Archaeological Discovery
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 1-5
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
Prehistoric Maritime Domain and Brazilian Shellmounds
Gustavo Peretti Wagner1, Lucas Antonio da Silva2
1STRATA-Consulting in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
2Universidade Federal de Pelotas, Pelotas, Brazil
Received September 3rd, 2013; revised October 21 st, 2013; accepted November 14th, 2013
Copyright © 2014 Gustavo Peretti Wagner, Lucas Antonio da Silva. This is an open access article distributed
under the Creative Co mmons Attribution License, which per mits unrestricted u se, distribution , and reproduction
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For at least six thousand years, the Brazilian coast has been explored extensively by different fishing
communities. This article deals with the fishing-gatherer societies as coastal communities proposing an
interface between shell sites archaeology and maritime anthropology.
Keywords: Halieutics; Coastal Populations; Shellmounds (Sambaquis); Fishing Communities
This paper is the result of the research of the authors in their
different areas of expertise, fishers-gatherers from the samba-
quis and ethnoarchaeology of fishing. Both fields present mari-
timity as a structuring element for social relations and identity.
Considering the contact with bibliography about the Brazilian
coast fisher populations in the social sciences (anthropology,
sociology, history and archeology), the initiatives were com-
bined and circumscribed within the scope of halieutics and its
In the 1970s, archaeological research in sambaquis began to
invest igate dietary patterns and exploitation environments. As a
result, an archaeological culture primarily based on fishing was
characterized. Thus, the immediate association between shell
mounds and a population with a diet based on collecting shell-
fish was proved erroneous. In this sense, the following pages
seek to understand the populations of sambaquis as an emi-
nently fishing population. Therefore, we will present and sys-
tematize concepts from Social Anthropology of fishing whose
genesis lies in ethnological studies of the traditional fishing
communities of the Brazilian Atlantic coast.
Anthropology and Fishing Communities
Considering that the sciences present a series of pre-estab-
lished theoretical categories that successfully express different
aspects of the broad cultural universe of coastal societies, the
pages that follow propose a systematization of what was se-
lected by the researches as correlatable categories regarding
sambaquis. In this sense, they are understood as problems to be
addressed under the bias of material culture, providing oppor-
tunities to understand maritimity partially.
Anthropological studies devoted to fishing populations of the
Brazilian coast have contributed significantly to understand the
internal social relations, the specialization of gender activities,
the process of mechanization and the appreciation of traditional
halieutics knowledge (Veríssimo, 1970 [1895]; Lopes, 1938;
Câmara-Cascudo, 2002 [1954]; Mourão, 2003 [1971]; Lima,
1978; Furtado, 1987; Maldonado, 1994; Diegues, 1997, 2004).
However, the efforts to systematize the material apparatus
linked to traditional and indigenous fishing are rare. The works
by Lopes (1938) and Câmara-Cascudo (2002 [1954]) are real
exceptions. It is precisely to this aspect that Archeology, more
than any other discipline, can contribute.
Maritimity and Prehistory
The interaction with the oceans is an integral part of the
processes of expansion and human settlement on the emerged
lands of the planet. In the early stages of the process of human
evolution oceans were responsible for defining borders. How-
ever, at at some point, still unknown, the mastery of water
masses through the use of vessels enabled boundary expansion,
the connection of continents and humanization of new lands.
More than 50,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens came from East
Asia and used the Southern Indian to colonize Australia and
there is no evidence that a passage emerged between the two
throughout the Quaternary. In the Mediterranean world, there
are similarities between the North African Acheulean and the
Spanish and southern Italian, which may indicate a flow of
people and objects crossing the sea (Bordes, 1978).
The initial colonization of the New World may be the re-
search topic in which maritimity bears greater responsibility.
José de Acosta, in the sixteenth century, supports the mono-
genist and overseas origin of the Amerindians found here
(Mattos, 1941; Rivet, 1958; Willey, 1966; Schobinger, 1969;
Lorenzo, 1978; Lavallée, 2000). Rivet (1958) admits a multiple
origin through transpacific migrations. The main and most in-
tense migratory route would be the mongoloid via Bering Strait,
accompanied by migration in vessels using the Aleutian Islands
as warehouses. The fronts of Melanesian settlements would
have reached the Pacific coast of America through the Polyne-
sian islands. Finally, Australian waves would have circumna-
vigated the Antarctic through the southern seas. In order to
explain the absence of paleo-indigenous evidence in Alaska,
Fladmark (1978) resumes the hypothesis of alternative migra-
tory routes by sea, proposing that the prehistoric populations
would have moved along the coast of Alaska and British Co-
lumbia towards the south through cabotage. More recently,
Bradley e Stanford (2004) proposed that the technological ori-
gin of the Clovis points would reside in the Spanish Solutrean.
The sequential discovery of ancient sites in South America
and the presence of non-Mongolian settlement elements in
Central Brazil have confirmed the existence of transoceanic
settlement routes (Neves et al., 2003). Even after human set-
tlement on the mainland, the sea routes seem to be the only
possible way to provide the groups of people with the agility
required to cover America from Boreal Canada to Austral Chile
(Dillehay, 1999), including sites in areas of limited access
within the Hylean Amazon (Roosevelt et al., 1996).
The Brazilian coastline became effectively occupied only in
the Middle Holocene, centuries before the Holocene maximum
transgression, when inland populations reached the coast
through several axes, probably using the main river valleys.
There are evidences of sambaquis with higher chronologies,
reaching 8000 AP, but these must be regarded with caution
since the cultural contexts are unknown and regional chronolo-
gies do not yet support such antiquity (Wagner, 2014).
Maritimity, Halieutics and the Archaeology of
Maritimity is a phenomenon intrinsic to any culture whose
archaeological sites demonstrate interaction with the coastal
environment. The presence of valves of marine mollusks and
estuarine accumulated in large amounts granted predominance
tofishermen-collectors from sambaquis in exploiting these en-
vironments against other coastal archaeological cultures. How-
ever, the ethno-historical sources from the seventeenth century
provide vivid descriptions of the intense interaction of various
Tupi groups with the waters, as well as the elaborate arsenal of
tools and strategies for maritime domain1 (Staden, 1999 [1548];
Lery, 1960 [1557], for example). In this sense, the idea ex-
pressed in Diegues seems correct (Diegues, 1997), which states
that the ocean is an ideological reference common to all popu-
lations that inhabit the coast, despite their different degrees of
economic dependence on the ocean waters.
Mourão (2003 [1971]) was the first one to point out the dis-
tinction between two different kinds of fishermen. There are
those fishermen whose livelihood is related to deep waters,
whose interaction with the sea occurs mostly in the open sea,
with overnight fishing, in which they spend days without re-
turning to land, whether their tools are handcrafted or mecha-
nized. These fishermen experiences are marked by uncertainty,
risk, and they are susceptible to the power of weather and sea.
Câmara-Cascudo (2002 [1954]) vividly contextualizes this type
of fishermen in the artisanal realm. On the other hand, there are
those fishermen who dwell on land, exposed to a complex
planting and harvesting schedule, in which fishing represents
the seaside character, taking place mainly in sheltered waters or
in the shallow sea, near the coast. However, Mourão (2003
[1971]) is categorical in stating that these fishermen lack a
more intimate relationship with the ocean, expressed in what he
called fishing ideology”. Veríssimo (1970 [1895]) portrayed
this kind of fishermen and extensive descriptions can be found
in Lima (1978), Furtado (1987), Maldonado (1994) and Castel-
lucci (2008). Under the same lines Diegues (1997) alerts to the
dichotomy between maritime communities and coastal com-
munities, declaring erroneous the approaches that understand
them antagonist ically.
The ictioarchaeology research conducted in sambaquis lo-
cated in the south and southeast regions of the country revealed
a mastery of all coastal aquatic environments: river, estuarine,
lagoon and lacustrine (Garcia, 1970; Figuti, 1989; Hilbert,
2011). Research in sambaquis located in the south of Brazil
have showed intense exploitation of tropical forested environ-
ments (Scheel-Ybert, 2001) and creation of communication
networks for long distances along the coast or even through the
inland-coast axis (DeBlasis, et al., 2007; Gaspar, 2008). There
is no clear evidence of the mastery of the open sea at the
present stage of research in sambaquis. The occupations in
various islands of Maranhão (Hartt, 1885; Simões, 1981), Bahia
(Rathbun, 1878), Rio de Janeiro (Lima, 1991, 1995; Tenório,
1999), Paraná (Emperaire & Laming, 1956), and Santa Catarina
(Bryan, 1993; Comerlato, 2005), are characterized invariably
by coastal islands accessible by cabotage. Even the archipela-
gos, such as Abrolhos, with distances of up to 50 km from the
mainland, do not show prehistoric occupations of any kind.
In fact, the dominance of the outer sea was possible only af-
ter the introduction of new European nautical technologies,
such as the lateen harnessing, rafts and pirogues and the estab-
lishment of mechanized and mercantile fishing. Marcgrave,
perhaps the first to record iconographically the presence of
sailing, does so only around the mid-seventeenth century
(Câmara-Cascuco, 2002 [1954]), and the fishing industry was
developed only from the 1960s on (Diegues, 2004).
As a result, we highlight what is meant here as coastal cul-
ture, in which the ocean is a partial component, adding to the
mixohalines and limnic environments, as well as the land area
where the prehistoric populations dispersed throughout the
Holocene, and also in which material and symbolic relations are
built and expressed, and human activity grants an intrinsic so-
cial dimension to the passivity of the water.
From the point of view of the material culture, the relation-
ship with the sea is expressed through fisheries, a constituent
element of the cultural universe connected to that broader social
phenomenon. Fishermen-gatherers from sambaquis cannot, in
fact, be located in the maritime culturecategory (Diegues,
1997), or people of the seaa term already used in Calippo
(2010). On the contrary, the archaeological culture of the sam-
baquis is, for and foremost, an eminently coastal culture.
It should be emphasized, however, that the word halieutics
comes from Greek and entitles the classic poems of Ovid and
Oppiano, where the art of fishing is treated as an eminently
maritime activity, expressed through the prefix hali: salt. Con-
sequently, halieutics and maritimity are historically related
categories, although it is necessary to consider them in a gener-
al way, in order to incorporate the coastal water environment as
well as the emerged environments (Tiago, 2010).
But it was not until the turn of the 1960s and 70s that the
gradual disconnection of conceptual approaches applied to
agricultural societies and/or rural areas as a way of understand-
ing the National fish populations began. The construction of the
theoretical references of fishing, specifically, was mainly sti-
mulated by anthropological studies conducted in the Southeast
Detailed s ummaries of t
he strategies and indigenous fishing equipment can
be found in FRANCO, T. (1998),
Prehistoric fishing activity in Brazil:
and Northeast, especially the works of Kottak (1966, 1983),
Forman (1970), Mourão (2003 [1971]), Diegues (1973), Duarte
(1978) and Lima (1978). This period marks the establishment
of analytical categories that allow an understanding of social
roles of different characters who work in the fishing world.
Such categories are considered here the key to decoding and
analyzing the construction processes and social cohesion. They
also allow contemplating fishermen-gatherers from sambaquis
as coastal fishermen.
Traditional Knowledge, Fishing Practices and
Starting from the idea that coastal fishermen have a culture
focused on the exploration of this specific environment, Di-
egues (2004) has shown that the way of life of maritime com-
munities is limited to the physical environment of the sea, cha-
racterized by seasonal changes, abrupt changes of weather
that cause storms occasionally—etc. In parallel, the way and
lives of coastal communities depend on the mastery of internal
waters and shallow sea, with the additional support of the
exploitation of land resources. Renewable natural resources
removed from the water are mobile, invisible and obey the
biological patterns of each species.
However, the exploratory domain of this complex and un-
predictable water environment requires deep knowledge of
navigation, movements of air masses, fauna habits, climate
change, and especially various specific techniques that ulti-
mately are responsible for the effectiveness of the fishing prac-
tice2 (Silva, 2012). All this “know-how” is called traditional
knowledge, which encompasses cognitive, cultural practices
and skills that ensure the survival of a highly specialized way of
life (Diegues, 2004). It should be noted that traditional know-
ledge is a skill passed through replication of the experience of
watching the elders and mainly through oral tradition in envi-
ronments of sociability. In this sense, the role of the master3 as
the leader of the vessel and the fishing itself, assumes a promi-
nent position in the mastery because he is the character who has
the experience needed to effectively overcome the challenges
that the unstable waters of lagoons, estuaries, or sea present.
Likewise, he is responsible for passing on to the younger the
skills and knowledge needed for successful fishing, perpetuated
in everyday practices.
Territorialit y and Marking
Marking is characterized as a social and productive practice,
which is divided into two distinct levels. The first one is the
technique, which is characterized by navigation and by the
choice of a territory, since these elements are essential for a
good fishing result. The second is the symbolic level, which is
characterized by the social construction of the mastery, being
connected, therefore, to hierarchical and moral processes. These
two levels, practical action as well as symbolic action, are uni-
versal practices in the fishermen lifestyle (Maldonado, 1994).
Considered a universal and fundamental element for the fi-
sherman’s way of life, marking operates in the construction and
maintenance of the territory. Thus, each group builds its terri-
tory in a different way, since the characteristics of the exploited
environment, along with the teachings passed along from gen-
eration to generation, are factors that influence the marking.
Fishing territories are more than delimited spaces. They are
known, named, used and defended places. Each group has a
familiarity with these areas creating territories that are incorpo-
rated into the cultural tradition. Therefore, these territories or
areas of subsistence and sociability are delimited to maintain
the fisherman way of life. In other words, what is proposed is
that in the case of fishing societies, territory is knowledge.
However, as the author highlights later, the condition of
shared heritage of the sea or inland waters (other coastal aquatic
environments) implies indivisibility and lack of formal and
continuously appropriation of the environment (Maldonado,
2000). However, for production purposes, fishermen classify
aquatic environments in fishing areas4, fishing or stones, which
receive a mental lab el and are kept secret by the fisher man. It is
noteworthy, however, that the marking of fishing grounds tends
to take place with the aid of external factors such as the align-
ment of the vessel with a mountain or an island (natural mark-
ers), or by internal factors, such as the stones in the bottom of
the water or artificial buoys. The identification of fishing spots,
as well as other fisherman activities, composes the spectrum of
knowledge required to be a master. In this sense, the marking
quality is indispensable to the master of the vessel or fisherman,
because the success of the fishery depends on the master’s effi-
cient choices (Maldonado, 1994).
The pages written here carry with them the purpose of un-
derstanding the world of fishing techniques and activities car-
ried out on the coast of Brazil. Actually, the gathering of the
wide range of fishing practices found in the coast with conti-
nental dimensions of the country under the analytical categories
expresses above demands, notably, research and systematiza-
tion of data of equivalent dimensions. The proposal is limited to
searching the elements associated with fishing practices and
especially those elements that lead to the making and use of
fishing equipment present in sambaquis. In this sense, relations
with the coastal aquatic environments materialized in the sites
should be addressed as part of a prehistoric halieutics realm.
As a social phenomenon, halieutics translates productive ac-
tivities and symbolic relationships within the daily life. The
productive activities depend on relatively traditional technical
knowledge, basically the making and handling of equipment
and vessels, but also a number of knowledge that is not mate-
rially expressed. The master is the category that meets these
prerequisites, incorporating notions of spatiality, marking and
control of territories and fishing grounds, meteorology and
navigation knowledge, either in the sea or in the coast (inland
coastal waters). In the daily activities, on the one hand, rela-
tions of identity and belonging are established and expressed,
and on the other hand, the symbolic universe of the fishing
world is constructed and experienced.
The hypothesis suggested is that the ideological universe in-
volving fishing acts as a factor of social cohesion and, to use an
2Fishing practices are understood as the application of traditional knowledge
for the development of a fishing activity, such as cleaning the fish, location
of fishing grounds, harvesting, offal disposal, location of schools, manufac-
turing nets, etc .
The term com es f rom mast er, wh ich a ccor di ng to Dieg ues ( 200 0: p.
76) is a
set of qualities, knowledge and
practices that mark the figure of the fishe
man who has authority i n t he boat.
According Begossi (2004), fishing area is the water space used by indivi
uals or a specific community, while fishing grounds are specific fishing
locations that have some type of ownership and conflic t over their use.
expression coined successfully by Diegues (2004), what is
proposed is to understand theoretically how fishing builds
It is noteworthy, however, that this does not imply the con-
struction of a theoretical approach to understanding groups of
fishermen-gatherers of sambaquis. The concepts presented should
not be regarded as landmarks of an approach, but as research
problems to be addressed from the perspective of material cul-
ture, providing opportunities to partially understand the rela-
tions with coastal environments, a specific aspect in the bicen-
tennial trajectory of the Archaeology of Sambaquis.
Acknowledgemen ts
Initially, the authors are grateful to their respective Institu-
tions of Higher Education and Research where they operate, as
well as the Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education
Personnel/CAPES for their support through granting of Master
scholarship for Lucas Antonio da Silva and Postdoctoral scho-
larship (PNPD) for Gustavo Peretti Wagner.
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