“Crowned mountain is the name given by the Saramacas to these relics which are hard to explain”.

This phrase, written by in 1952, was Emile Abonnenc’s first observation about the enigmatic presence of three of these sites in French Guiana. The highly evocative term reveals the incomprehension of some of the local population in the face of the deep ditches encircling some of the summits in the forest.

The collection of relics (pottery and stone tools) and subsequent first radiocarbon dating soon proved that Amerindian groups had made these changes to the landscape. In 1987, archaeologist H. Petitjean-Roget drew up a map showing the locations of sixteen crowned mountains. Since then further examples have been added to the list, most of which were chance discoveries made when out in the forest. The Regional Archaeology Service of French Guiana is currently aware of about forty sites of varying degrees of certainty. This figure is no doubt a lot lower than the true figure, bearing in mind that vast swathes of territory are still wholly unexplored. A few sites are also known in Brazil and Surinam, which gives an idea of the geographical extent of phenomenon.

It is important to distinguish between the various types of “crowned mountain”: 1) the outer ditch goes all the way around the top of a hill; 2) the outer ditch goes around only part of a plateau at the top of a hill; and 3) one or sometimes two straight ditches block access to part of a plateau, in what is called a “blocked spur”. The relief was always used, with spurs and hilltops above meanders and the confluence of rivers often being chosen, although structures of this sort also exist in mountainous enclaves far from navigable creeks. The size of these sites varies between 0.5 and 3.5 hectares, and some ditches can be up to 3 metres deep. They are sometimes interrupted by earthen levees which are thought to have been entrances to the enclosed area.

Initially, the lack of any large-scale excavation of the sites meant that research concentrated on oral traditions and ethnohistory in order to try to explain these phenomena. According to Pierre Grenand, the Wayampi on the Oyapock have apparently always associated the ditches with defensive sites that they call “Kalana Tapélé”, or Karane hills. From the seventeenth century onwards there are several written reports referring to fortified Amerindian villages which would therefore appear to be a historical fact.

The first archaeological work only started in the 1980s. Radiocarbon dating has shown an older phenomenon dating from the first century AD. It would seem that the sites were not all created at the same time – the various ditches were started at dates succeeding one another throughout the first millennium. In all the cases studied, they were places of long-lasting human settlement. The range of material remains (pottery) found across the region shows that various peoples and cultures were involved in making the ditches over the course of time. But the geographical proximity of certain sites grouped within an area of a few square kilometres seems to indicate organised networks. Recent research on large surfaces using preventive archaeology has shown that these areas were villages but also burial grounds. In the latter case, the ditch has a symbolic and not a defensive role. Furthermore, it is highly probable that a palisade was built along some of the ditches, although there is still no archaeological proof of this.

Whilst there is a long tradition of crowned mountains, the phenomenon is not homogenous and needs to be understood on a case-by-case basis and depending on the local context. The amount of work necessary to make these ditches shows how exceptional the sites were. They would have required either the mobilisation of a very large group of people for a short period of time, or else the collective work of individuals over a longer period. The amount of energy required probably shows the intention to settle enduringly in a region. This practice may be seen as a form of appropriation of the land by numerous, highly structured Amerindian societies. It would thus appear that the idea of territory to be won or held was once a reality.