South American Cultures

We preface the discussion of the astronomy of South American cultures by a general overview of those cultures. Humans were in South America already during the Pleistocene period. The ocean coasts and the great rivers of the Amazon drainage provided ready transport for rafts and dugout canoes. Availability of a great diversity of plants provided food, shelter, clothing, medicines, and poisons used in hunting and fishing. The technology of hunting and fishing also included atlatls, spears, clubs, blowguns, bolas, nets, fire-drives, and communal drives. The extensive knowledge of plants encouraged cultivation, and a primary emphasis on garden crops (including potatoes in the highlands, manioc and sweet potatoes in the lowlands) favored village settlements. Farming, including cotton and other fiber plants, preceded ceramics in much of South America, and there was some care and protection of trees, notably, the ceiba (for canoes), fig relatives (for bark-cloth), rubber trees (for such Amazonian inventions as syringes and rubber balls), and fruit trees. Domesticated animals included llamas, guinea pigs, and "Muscovy" ducks with dogs (ultimately of Old World origin) widespread. More than 1500 languages developed in over 70 language families, the greatest linguistic diversification of any area on Earth. This was accompanied by great variation in other aspects of culture. Warfare was endemic, varying from quick raids for trophies or loot to full-scale conquests accompanied by the displacement or enslavement of conquered populations. Head-hunting and cannibalism were normal accompaniments of warfare. High civilizations with fully urban populations and monumental architecture developed only in the Andean region, which was also the only area where metallurgy was developed. Although shamanism, with its emphasis on personal experience, was typical of the religions of South America, there were also true hierarchical priesthoods in the high culture areas. Some astronomical myths and observations seem to have been widespread, of which the most notable was the use of the Pleiades as a calendrical marker. The most comprehensive source on the native peoples of South America remains The Handbook of South American Indians of the

Smithsonian Institution. A wide-ranging archeological coverage is provided by Willey (1971). The areas, archeological sites, and tribal groups that we discuss are indicated on Figure 14.1.

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