Subject:      earliest pottery: thoughts upon a strange controversy
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/06/16
Message-ID:   <5o45os$9sc$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican,

Greetings, all,

I've now looked further into this very strange and _quite heated_
controversy with the dating of the Amazonian pottery. It was mentioned
here before by Doug Weller. The two articles in question, by Anna
Roosevelt, and by Denis Williams, appeared in this spring's AMERICAN
ANTIQUITY (62:2, 1997)

Why is this controversy important? Well, the question involves
nothing less than what was the earliest pottery in the Americas.
This is a fairly big subject.

When I now read the two articles, the first thing that strikes me is
the very large gulf separating the two sides. There seems to be so
little that they agree upon. Certain very big issues seem to be in
the air, with two sides holding seemingly diametrically opposed
positions. The matter seems to centre around whether or not the
earliest Alaka period human occupation in the Amazon was ceramic or
pre-ceramic. Williams says it was not, Roosevelt says it was. So they
don't even seem to agree upon whether or not _there was_ such a
thing as Alaka ceramic period!

Here's something to give us a flavour of this controversy. Here's

      According to Williams's comment, the dates from this site
      [Hososoro] prove that initial pottery is late in Guyana and
      that therefore there is no such thing as Archaic Alaka-phase
      shell mound pottery in Guyana, contrary to earlier sources.
      However, his own data, published previously, completely
      contradict his assertion about the age of pottery at Hososoro.
      (p. 358)

Williams is of course the archaeologist who is in charge of
excavations in Guyana, and has been for a while. He's the big guy in
Guyana archaeology, has been digging there for a long time, but
publishing only sporadically. No detailed reports from him on this
big question of Alaka sites have been published as yet, at least if
we listen to Roosevelt. He promises a monograph soon. (There seems
to be a shade of the Dead Sea Scrolls controversy here with evidence
being held closely by a narrow group of researchers, and not being
made available to other scholars, or to the public. It's hard to
believe that a man in Williams's position would have had any trouble
publishing his research if he was in the mood to do so.) In any
case, Williams has published some of his research recently in this
rather out of the way, not to say obscure, privately printed volume:

      Williams, Denis; 1992, "El Arcaico en el Noroeste de
      Guiana..." in PREHISTORIA SUDAMERICANA, B. Meggers, ed.,
      Washington, D.C.

Roosevelt was apparently unaware of this publication when she wrote her
initial rather sharply argued article (1995) that opened up the latest
installment of this debate. Nevertheless, according to Roosevelt, this
publication by Williams doesn't give nearly enough information compared to
what's required to clarify these important issues.

[The chapter by Anna Roosevelt entitled "Early Pottery in the Amazon:
Twenty Years of Scholarly Obscurity" appears in _The Emergence of Pottery:
Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies_ (1995, Smithsonian
Institution Press), edited by William Barnett of the American Museum of
Natural History and John Hoopes.

An earlier article dealing with this matter was:

Roosevelt, A.C., R.A. Housley, M. Imazio da Silveira, S. Maranca,
and R. Johnson (1991).  Eighth Millennium Pottery from a Prehistoric Shell
Midden in the Brazilian Amazon.  _Science_ 254:1621-1624.]

So what is this debate about exactly, really? What are the stakes for both
parties? This will not be clear at all to an outside observer.
Roosevelt published, in 1995, and 1991, as referenced above, information
stating that the earliest pottery in America is found in the Amazon.

Does Williams agree? This is not at all obvious from his article.

Williams has confronted Roosevelt with rather serious accusations.
Roosevelt returned the favour. Williams thinks Roosevelt distorted
the facts. Roosevelt flatly denies this and, in her turn, charges
Williams with "revisionism" -- with asserting theories that go
against previous scholarship. Here's Roosevelt again:

      In essence, contrary to my article, Williams states that there
      is no such thing as a Guyanese Archaic shell mound pottery
      occupation, known in earlier literature as the Alaka Incipient
      Ceramic phase (Evans and Meggers (1960: 25-64) (p. 353)

And she also charges Williams with withholding important information
that should help to cast light on this matter. Strange story any way
you look at it...

So it is rather difficult to say at this stage what the final
verdict should be, because no middle ground between the two parties
seems to be visible. Nevertheless, certain inaccuracies in Williams
do seem apparent, and Roosevelt documents them fully and in all
their dreary detail. Who knows what Williams's comeback may be?

So how did it all come to this? How is it possible that we still
don't know for sure who had the earliest pottery in the Americas,
and where -- after all these years of study? I think serious
questions should be asked by specialists in the field about this.
Perhaps the intellectual climate that exists in the community is to
blame to some extent -- or to a large extent? Scholarship may have
suffered because a somewhat "unscholarly spirit" may exist among

We're talking about the cultural origins of Native Americans here.
This is an extremely controversial subject by its own nature.
Whenever "the Origins" are mentioned, strange things begin to happen
right away. Evidence is dropped from view, and personal faiths
emerge to the fore to colour the attitudes and to determine the
behaviour of scholars. Out of nowhere, big theoretical issues seem
to arise, and these issues seem to distract from and obscure the

So how about it, scholars? Certainly quite a few people must have
read these two articles already? Any opinions on this weighty

I will post more information about these two articles later on, and some
of my personal views on this, but first it would be interesting to hear
what others think. Is my summary so far accurate, at least?

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky   | "Where there is the Tree of Knowledge, there
     -=-         | is always Paradise: so say the most ancient
 in Toronto      | and the most modern serpents."  F. Nietzsche
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