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Figuring the Body in Ancient Amazonia

Cristiana Barreto, MAE, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Summer Fellow 2013

My research project explores the theme of body fabrication and representation among pre-colonial Amazonian cultures.  My goal is to document the range of variability in the way bodies are conceived and represented in clay figurines, in order to better characterize the diverse cultural traditions which coexisted in the lower Amazon basin in the centuries before the European conquest.  In comparing different models of bodies,  I am also aiming to gain new insights into the patterns of interaction and exchange among these societies, since figurines are closely related to the public display of their own identities.

During the summer at Dumbarton Oaks I focused on expanding the bibliographic references for this study, reading about the archaeology of figurines in other regions of South America, especially in neighboring pre-Columbian Andes and Caribbean.  This has helped me to pursue the idea that many traditions of figurines in Formative South America share the intention of displaying the transformational nature of the body, often related to shamanistic practices.  Many of these traditions also share an expanded notion of humanity, in which animals, plants, objects and other supernatural beings can behave as humans in their own worlds. 

The library resources and the enchanting environment of the gardens and collections provided me with a truly unique opportunity to quickly gather a diverse bibliography, ranging from methods to analyze archaeological figurines, to the many uses of these artifacts in different contexts, a task that would have been practically impossible in Sao Paulo. I am truly grateful to all at Dumbarton Oaks who work hard at making our stay here both productive and pleasant. 

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