. First, understand and describe mound building sequences in terms of site formation processes. As regards this approach, Brazilian researchers have coined the expression “strategic archaeology,” referring to the use of previous interventions on the mounds (usually for mining purposes) to access its internal parts and understand the formation processes taking place in their totality, without much additional site intervening (Gaspar et al. 2013). This approach has been successfully applied to Jabuticabeira II (in southern Santa Catarina) and Sernambetiba (Guanabara Bay) shell mounds, among others. Second, explore the perception that these mounds configure dense settlement systems at a regional scope, by using extensive dating vis-à-vis the study of the dynamic coastal physiognomic changes along the Holocene.

The sambaqui Jabuticabeira II was chosen due to the presence of large cavities that have remained from mining, allowing for extensive profiling throughout the mound, complemented by some additional trenching and horizontal exposures. The conspicuous presence of burials associated to specific dark layers related to paleosurfaces of the mound has revealed the funerary architecture of the mound building sequences, reinforced by the absence of domestic activity areas (Fish et al. 2000). Even after 2000 BP, when the depositional regime changes abruptly from thick shell packages to a dark earthen sediment, rich in fish remains and charcoal, the funerary nature of mound accretion remains as the driving vector for mound building (Fish et al. 2000; Villagrán et al. 2010).

On the other side, regional mapping, profiling, and testing have confirmed the existence of a circum-lagunar settlement system, with several large and small contemporaneous mounds, evincing a coeval face-to-face community system sharing, without perceptible discontinuity, the lagoon resources after many a millennia (approx. 6–1.5 kyBP). This approach reinforces the perception (already indicated by the large number of burials in most mounds) that sambaqui societies were sedentary and demographically expressive, thus deviating significantly from previous “small bands of shellfish collectors evolving to fishermen” models (DeBlasis et al. 1998, 2007). The continuous use of the same places for burial purposes, in some cases for more than 2000 years, depicts a strong sense of territorial attachment, a belonging deeply related to the ancestors and strongly tied into their ecologically patchy coastal habitat (Fish et al. 2013).

End of the Opposition Game and a Lot of Questions

It is important to note that these achievements have only been possible with the abandonment of former “theoretical straightjacket” evolutionary schemes, thus allowing for new insights without adhering to established mainstream ideas born in the 1800s that have dominated the scientific scene for most of the twentieth century. Site formation and systemic approaches freed the researchers from “dual thinking,” that is, a theoretical structure based on excluding oppositions that prevailed since the beginnings of sambaqui research in Brazil.

First debates focused on whether the mounds were “natural” or “artificial” or its occupants had brachycephalic or dolichocephalic heads, later on, habitational locations or cemeteries, “clean” or “dirty” (i.e., made mostly of shells or earthen sediments), Macaé or Itaipu phase, shellfish collectors or fishermen, bands or macro-bands, simple or complex hunter-gatherers, and this or that. Even if some of these questions might be significant, tagging labels to the sites do not really help on understanding structural aspects of the sambaqui mound builders life and social organization nor help to explain why and how they have built such huge and everlasting mounds, invested so much effort to preserve the bodies of the deceased and in elaborate funerary rituals to mourn them. Neither help explain how they have created such a successful culture, which has endured, without great deal of change, for so many millennia. This “duality game,” so important for the academic research until recently, seems to have got exhausted, because it does not propitiate pertinent insights toward social life, opening space for more contemporaneous and interdisciplinary interests.

For instance, recent studies developed at the sambaquis Jabuticabeira II (SC) and Sernambetiba (RJ) reveal that these mounds have been built upon natural shell beds. Some other shell mounds have incorporated natural sandy layers into their overall volume (DeBlasis et al. 2007). These examples show that the classical opposition “natural × cultural” does not apply, preventing the analysis of the ever-present articulation between the physical environment and the cultural choices of the mound builders.

To move beyond dual thinking and explore the mounds from the perspective of formation processes implied into the mounding sequences have promoted the production of archaeographies in different scales, from burial composition to regional structural recurrences, thus allowing the surpassing of a research agenda defined by pre-existing, tightly framed themes such as “are they collectors or foragers?” This move has brought to the scene new questions, linked to the mound building sequences and processes therein involved. It also promoted the development of new methodologies, freeing the researchers from normative (typological and classificatory) thinking, and stimulating reflection and questioning derived from the characteristics of the archaeological record itself, with an open theoretical mind.

Besides fine-grained sedimentology and zooarchaeology, a wide range of new approaches (analyses of macro- and micro-botanical vestiges, dental calculus, charcoal, the composition of tiny stratigraphic features and post molds into funerary mounding sequences, among others) got together to provide a wide perspective on the sambaqui mound builders’ lifeways. On a regional scale, beyond a settlement system approach, comparative explorations on site formation, sediment composition, burial disposition and funerary ritual, mound architecture, health and diet, and so on. These new approaches do not exclude most of the oppositions that based previous research but, building upon them, bring in a whole new perspective, at once anthropological and historical, and strongly related to the evolution of the Quaternary environments on the coast, thus bringing together natural and cultural elements into coastal landscape history.

Emphasis on Recurrence

Fish et al. (2000), in an effort to understand a mound as a whole, have profiled about 340 m of stratigraphic sections throughout the sambaqui Jabuticabeira II. This pioneering approach has detected an amazing recurrence of stratigraphic structuring across the mound, analogue layers, lenses, and burial structures involving postholes, hearths, funerary accompaniments and offerings, and also burial-specific mounding up sequences.

Burials usually concentrate in specific surfaces, perceived as dark layers into the stratigraphic sequences and described as funerary areas. These areas define paleosurfaces of the mound, from where postholes, associated with funerary structures around and over the burials, first appear, plunging vertically through the layers below. The small heaps above the burials are composed by a sequence of lenses with predominance of crushed Mytilus shells and fishbone intercalated with tiny dark lenses of sand with plenty of charcoal, ash, burnt fishbone, and plant remains, frequently associated to earths and clusters of fire-cracked rock and artifact fragments (Klökler 2014; Villagrán et al. 2010).

Funerary areas are dispersed all over the mound, frequently overlapping and superposing themselves with clean shell packs in between. These sequences are found all over the mounds and are easily recognizable for the contrasting “clear and dark” visual effect into the profiles (Fig. 4). In the upper “dark earth” package of the mound, when shells almost disappear from the archaeological record, this rationale for mound construction remains the same, even if composition changes and fish remains are responsible for most of the materials used in the mounding up process (Klökler 2014).
Fig. 4

Sambaquis profiles highlighting the “clear and dark” contrast

Sambaqui stratigraphy shows recurrence of such sequences of burial areas with evidence for burial delimiting and fencing, and other paraphernalia, with very much ritualized deposition of bodies and offerings and food remains of feasting. There is also evidence for burning over the burial (apparently after funerary ceremonies are completed) and revisiting (with some interfering and new offerings) for a while after burial ceremonies have taken place. At a certain point, a specific funerary area is closed and covered by fresh layers of clean shell, and the sequence starts all over again, apparently without a significant lapse of abandonment. The recurrence of these sequences toward the centuries has, ultimately, lend the mounds the impressive volume and monumentality that can be seen today.

The realization that the mound accretion is a consequence of the millenary recurrence of specific behavior toward the dead has thrown the study of the burials in to a completely new perspective. The focus shifted from exposing burials and their accompaniments to the understanding of the funerary area as a whole, including its preparation, the ritual deposition of the deceased, the procedures related to mourning and feasting them (and closing the burial place), and the periodic returning to the site (Gaspar et al. 2014). It is important to note that all these behaviors toward the dead are deeply ritualized, and in Santa Catarina they have been kept, with no significant changes, along four millennia at least (DeBlasis et al. 2007; Fish et al. 2013). Findings at the sambaqui Amourins, Rio de Janeiro, for instance, bring unquestionable evidence for the presence of food offerings for the dead. Near the burials were found closed Lucina shells with small sections of articulated fish, or a small bone, or even smaller closed shells inside, like a delicate and valuable container, or package, for the food offered to the dead (Gaspar et al. 2013).

Daniela Klökler’s zooarchaeological and site formation studies (2014) have brought some detail into these rituals involving death and food. Analyzing samples from different parts of Jabuticabeira II, she has identified distinct behaviors related with faunal materials, appearing sometimes as a whole fish skeleton or mammal parts and sometimes as dispersed and/or burnt assemblages of fishbone, in different layers. This detailed analysis has brought light into the carefully organized funerary rites, involving selection of species in offerings and using massive amounts of fish for feasting. By or above the burials, whole fish skeletons or whole bird or mammal parts have been found, well preserved and without cutting or burning marks, taken as evidence for offerings deposited together with the deceased.

In contrast, most of the mounding up over the burials is composed of common and abundant lagoon fish species like the croaker (Micropogonias furnieri) and catfish (Genidens barbus and Genidens genidens), and the predominance of small individuals suggests net fishing. Larger prey, occasionally present as offering, is rare in the feasting remains deposited over the burial. The absence of large fires suggests that feasting takes place nearby, and the remains are brought to the funerary space and deposited over the burial. This interpretation is reinforced by the low degree of shell fragmentation into the mound, suggesting little circulation into the funerary area (Villagrán et al. 2010). After feasting and covering the burial, large fires were lit above and nearby, but its composition does not seem to be related to food preparing and feasting. These ritual fires on the top of the mound would propitiate the closing of the burial and would be visible from far, announcing the end of a mourning cycle.

The economic basis of the sambaqui society subsistence, that earlier has given support to the evolutionary line “shellfish collectors to fishermen foragers,” has also known new contributions. Initially, demonstrating that fishing has always been the staple economic activity and that shellfish collecting, although impressive in mound stratigraphy, has never been a staple resource. Moreover, recent studies on dental calculus, anthracology, and micro-vestiges into sediments have pointed out the importance of plant foods on mound builders’ diet (Scheel-Ybert et al. 2009). These studies demonstrate that the nutritional spectrum of the sambaqui people go well beyond the faunal profile seen by naked eye on mound stratigraphy.

Recent studies with lithic industries from Jabuticabeira II and other southern mounds reveal a very interesting technological profile, far from the “primitive” picture drawn before. Although production sequences are relatively short, there are a variety of flaked scrapers and piercers and a great deal of sophistication in choosing and polishing the supporting pebbles for axes and zooliths, with very precise carving tools produced by splitting slabs of basalt. Moreover, a number of different types and sizes of grinding stones and pestles reinforce the notion of the importance of vegetable food in everyday diet.

Another interesting insight comes out from Klokler’s (2014) analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes of 14 individuals from Jabuticabeira II. It shows that mound builders’ diet was based on fish from high trophic levels and sea and land mammals, thus in sharp contrast with the zooarchaeological record on mounding stratigraphy. This contrast supports the idea that intensive fish consumption relates to feasting, while everyday meals would have stronger sea (whale, shark, and ray bones are frequently found associated to burials) and terrestrial game components and taken place mostly outside the mound. Croakers and catfishes, easy to catch in large quantities into the lagoon, would be prone to provide for the commensality inherent to funerary ritual, suggesting it to be an integrative social event, promoting solidarity and reciprocity and creating or reinforcing allegiances among communities.

This study reinforces former interpretations, on the northern coast of Rio de Janeiro (Gaspar et al. 2013) and on the southern shores of Santa Catarina (DeBlasis et al. 2007), based on site distribution and chronological concomitance, pointing out that mound builders communities show a high level of regional integration and collaborative behavior. Additionally, evidence for violent death seems uncommon among mound builders (Lessa and Medeiros 2001).

The commensality detected among sambaqui societies is recurrent among South American native groups ethnographically described, a cultural trace that seems to pervade many cultures and displaying a long history. Besides, the use of shells for mound building must not be underestimated. The microenvironmental conditions created by massive amounts of shell have propitiated the preservation of the burials, quite often in very good conditions. It is unlikely that it has not been intentional; it seems that the sambaqui people valued the body and made a great effort to preserve it even after death.

The study of the burials went well beyond the analysis of the skeletons themselves, expanding to the processes involved in disposing the bodies. The archaeological remains of the disposing of only one body, considering the complete ritual performance and features involved, occupy more than 2 m3. In its recurrence throughout the sambaqui, it is paramount to understanding the organization of space and site accretion processes, in other words, its architecture (Bianchini 2015). Gaspar et al. (2013) point out that sambaqui culture is very careful with the bodies, investing time and effort to keep the memory of the deceased, and, as regards mound building, they occupy a central place (Fish et al. 2000). From this perspective, the evidence from the excavations at the sambaquis Sernambetiba and Amourins, Rio de Janeiro (Heredia et al. 1982), has been reassessed. The examination of the field notes has allowed detecting artifact clustering in some levels, always associated to funerary heaping, as if these structures acted like attraction elements to artifacts and fire pits.

Another focus of research is the understanding of different depositional processes. Zooarchaeological studies developed on different sambaquis from Santa Catarina have been able to define different activities and occupation patterns along the stratigraphic sequence, some performed in situ and some others made of materials redeposited from elsewhere. By means of micromorphological analysis of sediments from Jab II, Villagrán et al. (2010) make clear distinction between primary deposits, such as body deposition and the mise-en-place of funerary accompaniments and fires, and secondary deposits, mostly related to the mounding up processes from feasting remains and others brought in from outside areas. This perception led to the need of exploring activity areas outside the mound, revealing peripheral small structures undoubtedly related to the events taking place in mound building.

Anthracological studies by Scheel-Ybert et al. (2003) indicate that wood used for cooking and funerary fires was obtained in the surroundings, mostly dead wood and butiá (palm) seeds, while the wood used for constructing fences and funerary structures has come from further away, probably from nearby mountain forests.

Villagrán (2014), examining several mounds at the southern shores of Santa Catarina, compares their stratigraphic sequences, concluding that the complex formation sequences of the sambaquis can be reduced at least one main action: the recurrent redeposition of midden material possibly carried in from domestic spaces. Recognizing that sambaquis are artifacts of long-term production, she concludes that the thick and apparently complex stratigraphy seems to be made after the recurrent deposition of similar contents and depositional behaviors.

Bianchini (2015) explores the depositional architecture of the Sernambetiba mound, taking advance of the scars left by excavations from the 1970s and 1980s, plus some additional trenching. This relatively late shell mound (2.3–1.5 kyBP) has an internal structuring and geometry of the stratigraphy, such as mounding structures, flat shell surfaces, dark and ashy lenses, posthole distributions, the burials themselves, and the geological substrate. Characteristic features are the “visiting structures,” that is, encircling deposits that affect laterally the surrounding layers. The lateral contact of these features is usually abrupt, and composition does not differ from other layers; nevertheless, the organization of the shell materials is chaotic and is mostly associated to burials aside or above. They have been interpreted as successive interventions into the burial scene, deconstructions and reconstructions, apparently due to the manipulation of older burials when bringing new ones to the mound.

Klökler (2014), Gaspar et al. (2013), and Villagrán et al. (2010) have already pointed out the existence of these features, but Bianchini (2015) carefully describes, at Sernambetiba, a secondary burial in a small basket intervening in former burials. At that same site, careful examination of the burials, and the places where they have been deposited, has revealed intense activity in the funerary areas. Secondary burials exhibit cutting and burning marks, evidence for manipulation, reinforced by chronological inversions of dated burials in stratigraphy.

The careful analysis of the depositional architecture also comes in supporting the perception that the funerary areas have been intensely remodeled and older bones into later sediments are to be occasionally expected. Chronological inversions occur not only in the funerary areas but also in the covering heaping sequences above them. As suggested by Bianchini (2015), funerary mound building is deeply related to the alive, reflecting active roles in the social context. It changes with time, vanishes from memory, and needs to be continuously refurnished, reconfigured, and reenacted. As regards the sambaquis case, the detailed analysis of depositional architecture reveals that the building process includes “demolition,” redepositing, and refurbishing, and not just accretion. Moreover, studies by Klökler (2014) have suggested that the funerary mounds are organized social facilities, with areas for circulating, open spaces and areas where circulation is restricted.

In her detailed study at Sernambetiba, Bianchini (2015) reports well-preserved tiny and fragile mussel deposits alternating with ashy lenses into the burial heaps, an evidence for a reserved place, not subject to circulation, walking and/or trampling. These fires and deposits are probably related to ritual activities, as suggested by their immediate relation to the body deposited below the heap; thus it sounds pretty reasonable that the whole burial structure are not an area for free circulation, at least while memory of the deceased person remains alive. The heaping up structure itself imposes a limit, as well as eventual fences and other wooden tomb structures.

At the same time, burial heaps relate laterally to flat surfaces of packed shell, sometimes extending up to 10 m, constituting large platforms that, eventually, can be detected along the profiles. Their flat and extensive geometry and the way they relate to the burial mounds indicate that they were paved areas right below and around the burials, probably for circulation, as no burials have been found into them. It is likely that at these open surfaces, and circulation areas, possibly are where ritual performances have taken place.

The recurrence of stratigraphic sequences and related features in different mounds, detected by means of different research strategies and different researchers, reinforces that sambaquis are, essentially, ritual activity locations. Ritual activities are traditional and defined by formality, invariance, and performance, among other characteristic behaviors, and are an aspect of social life less susceptible to changes and adjustments; after van Gennep (1960 [1909]), rites are exceptional situations but always relate, somehow, to everyday life. Formal reenacting performances are their principal characteristics, while routine activities allow for behavior that is more flexible, especially in terms of space and time. At the sambaquis, the large amount of burials and the abundant evidence as regards mound architecture speak aloud toward its nature as the locus of funerary ritual, a space related to the dead and full of symbolic connotations.

Regional Facies and Social Change

The study of social change has taken new directions after the 1990s, particularly due to the intense cross-interdisciplinary referencing of contemporaneous research, involving up-to-date analytic methodologies and techniques (e.g., isotopic analysis) and regional approaches. Long-term research projects propitiate rigorous chronological control and access for a variety of different and complementary approaches teaming different specialists (anthracology, zooarchaeology, geoarchaeology, geophysics, DNA, etc.), thus producing more robust hypotheses and interpretations.

In Santa Catarina, one indicator of change is the shift from shells to fishbone as principal building material (Fish et al. 2000; Villagrán et al. 2010). This change, very neat in the stratigraphy, might relate to changes in symbolic aspects of the funerary program but might as well reflect environmental changes taking place in the lagoon around 2000 years ago. The appearance of pottery associated to inland Je-speaking groups, some 600 years after, is also a sign of change and intercultural contacts; nevertheless, bioarchaeological studies by Okumura and Eggers (2014) point out the continuity of biological affinities and the growth of violent death among coastal populations. The isotopic analysis by Colonese et al. (2014) also reinforces the continuity of subsistence practices, while Hubbe et al. (2009) suggest changes in the postmarital residence practices. Moreover, isotopic analyses by Bastos et al. (2011) reinforce the perception of a considerable amount of endogamy and regional pooling among these mound building groups dispersed along the coast. Even if they do have contacts and exchange, people seems very much attached to their local networks. In this sense, Hubbe et al. (2009), using epigenetic traces of the skeletons, have suggested the existence of microevolutionary contexts, and Okumura and Eggers (2014) point out the evidence for biological affinity between older shell mounds and later dark earthen/fishbone-borne structures, whether with ceramics or not, implying a great deal of regional cultural continuity.

Indeed, there is a peculiar rock art tradition in this area, with typical geometric engravings and clusters of polishing basins on coastal diabase dykes at prominent coastal rocky shores. Although geometric compositions predominate, evoking, sometimes, fantastic entities, sketchy human figurines also appear. These representations share a common esthetic grammar, and their distribution along the coast/island system of the central shores of Santa Catarina reinforces the idea that this art style is related to the peculiar cultural scene that emerged into this area during the recent Holocene (2500–800 BP approx.).

Regional Diversity and Structural Consistence

Since the anthropogenic nature of the sambaquis became clear, archaeologists have focused on mapping evolutionary change through the variability of the archaeological record, taking into consideration stratigraphic, faunal, and artifactual changes to discuss adaptation, diet, economic changes, and intensification, among other issues (Gaspar et al. 2008).

The mounding nature and longevity of the sites have propitiated intra-site comparisons, even if, in most cases, only a tiny portion of the whole site has been examined. From this kind of analysis, it has emerged evolutionary interpretations of the economic and social changes of the sambaqui culture, such as the transition from a shellfish collecting way of life toward fishing intensification. Changes in the relative amount of faunal materials were taken as direct evidence for dietary preferences, regardless their structuring toward the distribution of features like fires, burials, and the mounding up processes involved therein. The presence of potsherds into the upper layers of the mounds reinforced this evolutionary perspective, referencing the arrival of foreign ceramist Je- and Tupi-speaking societies occupying the top of the mounds and the adoption of agriculture.

One of the authors of the entry thinks that it is unlikely that these late-coming agriculturalists might have simply given away their former cultural habits as they arrived at the coast and that these sherds rather reflect cultural contacts and exchange. At least in some areas, like the central coast of Santa Catarina and the Lakes Region in Rio de Janeiro, these intercultural relations with Je groups seem to have given rise to new cultural expressions (Barbosa-Guimarães 2007). “Pure” Je sites, as well as Tupinamba settlements, are located at the more interior sections of the lagoon area, where their funerary traditions, strongly different from the sambaqui culture, have been kept. In Rio, as well as in Santa Catarina, the contacts with Je societies seem to have been slow and fluid, and the sambaqui people seem to have preserved most of their habits for about six or seven centuries after the first contacts.

Around the Guanabara Bay, Sernambetiba seems to be at the end of the shell mound building era, right before, or even contemporaneous, to the Tupi-speaking groups’ arrival to the coast. In this sense, the peculiar body treatment given to the dead at this site might be related to this dramatic moment of conquest and cultural disruption. However, even being a late site, Sernambetiba is pretty large, revealing that, at the fringe of its disappearance, the sambaqui culture in this area was still strong and attached to its old traditions.

In the northern coast of Santa Catarina, the presence of Je-style potsherds in the upper layers of the Forte Marechal Luz shell mound without further noticeable cultural changes has led Bryan (1993) to suppose the presence of Je women among the sambaqui people, thus evoking cultural and biological exchange. Throughout the Brazilian coast, sambaqui mound builders have shared similar cultural rules toward the dead and very similar architectural and ritualistic principles as regards mound building processes. The demographic expansion and economic intensification of the sambaqui societies seem to have been even more intense toward the southern shores, where at least for 6000 years, sambaqui people have been continuously building the enduring monumental mounds we can still see today.

In the northern shores of Brazil, a different and less studied scenario brings new tonalities to this discussion. Shell mounds over there are slightly older (around 6 kyBP), and ceramics appear throughout the mounding sequence, a distinctive small, sand, and shell-tempered ware almost without decoration. Reexamining these materials at one of the excavated sites of the area, Lopes (2016) confirms the widespread distribution of these sherds into the stratigraphy of the mound. Nevertheless, he observes that potsherds are too small (less than 5 cm) and are difficult to refit and seem to have entered the mound as secondary deposition. And, very important, he has detected several burials, with mounding up processes upon them, associated fires and other evidence that make these northern mounds structurally similar to the southern ones, sharing with them the same building rationale, thus also sharing the same cultural and ideological background.

Despite the fascination exerted upon archaeologists by social evolutionary thinking, it is not an easy task to explain changes detected in the material expression of the sambaqui way of life. Linear readings of the archaeological record have shown their fragility, and its interpretation demands a more comprehensive contextual approach, tuned on both regional variability and long timeframe scales. Faunal variability must be understood as regards the Holocene coastal dynamics at a regional scale and demands the adoption of a zooarchaeological methodological framework allowing for adequate nutritional input, as well as seasonal fluctuations. Sometimes an apparently abrupt disruption in the stratigraphic record, as has been detected at Jabuticabeira II (Fish et al. 2000; Villagrán et al. 2010), when looked at more attentively, reveals a great deal of continuity in faunal proportions, layer-sequence structuring, and the presence of distinctive features such as burials, postholes, and hearths.

The funerary nature of the mounds throughout the long period of the sambaqui occupation is taken here as a central expression of the sambaqui society cosmogony, and, in this sense, integral to its cultural essence, the millenary continuity of this culture strongly comes out. Funerary ritual, episodic in nature, acts as passage rite (van Gennep 1960 [1909]) mobilizing, integrating, and reordering all the members of society (particularly as regards the so-called “simple” ones) and, usually, assumes rather peculiar and exclusive aspects. It is deeply related to cosmogony and, although not intrinsically connected to environmental transformations, sometimes reflects them in some way. This perspective seems to be the most adequate to approach the study of the sambaquis, given the large amount of burials found at these sites and the fact that they seem to be the reason behind mound building.

Gaspar et al. (2008) suggests that, for sambaqui society, the dead has fundamental importance and their locale occupies a special and distinctive positioning into the landscape, where funerary ritual takes place and its essence is to preserve, transform, and control the body. The vital importance of the body as cosmological principle is, by no means, exclusive of the sambaqui society but a cultural characteristic widely acknowledged among South American native societies. After Viveiros de Castro (2002: 388), the emphasis in the social construction of the body is a differential of the Amerindian cosmologies.

Let us have a look at the body treatment reported in the Lakes Region, Rio de Janeiro. Estanek (2016) relates, at Sernambetiba, tight wrapping and defleshing in 17 burials, while other have been manipulated and redeposited (secondary burials), a process involving intentional bone selection and fragmentation, reburying in small baskets (or something similar) and parts preserved in connection, such as hands and feet. Furthermore, sections of the vertebral column and members (both inferior and superior) have been disconnected and regrouped with other parts and the crania intentionally broken and deposited together with the rest, thus giving to the burial a more compact outcome. Estanek stresses the intention of modifying the original design of the body, and, even at the primary burials, the hyperflexion of the members is extreme, in order to make them acquire rather unusual positioning. In addition, although never cremated, almost all skeletons are slightly burned or show evidence of intense heating, probably due to proximity to fires lit during the mourning period or even after that. A bit further to the north, at Corondó (4.2–3 kyBP), bone manipulation has also been reported. Machado (1995) retrieved collars of human teeth over the skull of children, and, at Saquarema (3.3–2.5 kyBP), long bones display cut marks and the sectioning of the epiphyses, probably after defleshing.

Manipulation of human skeletons has been noticed in sambaquis all along the Brazilian coast, particularly as regards secondary burials, although body manipulation seems to be particularly intense at the Lakes area. For instance, Okumura and Eggers (2014: 109) have analyzed 89 individuals from Jabuticabeira II, and only 1 small star-shaped cut marks have been found. Although anatomical rearrangements are the most common intervening, there are also tight-flexed primary inhumation, indicative pre-burial body manipulation, and/or active defleshing, repositioning of long bones and the incorporation of some (older) bones into new burials.

Other interesting feature of the funerary treatment at the sambaquis is the use of reddish ocher over the burials. Although a widespread practice along the coast, it seems to have been especially intense in the Lakes Region, at the sambaquis Beirada, Moa, Pontinha (Kneip and Machado 1992: 32), and Manitoba (Machado 2001), where a large amount of colorant has been applied over some funerary structures. Cremation has also been reported at the older layers of the sambaqui of Pontinha (among other sites) around 2.3 kyBP, while, at the upper layers (1.8 kyBP), the burials are primary. Barbosa-Guimarães (2007) suggests that cremation is related to contacts with Je-speaking peoples arriving to the coast, a phenomenon also recurrent in the southern shores, with analogous explanation (DeBlasis et al. 2014). Indeed, it is clear that the arrival of these hinterland Je groups to the coast is somewhat related to the collapse of the long-lived sambaqui tradition all along the central and Southern Brazilian coast, while, at the northern shores, these cultural sequences are still poorly known.

Thus, as Lilia Machado (1995) has pointed out, after examining 445 individuals from Corondó and 75 from Malhada, despite some variability in the individual treatment of the body, it is perceptible that the whole funerary program is rather traditional, displaying an amazing continuity through time and place. We feel comfortable to expand this perception to the entire Brazilian coastal area, adding that ceremonial performance involves a mounding up rationale, intense use of fire, and conspicuous accretion of food remains resulting from feasting.

Innumerable factors might be influencing individual variability as regards funerary peculiarities. Personal abilities and powers, marriage and social inception, life and death circumstances, parental affiliation, even regional fashioning of a certain time – conjuncture events important enough to be remembered, or evoked, in funerary rites. As already pointed out, it is in body treatment that social difference emerges in Amerindian societies (Viveiros de Castro 2002: 387–388), and that is probably why there are so many tiny differences among sambaqui funerary structures. For that reason, as well, understanding what lies subjacent to all this variability, the structural rules that are essential to the sambaqui social organization and perception of the world are the principal defiance ahead for archaeologists today.

There is an apparent paradox in the perception of a cultural pattern that has remained stable for about 6000 years, without significant change, while settlement longevity and demographic markers point out toward a considerable intensification in economic productivity. Mound building, on faunal (and other) materials, of a ritual space for manipulating and preserving the dead and the presence of ocher, adornments, and offerings, all with deep symbolic meaning, seem to indicate a society where the cult of the ancestors is among the most important structuring elements, a cultural trace that integrates all sambaqui communities of a region. And, as the use of zooliths suggest, also connects a sequence of social aggregates along the linear coastal shores, thus generating macro-regional spheres of interaction that, despite local differences, bring out an amazing structural homogeneity all along the Atlantic shores.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de AntropologiaMUSEU NACIONAL/UFRJRio de JaneiroBrazil
  2. 2.Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (MAE)Universidade de São Paulo (USP)São PauloBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Geoffrey N. Bailey
    • 1
  • Wendy van Duivenvoorde
  1. 1.The King's Manor, Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK