Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Remarkable Mound in Guyana 1918

A Remarkable Mound Discovered in British Guiana

A. Hyatt Verrill

From Timehri: the journal of the Royal Agricultural and Commercial Society of British Guiana; Volume V, Third Series, August 1918. Courtesy of Library of Congress. Digitized by Doug Frizzle January 2010

Although stone implements and fragments of pottery have been found throughout a large portion of British Guiana, and numerous extensive shell heaps or kitchen middens exist near the coast, yet hitherto, no proofs of large prehistoric settlements or of numerous population have been discovered.

During the month of June, 1917, I discovered some most remarkable remains of Aboriginal inhabitants which appear to indicate a vast population where no Indians exist to-day and which, as I shall endeavour to explain, probably antedate all other known remains in north-eastern South America.

Indians are found to-day throughout a very large portion of British Guiana, and along nearly all the rivers, but a most curious fact is that certain rivers, such as the Abary and upper Cournatyne, are absolutely barren of Aboriginal inhabitants. This is the more remarkable inasmuch as both rivers teem with fish, the soil along their banks is fertile, game is abundant and there is an ample supply of timber, wood, and other vegetation essential to Indian life. On the Cournatyne the inscribed “Timehri” rocks points to former denizens, but on the extensive savannah, which border the Abary, no monuments to a former population are visible.

None of the existing Indian tribes can give an explanation for this avoidance of the two streams, and I determined to make a thorough investigation of the Abary district and discover, if possible, any inhabitants.

Throughout the district the savannas are dotted with so-called “islands” —copses of palms and other trees standing boldly up from the level sea grass, while, scattered about, mainly near the river, are smaller knoll-like “islands” usually overgrown with grass and course weeds and often with a few small trees or shrubs, or a palm or two.

In my investigations among the Caribs I had often found these islands inhabited by Indians and I decided that if any traces of the former inhabitants were to be found in all likelihood be upon these islands. But several of the wooded islands were investigated without result, their existence being due to a slightly higher and better soil than that of the surrounding savannahs and consisting of a layer of loam over a bed of clay resting on course, residual sand.

I then turned my attention to some fairly dry verdured land further up the river and which formed a sort of cape or peninsula extending for several miles across the savannah and bordering upon the river. Here I was rewarded by uncovering numerous fragments of pottery and a careful search resulted in obtaining a number of stone implements, some polished and rounded quartz pebbles, and a perforated amethyst pebble evidently used as a pendant or bead.

But there was nothing to indicate a large population or anything more than the site of a former village, and no traces of graves or of defined kitchen middens could be found. However it proved conclusively that the Abary had been inhabited by Indians in the past and as the neighbouring Mahaica, Mahaicony and Berbice rivers are all inhabited by Arowaks, and have been since the first European settlers' times, and as the implements found were in no way distinct from those found elsewhere, I concluded the settlement was of Arowak origin,—possibly post-Columbian, and that it had been destroyed by the marauding Caribs or by the Bush Negroes of former days, never to be re-established.

Then my attention was attracted to one of the small knolls near the river and on which two or three plantain trees gave evidence of former inhabitants. This knoll was several hundred feet from the river and was surrounded on all sides by a deep swamp and almost impenetrable high grass. It rose about ten or twelve feet above the river (and savannah) level and formed a spur or promontory to a low ridge (about six feet in height) extending parallel with the river for about one thousand feet. Directly back from this first knoll was a second, and at three other points on the ridge smaller knolls occurred. Close to the first knoll the ridge was broken by swampy spots or sloughs, thus isolating the knoll and the smaller one behind it, the two forming a sort of dumb-bell shaped eminence.

After considerable difficulty the knoll was reached, and much to my joy I found a fragment of very old pottery resting on the surface of the ground. The bush was at once cleared and excavations commenced. The first shovelful of earth revealed numerous pieces of pottery and every care was used to avoid breaking the fragments.

It was absolutely impossible to excavate in the tenacious, wet, muddy soil without doing so; but it was soon evident that the vessels had already been hopelessly broken through an immense lapse of time. My first idea was, that I had found an old camp or village site, but in a very short time I was disillusioned and I realized that I had discovered something of far more interest and quite unique, for the earthenware was not discarded or broken pots, nor pots unintentionally left by their former owners, but instead, were utensils intentionally placed where found and evidently for some specific purpose. In each and every case a thin layer, about 6 inches, of loam, covered a heavy roughly fashioned piece of baked clay,—evidently the cover to a large vessel, and directly under this were the remains of an immense pot; collapsed and broken to be sure but easily traced, with the bottom resting on a bed of charcoal, black mud and lumps of burnt clay. This same material also surrounded each pot and there could be no question that the pots had been placed in the midst of a fire, the whole had been surrounded by a wall of earth and that in the process of burning the fire had baked the irregular lumps of clay in the earth to semi-brick. In many cases two, or even three, layers of these pots and fires were found, and in every case deeper excavations revealed the undisturbed bed of clay and sand of the savannah The only explanation seemed to be that the-pots were burial urns; that the bodies or bones of the dead had been placed within them and had been cremated by surrounding with fire enclosed in walls of earth, and that the knoll had at one time been the burial place of neighbouring Indians.

No traces of bones, stone implements or other utensils were found within the pots, but each was filled with a fine, pasty, black material which might well have been the remains of incinerated bones or flesh. That no stone utensils were found seemed remarkable but not even a pebble was discovered and I am forced to the conclusion that the people were either ignorant of the use of stone implements, or were a tribe devoted to fishing, and who had no use for weapons or utensils of stone.

But the most remarkable fact in regard to this mound was the area covered by these pots and the enormous number buried. The entire surface of the knoll itself was covered with them, each placed so close to its neighbours that the sides almost touched, and my wonder increased as we moved further and further from the knoll and still found the same identical conditions. For a space of nearly 600 feet along the ridge and for a width of about 150 feet every test showed the same inevitable pots with their attendant bits of charcoal and lumps of burnt clay. There were literally thousands of them (about 30,000 by my estimation), and if, as I believe, they were burial urns the number of the dead proves that an enormous population once dwelt on the Abary savannahs.

And I can think of no other explanation than this, for there are but three theories which can account for numerous pots found in a limited area.

First: An Indian camp or village of many inhabitants who were suddenly wiped out of existence leaving their pots behind.

Second: A prehistoric pottery with many imperfect and discarded pots and perfect pots suddenly abandoned.

Third: A burial place where the dead were interred in pots.

The first is untenable, as no Indian village could possess enough pots to cover an area of the extent examined. To do so the pots would have to be set regularly side by side over the entire area. Moreover the pots found were all of similar form, material, and size.

The second hypothesis is equally unworthy of consideration, as Indians do not possess potteries but each family makes its own pots as required. A pottery of sufficient size to have provided over 30,000 pots at one time would be a credit to a large city. Moreover potters do not bake each pot in a separate kiln.

The third theory is the only one which fits the facts. The covered pots, the covers being roughly formed by hand on one side and bearing the imprints of sand and earth on the other, as if formed of soft clay and covered with earth while fresh. The fact that all the pots were of large size; the surrounding charcoal and lumps of half-baked clay in the earth; their uniform position and the fact that they evidently had been exposed to fire and that they contained some material which had been incinerated, all tend to prove that they were the burial urns of some pre-historic unknown tribe which inhabited the savannahs in immense numbers, for it is unlikely that Indians would convoy their dead to a common burial place from any considerable distance. The question then arises as to their age and their origin.

The thickness of the layer of loam over the pots can give little or no idea as to the time which has elapsed since the pots were placed on the knoll. It is entirely a vegetable mold formed from dead and decaying grass and weeds and for many years after the knoll was left to itself it was no doubt exposed to the heavy tropical rains which washed away the deposits almost as fast as formed. The growth upon the knoll is equally valueless as a guide for estimating the age of the pottery, for there are no large trees and the weeds and small growth are of a character which grows, dies down and grows again in a few years; the extent of growth depending largely upon the periods of drought and flood.

The condition of the pottery, however, proves that an immense period of time must have elapsed since the pots were placed upon the knoll. They have not been disturbed or broken by subsequent inhabitants for their original position can be traced, and yet, they have crumbled to bits and have collapsed through the lapse of countless years. I do not know how long it takes for a well-made piece of pottery to decay and disintegrate, and no doubt this varies with the climate and moisture of the soil, but it must require a very long period. Finally, as before mentioned, is the fact that no stone implements,—not even a smoothed pebble or chip of stone,—were found on the knoll. If this is owing to the fact that the inhabitants had no knowledge of stone-working if, indeed, they antedated the stone age, then the pots must be inconceivably ancient; but I am not aware that any race developed pottery-making until after they developed the art of making stone implements and I am of the opinion that the absence of such utensils points to a race which depended entirely upon fishing, tilling the soil, and perhaps snaring or shooting birds and small game, for which purposes bone or even hardened wood would serve every need.

That they were a race antedating any of the present tribes of Guiana, I am convinced, and I am equally certain that they were totally distinct from any of the existing tribes. The fact that plantain and pine-apple plants were growing on the mound might be thought evidence that they were not very ancient, but this in reality has no bearing whatever as the cultivated plants might have been accidentally dropped there by travellers or by wandering negro fishermen or hunters. Moreover, many of these knolls are regular camping grounds for negro wood-cutters passing up and down the river and temporary sheds or benabs are often erected upon them. It might very well happen that such people should leave traces of their occupancy behind them and as the plantain trees were less than six months old and the pine-apples less than a year their presence proves nothing, except that they led me by merest chance to a very interesting discovery.

My conviction that these long-forgotten inhabitants antedated the existing tribes and were distinct from them is based on the following facts. No known British Guiana tribe buries its dead in urns, although burial urns have been found in various parts of the colony. But as far as I am aware, no traces have hitherto been found of urns exposed to fire for crematory purposes.

Moreover, none of the existing Indians dwell upon the swampy savannahs of the coast and the Warraus have no large settlements and have not developed pottery-making to any extent.

The other two coastal tribes, the Arowaks and Caribs, have no such burial customs as must have been possessed by the Abary savannah Indians. Wherever remains of ancient Carib occupancy occur we find shell heaps, stone utensils and remains of cannibal feasts, or at least fragments of human and animal bones associated with charcoal and broken as if to extract the marrow. In the portion of the colony now most thickly populated by Arowaks and Caribs no such mounds as described have been found, but shell heaps are common, and stone implements are universally found.

Certainly the mound could not have been the burial place for Akawoias, or any of the forest or highland dwellers, for these tribes have always been confined to the interior. I am therefore of the opinion that the pots are the sole remaining evidences of a once numerous prehistoric people who dwelt upon the savannahs near the coastland and who passed out of existence ages before the advent of Europeans. Unfortunately, I was unable to make investigations of all the similar knolls or mounds upon these savannahs, and there are hundreds, but I should not be at all surprised, if a large portion were the sites of ancient villages or the burial places of the inhabitants and I am confident that a systematic search of the mounds would result in most remarkable and interesting discoveries of remains of what were perhaps the earliest human inhabitants of Guiana.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.