In yesterday’s Sunday New York Times, International Section, there was an interesting article about the impending development of mines in Brazil by Vale corporation. The situation in a nutshell: the emerging Brazilian economy has been stagnant and the development of mines by this company who’s exporting of metals and natural resources represents a sizeable chunk of their national economy is considered critical to their economic future. The problem: The mines would destroy about 24 caves in the Amazon that Archaeologists have discovered to tell us about the lost history of an urban civilization that lived in that area about 11,000 years ago.
The question: to preserve or develop? Is it more important to learn where we came from and about the successes and failures of human civilizations past so we can move into the future with a more holistic perspective? Or is it more important to think about right now and make sure we are equipping ourselves for survival of the fittest?
Then of course there is the age old question of whether or not using up natural resources is the best way to sustain our existence. But I digress. I encourage everyone to read the article and give it a think for yourselves:
CARAJÁS NATIONAL FOREST, Brazil — Archaeologists must climb tiers of orchid-encrusted rain forest, where jaguars roam and anacondas slither, to arrive at one of the Amazon’s most stunning sights: a series of caves and rock shelters guarding the secrets of human beings who lived here more than 8,000 years ago.
Almost anywhere else, these caves would be preserved as an invaluable source of knowledge into prehistoric human history. But not in this remote corner of the Amazon, where Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, is pushing forward with the expansion of one of the world’s largest iron-ore mining complexes, a project that will destroy dozens of the caves treasured by scholars.
The caves, and the spectacular mineral wealth in their midst, have presented Brazil with a dilemma. The iron ore from Carajás, exported largely to China where it is used to make steel, is a linchpin of Brazil’s ambitions of reviving a sluggish economy, yet archaeologists and other researchers contend that the emphasis on short-term financial gains imperils an unrivaled window into a nebulous past.
“This is a crucial moment to learn about the human history of the Amazon, and by extension the peopling of the Americas,” said Genival Crescêncio, a caver and historian in Pará State, which includes Carajás. “We should be preserving this unique place for science, but we are destroying it so the Chinese can open a few more car factories.”
As Brazil embarks on a frenzied effort to increase mining and improve infrastructure, work crews in the Amazon and beyond are unearthing one startling discovery after another. In Rio de Janeiro, archaeologists are examining a slave market and cemetery where thousands of Africans were buried. The discoveries have complicated the upgrade of the harbor and public transportation network ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games.
Brazilian courts can require companies to preserve archaeological sites, or at least transfer archaeological material to universities or museums where it can be studied, before work continues. In some cases, rulings have stalled huge projects, as Anglo American, the mining giant, discovered this year when prosecutors halted work on a large mining project in Minas Gerais State over concerns that an archaeologically significant cave could be damaged.
Scholars say that the caves of Carajás, which archaeologists began exploring in the 1980s, offer coveted insight into what may be the earliest known stages of human settlement in the world’s largest tropical rain forest, helping to piece together the puzzle of how the Americas came to be inhabited.
Pieces of ceramic vessels and tools made of amethyst and quartz are among the signs of human occupation from thousands of years ago. Such artifacts, along with the abundance of the caves and rock shelters themselves, make Carajás one of the Amazon’s most important places for the study of prehistoric humans.
The Amazon is already a hotbed of archaeological investigation, as researchers find evidence that far more people might have lived in the region than once considered possible. While the Amazon was once thought incapable of supporting large, sophisticated societies, researchers now contend that the region might have been home to thriving urban centers before the arrival of Columbus.
Before those cities were carved out of the forest, people lived in the Amazon’s caves. At Pedra Pintada, a cave that, like those in Carajás, is also in Pará, Anna C. Roosevelt, an American archaeologist, has shown that hunter-gatherers moved to the region 10,900 to 11,200 years ago, far earlier than once thought, about the same time people in North American were hunting mammoths. Can you imagine how they did that? I bet you can’t, today’s vision of hunting has high tech gear and hunting blinds, however none of that could even be imagine by the farthest stretch of imagination.
Outside the Amazon, remarkable discoveries have been announced in recent months at other Brazilian sites. At Lapa do Santo, a rock shelter near the city of Belo Horizonte, archaeologists said this year that they had found the New World’s oldest known figurative petroglyph. The rock art, a drawing of a man with an oversize phallus, is thought to have been made 10,500 to 12,000 years ago.
To reach the caves of Carajás, researchers must drive hours along washboard roads cut through the jungle, before scaling escarpments with spectacular views of the Carajás Mountains, a range of canopied peaks rising out of the forest. Macaws fly overhead and bats swirl inside the earth cavities in which hunting tribes once found shelter.
Some of the caves, substantially cooler inside their openings than the surrounding forest, are large enough for more than a dozen people; others might have provided just enough space for two or three people.
Vale, then a state-owned company, began developing the iron ore deposits here after they were discovered in 1967 by a Brazilian geologist on assignment to find manganese for the U.S. Steel Corporation. Vale has since been privatized, but the government still controls big equity stakes.
Thanks largely to its Carajás complex, where thousands of workers labor 24 hours a day amid the clamor of digging machines, Vale accounts for 16 percent of Brazil’s total exports. As Vale grapples with a sharp decline in profits this year and delays at projects outside Brazil, Carajás is expected to become more important.
Vale has said it plans to create 30,000 jobs in the expansion of iron-ore mining at Carajás, a $20 billion project called Serra Sul, which is already luring thousands of migrants from around Brazil to this frenetic part of the Amazon.
- Vale gets green light for iron ore railway expansion (mining.com)
- Swallowing Rain Forest, Brazilian Cities Surge in Amazon (nytimes.com)
- $27 billion injected into Amazonia mining by 2016 (mining.com)
- Killer Cave May Have Inspired Myth of Hades (livescience.com)
- Deadly cave may have inspired Hades myth (msnbc.msn.com)
- Archaeologists Uncover Mayan Objects Over 2,000-Years-Old (hispanicallyspeakingnews.com)
- A Deeper Look At Brazil’s Commodity Industry (etfdailynews.com)