A few kilometres upstream from the town of Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock , a series of events relating to the recent pre-Colombian history of the Guianas have been brought to light by excavations being carried out by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Institut national de recherches archéologiques preventives, INRAP), directed by the Departmental Public Works Agency (Direction départementale de l’équipement, DDE). The site was established on Pointe Morne, a small area of higher ground about forty metres from a narrowing in the River Oyapock. Two Amerindian communities lived on this hilltop from the 11th to the 16th century, and the excavations have shed light on the relationship between the two.

An Aristé burial area

Around 1000 AD, an old Amerindian group referred to as the Aristé by archaeologists established a cemetery on Pointe Morne. The choice of site offered various advantages as the hill has steep natural slopes and is connected to the rest of the terrain via a narrow ridge. The first occupants dug a rectilinear ditch about thirty metres long and two metres deep, corresponding to where the ridge was at its narrowest.

The first tomb was dug at the same time as the ditch and three others followed, forming a small burial area which appears to have been in use for nearly 500 years. These graves were all built on the same model, with a cylindrical access well leading into a burial chamber which always faces east. The Aristé community buried their dead in this artificial cavity, dug out to be between 1.6 and 3.2 metres deep. The skeletal remains, frequently charred, were deposited in urns in the shape of a human face, associated with secondary recipients containing offerings or objects which had belonged to the deceased.

These four burial vaults underwent various changes over time. One of them has remained intact and is in the state it would have been on the day of the burial 500 years ago. Everything placed there during the burial appears to have been protected by a very large slab of granite which dropped across the access well, originally acting as a tombstone and marking the location of the grave. A second tomb was completely emptied of its contents and deliberately filled with rubble dug from another site. In the two other tombs, most of the urns and vases have been broken and mixed up. For the archaeologists, these various observations suggest that the placing of the funeral urn did not mark the end of all activity in the vault, which would appear to have changed according to its use. Its entrance was no doubt blocked using a movable system, making it possible to modify the contents of the grave by placing more urns or removing and destroying old ones. Whilst not conclusively proven, it is thought that these tombs were used by a family or a village.

Nearby, simpler dug out areas mark the traces of shelters protecting the entrance to the wells or of ceremonial buildings or places of worship. The use of a ditch was not known amongst this group, but it is reminiscent of the Aristé necropolises at Amapá, where their position was marked using megaliths. The aim was surely to indicate the location of this site, which had become symbolic and sacred by definitively marking the landscape.

The final outer form of the deceased

In order to preserve the remains of the deceased, Aristé communities made large pots, generally with an angular body topped with a long neck. These funeral and sometimes cinerary* urns have human characteristics, with a nose, ears, mouth, belly button, and arms. They therefore represent the final terrestrial form of the deceased, with their dimensions and appearance coinciding with notions relating to sexual identity, age, and sometimes social rank. These receptacles have complex and codified ornamentation in red and black on a white background. They have all been pierced preventing them from being used as everyday vessels, and making it possible to recuperate the decomposition fluids.

A Koriabo Hamlet

Around 1400 AD, the population known to archaeologists as the Koriabo arrived at Pointe-Morne; it seems that they only occupied the place for about 100 years. The archaeological clues appear to indicate that the newcomers dispossessed the previous occupiers of the place of remembrance that they had been using for several centuries. Two of the funerary vaults were explored unceremoniously and perhaps even profaned. They were then used as ditches for waste and fires were burnt in them, as if to better eradicate any traces of spirituality.

The Koriabo occupants settled on the entire hilltop, setting up a hamlet within the area marked out by the ditch dug by the Aristé. Post holes indicate that dwellings were built and stone tools for agriculture and forestry appeared. The production of ceramics also changed, now being used for household dishes whose shapes were adapted to various common activities such as preparing, serving, cooking, and storing food. Some of these dishes show traces of use. This new cultural phenomenon drew on new decorative markers, with paint rarely used and the most common form of decoration being to make incisions with a stylus in the soft clay and apply small modelled forms.

Where the two Amerindian worlds met

Archaeological artefacts relating to the Aristé and Koriabo societies were first found at the two opposing ends of the Guiana Shield region. The first, famed for its funerary centres, was first referred to by E. Goeldi in Amapá after wells similar to those found at Pointe Morne were discovered in the Counani region in 1895. Current archaeological data means that it is possible to map out its sphere of influence, running from the Brazilian Araguari river to the banks of the Lower Oyapock. It is still not wholly clear exactly when it existed, with the few available dates ranging from the 4th to the 15th centuries, while the introduction of European glass and earthenware objects in certain burial sites would appear to indicate that the urns were in use up until the 18th century. Koriabo culture was discovered in Guyana in the 1960s by C. Evans and B. Meggers. It is now known that this cultural current had a vast area of influence, ranging from Guyana to Brazil. It appears to have emerged at the beginning of the first millennium and to have been found more or less simultaneously across the whole of the Guiana Shield region up to the end of the 15th century.

The conjoined presence of these two great archaeological currents at the Pointe-Morne site suggests profound political and cultural changes in the lower Oyapock in the very early days of the Conquest. These pre-Columbian societies may well have managed to survive the first European attempts at colonisation, but there is not as yet sufficient archaeological data to be able to state this with certainty. The settling of the Oyapock basin by the Europeans inverted this new geopolitical trend as of the 16th century. Processing and trading in manufactured goods led to new tensions and rivalries, and the impact of European microbes brought about a sharp drop in population numbers leading to the establishment of trading posts and colonies as a result of the forced and voluntary migratory movements. This combination of events ultimately led to ethnic recomposition, making it extremely hard to establish any links between pre-Columbian archaeological groups and current Amerindian societies.