Arara's Pages

(For those of you not familiar with Arara, she's our correspondent in to squawk in flawless Portuguese and capable of ingratiating herself with all our potential interviewees, the bird's a tremendous asset to Maria-Brazil. Arara has a fabulous blog from Rio de Janeiro at the moment; we never know where she's going to fly off to next...)

Interview with Niède Guidon

capivara110.jpg (87045 bytes)We spoke with archaeologist Niède Guidon, director of the Museum of the American Man Foundation in São Raimundo Nonato, in the state of Piauí, in September of 2005. The Foundation runs the magnificent Serra da Capivara National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where 626 sites with prehistoric paintings have been found so far. Dr. Guidon was born in Jaú in the state of São Paulo; she has a degree in Natural History from the University of São Paulo and a doctorate in Archaeology from the Sorbonne in Paris. The park is considered the most beautiful National Park in Brazil, by the way!

Arara - Dr. Guidon, when did you first hear about the paintings?

Dr. Guidon - I first saw a photograph of the paintings when I was working as an archaeologist for the the Museu Paulista of the University of São Paulo in 1963. The first time I saw them in situ was in 1970, when I was living in France and came to Piauí.

Arara - How long have you been involved with the park?

Dr. Guidon - I had been coming here with my students since 1973, as the head of the French Mission to Piauí. In 1978, we petitioned the Brazilian government to create the National Park to protect this rich environment and the immense cultural heritage in this area. The park was created that year, but only in paper, and the area went into decline, because these lands belonged to the government, there was no owner to defend them; everyone came here to hunt and cut down trees. So, in 1986 we created a non-profit organization, this Foundation. In 1988, we created a plan to run the park for the IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). In 1991, I came here to coordinate the management and protection of the park, through an agreement between the Brazilian and French governments. I left Paris and came to live here. I have worked here since then; we have a partnership with IBAMA to run the park.

capivara76.jpg (90139 bytes)Arara - There are capivaras (capybara, in Portuguese) in the name and in the paintings, but where are they? Did they live here when the climate was humid? How long ago did the climate change? Was that a natural event?

Dr. Guidon - The capivaras only exist here in the paintings. Up to 9,000 years ago, the climate here was very humid, we had the Amazon forest to the north of the park and the Atlântica forest to the south. Big rivers, a lot of water and gigantic animals that lasted until 6,000 years ago. Then the rains diminished and the rivers shrunk. But there were still rivers and lakes everywhere when I got here. The "intelligent" way the Brazilian white colonizers exploited the natural resources in this area led to the present situation; they cut down the trees on the hills and by the rivers, so the sand was carried away by the rains and covered the valleys. People here threw trash and construction debris into the rivers and lakes to create land to build on without having to buy it! There were rivers and lakes here until 1982; today the Piauí River doesn't run anymore, only when it rains a lot and then it runs into the city, because its natural bed has been taken over. I've never seen capivaras here, I don't know when they became extinct, perhaps when the first white inhabitants came here at the end of the eighteenth century. But I saw a lot of tamanduá bandeira (a large anteater), emus, deer, and armadillos, and they were practically extinct. With the protection program we instituted at the park, they're slowly coming back, except for the tamanduá bandeira and the tatus canastra; these were really decimated. Outside of the park there's nothing left, only the advancing desert. In about one hundred years Brazil will be like Africa, with a Sahara-like desert, extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the border with the Andean countries.

capivara96.jpg (93840 bytes)Arara - (Let's hope she's wrong!!!) How many archaeological sites have you discovered in the park?

Dr. Guidon - We have 839 sites on record; 626 of these have paintings.

Arara - When were these paintings made? How long have people there known about them and when did the rest of the country hear about their existence?

Dr. Guidon - The oldest paintings are dated 35,000 to 30,000 years. We have found large painted chunks that fell from the rock walls and the soil where they lay was dated 23,000, 17,000, 12,000, up to 1,500 years. But it could be that these paintings were done thousands of years before the piece of rock fell on the ground. I found out about the prehistoric paintings when the then mayor of the city came to São Paulo and visited the Museu Paulista. He saw an exhibition about the paintings at Lagoa Santa (an archaeological site in the state of Minas Gerais) and asked to speak with the curator. Then he showed me the photos of paintings from this area. I realized then that this was something completely different from anything that was known in Brazil. I wrote down all the information about how to get to this region and drove here in my car in December of 1963. But it was the rainy season, a bridge had fallen, and I couldn't get through. In March of 1964 we had the military coup and I left the Museu Paulista and moved to France.

Arara - Do American archaeologists accept these datings and are they convinced now that it's time to push back the date of human settlement of our continent?

Dr. Guidon - Some American colleagues have always accepted them. Some, especially the geneticists, don't want to accept them. But now the evidence is accumulating. In Mexico, some 40,000-year-old human footprints were found and I read in Nature that there may be evidence of Homo erectus presence there; in South Carolina, on the East Coast of the United States, there is a site called Topper, where radiocarbon tests indicate the presence of humans 50,000 years ago. Americans were always looking on the West Coast, because the theory said that humans came through the Strait of Bering 13,000 years ago, and now they find the country's oldest site on the opposite side! Our data to-date suggests that the first humans came to northeastern Brazil and the Caribbean from Africa. Other groups could have come from Australia or Japan, from island to island, to the Pacific coast of South America. Some could have come later through Patagonia. And I think that when it got warmer in the northern part of North America, that's when they crossed into the continent there. That's why datings there are more recent.

capivara117.jpg (61992 bytes)Arara - We thought it was a great idea to employ women as park guards. How did you come to that decision? How is this affecting the lives of women in the area?

Dr. Guidon - When men were in the guard stations everything got dirty, disorganized, the kitchen was filthy, the stove was filthy. They washed their underwear and hung it out in front, and the tourists saw all that, it was depressing for them, as well as for me! That's why I've hired only women now. They're more responsible. They put food on the table; the men spend all their money on drink. The women seem really happy with having their own money and independence. 

Arara - (Having met a few of them, we agree!) Could you mention other Foundation projects that are working out, in spite of your financial (and bureaucratic) difficulties? And projects that didn't work out, because of the government?

Dr. Guidon - The Foundation introduced beekeeping, a better way to manage bee hives for honey production, and now the region is exporting a high quality honey (before they would basically burn the hives they found on the trees and squeeze out the honey with their hands). We started a ceramics business (the Cerâmica da Capivara) with the help of the Inter-American Development Bank; we built a workshop and brought in teachers; the ceramics is being exported and they also have created a special line for Tok & Stok (Rio's equivalent to Crate & Barrel). As soon as these businesses started making money, we turned them over to local entrepreneurs, because our function is to create social and economic development programs and to protect the Park, not run a business. 

The only project that is dead in the water are the schools. We built five schools with the help of the Italian government and the BNDES (Brazil's National Economic Development Bank). We had an agreement, signed by the Italians and the government of the state of Piauí, that after five years, the state's Department of Education would be financially responsible for the schools. After five years, we went to Teresina (the state's capital) with the Italians and were told that the contract had been signed by the previous administration, so the current one had nothing to do with it. (As you can see, this country doesn't have a government, this is not a democratic republic...there are political parties and these put a "king" in charge and they do whatever they want! They steal, devastate, leave the country without a penny, and then take off!) Then I went to Brasília and talked to the Secretary of Education, Murilo Higel, who visited our schools and said that public schools all over Brazil should follow our example; he then sent us money every month. This lasted until 2000, when the next Secretary of Education, Paulo Renato Souza, told me that, according to the Constitution, the funds should be sent to the municipalities, which in turn would be responsible for funding the schools. So, we signed a contract with the three mayors of the towns where we had the schools. They immediately fired the teachers we had hired, who had been trained by the UNESP (State University of São Paulo) and hired family members and party members, even the illiterate ones! Children who used to be in school from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon were in school for two hours every day. And kids who lived far away and had free transportation and boarded at the schools Monday through Friday, well, that ended and they were left with no school. And the ones who came to school didn't even get a glass of milk to drink; no uniforms, no books. The healthcare units in the schools, maintained and managed by the National School of Public Health in Rio, were closed. The buildings were dirty, covered with graffiti. So we took the buildings back and closed them down. We kept only one school open, because otherwise the kids would be without classes.

Right now, we have money to guard and protect the Park and the archaeological sites through the end of the month (September 2005). If the funds don't arrive, we will have to lay off everyone and the Park will be left without protection against vandalism; these paintings, these works of art, our common human heritage, could be covered with names, drawings, destroyed, as it seems to be the fate of everything in this country.

Arara - (Let's hope again that this doesn't happen!! We'll keep you posted!) How many archaeologists and paleontologists work at the Foundation?

Dr. Guidon - In reality, the researchers are not employed by the Foundation; we don't have money for that. I was paid by the French government; I'm now retired and have a French government pension. The other researchers work for Brazilian and foreign universities and spend one to three months a year here. Others work for IPHAN (National Institute for the Historic and Artistic Heritage) and UNIVASF (Federal University of the São Francisco River Basin) and are working towards their doctoral degrees. There are twenty-five researchers here; they all work full-time. I usually work eighteen hours a day.

Arara - (That would be a long day even for a young person...Considering Dr. Guidon is 72 years old...) How about the archaeology program there, the first in Brazil?

Dr. Guidon - It's part of UNIVASF and it was supposed to be in Petrolina (a city on the São Francisco River in the state of Pernambuco), but since they asked us to create and run the course, we said we would it if it could be here in São Raimundo Nonato, so we could use our library, our laboratories, the sites, and all this infrastructure.

Arara - (And so it is that one of the poorest places in Brazil is home to an Archaeology School!) Can you tell us something about the symposium you're organizing for 2006?

Dr. Guidon - This symposium will bring together people who are working with this question of the human settlement of the Americas. Some sixty people from all over the world. I want us to discuss and compare the data and, following scientific procedures, write a final conclusion and a new theory of the human settlement of the American continent.

Arara - (Phew...we did it! This is amazing! We want to read these conclusions!!)

Back to Serra da Capivara