Towards a funerary archaeology of the southern Jê

South American archaeology is often associated with the classical civilisations of the Andes or wonders of the Amazon, however, this huge continent has a wealth of archaeology beyond these regions, no less full of intrigue and complexity. One area is the highlands of southern Brazil, where I am undertaking archaeological research into cremated human remains as part of my PhD.

During the first half of the twentieth century the groups that inhabited this region were stereotyped as “marginal” cultures (Stewart 1946), and archaeological study was in an early phase of development. Following surveys by archaeologists between the 1950s and 1970s, including those under the guise of PRONAPA, a national archaeological project mobilised between 1965 and 1970, greater quantities of data were accumulated and local sites and material culture ordered within ‘archaeological traditions’ (Noelli 2005). Such sites included enigmatic mound and earthwork enclosure complexes (MECs) (Iriarte et al. 2013), formed of groups of circular, elliptical and “keyhole-shaped” earthwork banks sometimes enclosing mounds.

Although more information was now available, under the prevailing “Pronapian” paradigm the region was still considered as marginal. This approach has been criticised for two main reasons. Firstly, in its theoretical premises, the separation of people from culture in an artificial manner, and a focus on cultural-historicalism, diffusionism and cultural and ecological determinism. Secondly, in methodological terms, for a superficial approach to excavation (Noelli 2005). Indeed, the lack of detailed excavation data meant that interpretations of the MECs remained debatable.

Today the picture is somewhat different. Concerted excavation projects and theoretical developments are picking apart the detail of the MECs. They appear in the highlands from c.1500 BP until c.300 BP and are located at high elevations with intervisibility, suggesting strategic choice of location, and are often associated with cremated human remains. Such research has revealed them as funerary and feasting sites of social significance, carefully conceptualised and constructed, situated within an anthropogenic landscape. Increasingly, these societies are seen as part of a broader regional picture in the development of social complexity from the Early Formative onwards.

The MEC at Abreu Garcia, during excavation in 2014. Source: Southern Jê Landscapes Project

The MEC at Abreu Garcia, during excavation in 2014. Source: Southern Jê Landscapes Project

However, there is still a need for synthetic, interdisciplinary studies to bring together the variety of data sources created from recent research. This is where the Southern Jê Landscapes project comes in.

An interdisciplinary team from Exeter, Reading and São Paulo universities, along with me at Teesside are now looking at integrating archaeological, ethnographical and palaeoecological data to investigate the transformation of these landscapes in relation to questions of social complexity (Iriarte et al. 2014). The project will integrate bioarchaeological methods and data from my doctoral research.

One aspect which makes this interdisciplinary project significant is the contribution to some of the grand challenges identified for archaeology in the twenty-first century, such as understanding emergence, communities and complexity; cognition, behaviour and identity and human-environment interactions in the past (Kintigh et al. 2014).

The cremated human remains found at the MECs are either within combusted pyres or deposited within pits, with the mounds constructed over both. As a bioarchaeologist specialising in burnt bone, I am particularly enthusiastic about this part of the research. The remains are important because they provide our closest link to the human past. They enable us to employ death to inform about the life of the individual in question, and about the people and societies who dealt with the deceased, how they dealt with death, and to some extent, how death was perceived.

As Knüsel (2010, 71) noted, these studies aim to:

“better comprehend the relationships between the burial and its context, site specific, local, regional, and diachronic and the once living people, their beliefs, and their once living society.”

Cremated human bone from Level 10, Mound A, Abreu and Garcia site during excavation in 2014. Source: Southern Jê Landscapes Project

Cremated human bone from Level 10, Mound A, Abreu and Garcia site during excavation in 2014. Source: Southern Jê Landscapes Project

In burnt bone research, a methodology has been developed to understand heat-induced changes in bone, the process in which they occur, and their impact on the application of standard anthropological methods. This has been pioneered at Teesside University with Tim Thompson leading an international research group.

The aim of my research is to use this approach to test hypotheses concerning the funerary practices performed by these groups in the past. This study will apply advanced microscopic methods to the cremated remains to investigate primary-level change in bone structure and the osteological profile, as well as systematic bone colour analysis, with the objective of providing quantifiable and qualitative evidence regarding the context and nature of combustion.

Fascinating aspects of this work are the historical accounts of local Jê groups from the seventeenth century onwards, and ethnographic studies of modern Kaingang and Xokleng societies who inhabit the region. There appears to be continuity in the patterns of spatial arrangement and funerary practice between archaeological evidence and historical/ethnographic sources. Such patterns may be used as constructs to aid interpretation of the funerary archaeology and the prehistoric societies of the region.

This PhD research constitutes an opportunity to contribute to bioarchaeology in Brazil, and to provide detailed evidence from advanced methods to enable interpretation of funerary practices in Jê archaeology as part of an interdisciplinary project combining archaeology, and palaeoecology with ethnographic and ethnohistorical accounts to understand social complexity in the Early Formative period.



Fradley, M. 2014: Excavations at the Abreu and Garcia Vineyard Site. Campo Belo do Sul, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Iriarte, J. I. Moehlecke Copé, S. Fradley, M. Lockhart, J. J. Gillam, J. C. 2013: Sacred landscapes of the southern Brazilian highlands: Understanding southern proto-Jê mound and enclosure complexes. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32, 1:74-96.

Iriarte, J. I. DeBlasis, P. Mayle, F. Corteletti, R. Fradley, M. Cardenas, M. L. de Souza, J. G. 2014: Paisagens Je Meridionais: Ecologia, História e Poder numa paisagem transicional durante o Holoceno tardio. Cadernos do Lepaarq 9, 22:239-253.

Knüsel, C. J. 2010: Bioarchaeology: a synthetic approach. Bulletins et mémoires de la Société d’anthropologie de Paris 22, 1-2:62-73.

Kintigh, K. W. Altschul, J. H. Beaudry, M. C. Drennand, R. D. Kinzige, A. P. Kohler, T. A. Limp, W. F. Maschner, H. D. G. Michener, W. K. Pauketat, T. R. Peregrine, P. Sabloff, J. A. Wilkinson, T. J. Wright, H. T. Zeder, M. A. Grand challenges for archaeology 2014: PNAS 111, 3:879-880.

Noelli, F. S. 2005: Rethinking Stereotypes and the History of Research on Jê Populations in South Brazil. In. Funari, P. P. Zarankin, A. Stovel, E. (eds) Global Archaeological Theory: Contextual Voices and Contemporary Thoughts. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York, 167-190.

Steward, Julian H. (ed.) 1946: Handbook of South American Indians, Vol. 1: The marginal tribes. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143. Government Publishing Office: Washington