Michael Heckenberger has lived among the Kuikuro people at the Upper Xingu River for some 30 years. A professor of anthropology at the University of Florida his research has shown that, prior to the European conquest, the region was not “pristine forest” as was believed for centuries.

The Kuikuro used to live in clusters of settlements, protected by palisades and ditches, surrounded by canals, bridges and ponds, connected by an impressive network of roads. While only a few thousand Kuikuro remain today, these “garden cities” of the Upper Xingu were once home to more than 50,000 people and maybe twice that many in 1492.

Heckenberger returns to the Kuikuro almost every year and has witnessed firsthand the rapid deforestation affecting the protected Xingu Indigenous Park and its people. “When I started working with the Kuikuro, I could not have imagined there would no longer be an Amazon Rainforest in my lifetime. But, some 15 years ago, I realized that scenario could actually become a reality.”

Part of his work now deals with working with the Kuikuro to prepare them for living in an environment very different from the one they had lived in for thousands of years. By looking at the past, Heckenberger hopes to find solutions that could help people in the Amazon and beyond help cope with a very different future. It’s what he calls an “archaeology of hope.”

Researchers Michael Heckenberger and Helena Pinto Lima.
Researchers Michael Heckenberger and Helena Pinto Lima, from the Goeldi Museum and director of the Kuikuro Ethnoarchaeological Project of the Upper Xingu. Image courtesy of Estevão da Silva/AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: You were back in Brazil in June. Was there a special reason for your visit?

Michael Heckenberger: Several reasons. One of them being social. During the COVID pandemic it was very difficult to visit the Kuikuro, with whom I’ve lived with many times over the last 30 years. So, one reason was to see my Kuikuro family. Another reason was to coordinate with our  research team to get fieldwork and training started again.

Mongabay: Do you consider the Kuikuro family?

Michael Heckenberger: Well, I’ll never be Kuikuro, of course. In fact, I believe part of the success we’ve had over the years is due to being  fundamentally different. Not ‘going Native’ but to stand alongside them in collaboration. They are well aware that outsiders like me, white people — which is how they refer to non-Indigenous outsiders — have marginalized them over centuries. But they treat outsiders as individuals, valued contacts and friends. The Kuikuro are a very hospitable, social and attentive people.

I have a particularly close relationship with Chief Afukaka and his family but consider many Kuikuro great friends. I will be able to retire from my academic work but never from the Kuikuro. As with any family going through hard times, you just got to be there. And the Kuikuro, like most Indigenous people in the Amazon, are going through some hard times indeed.

Mongabay: Do you remember the first time you traveled to Upper Xingu to live with the Kuikuro?

Michael Heckenberger: Oh yes, very well, even 30 years later. I arrived at 1 am on a moonlit night in December 1992. I traveled with Kuikuro Chief Afukaka with whom I had lived in Rio de Janeiro for about 6 months for the 1992 Earth Summit. We traveled in a fiberglass motorboat, which I had bought for the Kuikuro as a gift. It took some 15 hours to reach our destination. On the shore there were dozens of little fires, as people were waiting to welcome us.

We had brought a lot of stuff, which needed to be carried some 6 kilometers [3.7 miles] to reach the village. About halfway, a bridge had been washed away, so we had to wade across the river with the water standing about chest-high. When we finally reached the village, seeing the rounded houses around the plaza under the moon, I really had an ‘Oh My God’ moment.  It was dreamlike. But then all the dogs started barking. They must have smelled there was a stranger among the crowd. [laughs] I must admit that spoiled a bit of the magic.

Chief Afukaka Kuikuro describes images of ancestral sites superimposed on satellite images as part of the archeological research carried out in the village.
Chief Afukaka Kuikuro describes images of ancestral sites superimposed on satellite images as part of the archeological research carried out in the village. Image courtesy of the AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: The Kuikuro live in the Xingu Indigenous Park in the northeastern corner of Mato Grosso state, which in those days must have been widely surrounded by rainforest. How is the situation today? 

Michael Heckenberger: The Upper Xingu, referring to the headwaters of the Xingu River, was remote from colonial settlers, a somewhat forgotten region. The town nearest to the park was only created in the late 1970s. There was a push to open up the region in the 1980s. When I first arrived in the early 1990s, there were already agricultural patches mainly for cattle. From that time onward, there was deforestation around the park during the push to expand the soy frontier in the early 2000s. The region has since become one of the country’s main breadbaskets.

When I started working with the Kuikuro, I couldn’t have imagined there would no longer be an Amazon Rainforest in my lifetime. But, a decade ago, I realized that scenario could actually become a reality. I visit the Upper Xingu almost every year, I fly over it regularly, and it is obvious: The forests in the region are tanking and the park preserves the only large tract of the unique forest biomes of the southern Amazon.

Mongabay: What have been the consequences for the Xingu Basin, the Kuikuro and other peoples living in the park?

Michael Heckenberger: As the margins of the basin have been denuded of forest, you don’t need to be a hydrologist to understand that the central portions of the basin within the park are drying up, even without large-scale deforestation taking place there. Much of our work is now focused on helping prepare the Kuikuro for ecological conditions very different from those they lived in for thousands of years. A much less forested environment, more polluted water and overall aridification promoting more open landscapes and patches of forest.

In the southern Amazon, the so-called ‘tipping point’ is a reality. It is not a tipping point, it’s a tipping event. Make no mistake about it: it is already in full tilt! This not only has biological and biodiversity ramifications but is also an existential threat for the Indigenous people.

The world is bleeding in many parts, but to me the Amazon stands out. It is one of the worst eyesores in the declining ecology of the planet. Scientists, the public, governments and Indigenous communities need to work  together because of the immensity of the problems we are facing. If we fail to save the forests and rivers and the Indigenous communities that depend on them in the southern Amazon, we have no clue about the cascade of consequences it will cause across the Amazon Basin and in terms of global climate.

Helena Lima, Bruno Moraes, and Nilson Ramos of the Museu Goeldi
Helena Lima, Bruno Moraes, and Nilson Ramos of the Museu Goeldi (facing away) conducting initial equipment training with Kuikuro Indigenous people in the Ipatse village. Image courtesy of Estevão da Silva/AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: How does archaeology fit into the picture?

Michael Heckenberger: As an archaeologist, I focus on the past. The direct ancestors of the Kuikuro and other Indigenous peoples supported large populations in the past, not by working against but with the environment. And I like to believe that the remarkable achievements of Kuikuro ancestors could provide us with clues on how to deal with the change that is happening.

For instance, the ‘garden cities’ of the Upper Xingu, referring to a form of low-density preindustrial urbanism composed of an elaborate network of towns and villages, emerged some 800 years ago during the Medieval warm period. This was the warmest period in several thousand years – with the exception of today, and no doubt the adaptations associated with some of the innovations of local Indigenous groups were in response to that. Some of the features of that time, such as the wide roads, the ditches, the managing of wetland systems, you could arguably also use today to, for example, create fire barriers, manage forests and fisheries and retain moisture in the face of rampant wildfires and regional desiccation.

Mongabay: Over the past 30 years or so, our perception of the Amazon Rainforest has changed significantly. It’s fascinating to see how a different view of the past changes our perception of the present and even the future. 

Michael Heckenberger: Our knowledge of the past has a lot to say about the state of the present. You could say that archaeology teaches us as much about our own present views as about the people living in the past. About a decade ago, I realized that I’m actually not primarily interested in the past but in deconstructing the present, unpacking the erroneous metaphors and concepts we use when talking about the peoples of the Amazon and working with local communities to deploy the past in addressing challenges they face today.

Today, archaeology fundamentally refutes such centuries-old tropes of the Amazonian peoples being primitive, one with nature, and the rainforest biome as a fully natural laboratory. Archaeology clearly shows these ideas are fundamentally not true.

But archaeology is not just about the past and present. It is also about the future, what I call  ‘an archaeology of hope.’ The way people dealt with the environment in the past can be an inspiration for the future, while at the same time, proactive responses to changing conditions by local communities, finding alternative local solutions, and valorizing past cultural heritage. Let’s look at how the Indigenous people worked with the environment in the past as a potential model for the future for people here and elsewhere.

Kalutata Kuikuro, president of the Kuikuro do Alto Xingu Indigenous Association (AIKAX) operating a drone in Ipatse village in June.
Kalutata Kuikuro, president of the Kuikuro do Alto Xingu Indigenous Association (AIKAX) operating a drone in Ipatse village in June. Heckenberger and his team trained the Kuikuro to use drone-based LiDAR to collect information for archeological studies. Image courtesy of Estevão da Silva/AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: One reason for you to be back in June concerned the remote sensing technology known as LiDAR. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Michael Heckenberger: LiDAR remote sensing is a remarkable technology that, in a way, can peel back the forest. We had previously worked with other technologies, but not LiDAR. As the Kuikuro weren’t yet familiar with it, and as we don’t dive into any research without their explicit free and prior informed consent, we worked together with the Goeldi Museum to introduce drone-based LiDAR, explaining how it works, training in data collection, and visualizing first results together. And they were as excited as we were!

We hope that this and other ‘home-grown’ initiatives provide means to democratize the widespread use of remote-sensed data in others areas, which is typically conducted without local consultation, much less collaboration with Indigenous communities, even over their recognized traditional lands, past dwelling areas and sacred sites, like plazas, mounds and other earthworks. 

Mongabay: Can you tell us a bit about what you found?

Michael Heckenberger: So far we only went over the sites we already mapped in the past. We are still analyzing the results and I would feel bad vocalizing too much before the final results are out, as this is very much a team effort with Helena Lima and others of the Goeldi Museum, ethnographer Carlos Fausto, linguist Bruna Franchetto, among other researchers, and of course the Kuikuro. But what I can say is that Xingu archaeology never fails to disappoint. Every time you look, something new pops up.

The Upper Xingu is an incredible millennial landscape where people still live in the same houses, around the same plazas, with the same feasts, the same dances, as their ancestors. Their ancestors only did so on a much bigger scale. Before the European conquest, there were tens of thousands of people, at least 50,000 and perhaps many more, in these clusters of settlements, surrounded by moats and palisades, interconnected by a network of roads.

In a way, the remarkable complex latticework of roads and settlements nodes in the Xingu is a better preindustrial analog for downtown Manhattan, in terms of communication and traffic, than classical Greece. Athens may have had remarkable architecture and sculptures, but once you left the polis you’d find yourself on a goat path leading to who knows where. In the Upper Xingu it was impossible to get lost. The grid-like organization at that time likely covered the whole Xingu Basin, which was a landscaped environment with room for fish farming, agriculture and biodiversity.

Kalutata Kuikuro, president of the Kuikuro do Alto Xingu Indigenous Association (AIKAX), views drone images along with researcher Wetherbee Dorshow.
Kalutata Kuikuro, president of the Kuikuro do Alto Xingu Indigenous Association (AIKAX), views drone images along with researcher Wetherbee Dorshow. Image courtesy of Estevão da Silva/AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: If the Xingu Indigenous Park had not been created, would the Kuikuro still exist?  

Michael Heckenberger: The park is a true Brazilian success story created by some visionary people, the Villas Boas brothers, in particular, and their Indigenous partners. Although the original plan envisioned a much bigger protected area, the park managed to create the minimal conditions for survival by creating a buffer against the dark forces of development and colonization.

The groups living in the park survived and by and large managed to maintain their traditional way of life, even though there has been some erosion too. The Kuikuro need, and seek, Western knowledge and technology as well. Portuguese and math, for example. And like most people in the world, they struggle with the pros and cons of social media.

There are 16 groups living in the park, totaling some 7,000 people. Roughly half of both the villages and the people in the park are Xinguano peoples, like the Kuikuro, who are the direct linear descendants of the cultural tradition we archaeologists have traced back thousands of years.

Kuikuro Indigenous people excavate a house at the ancient ancestral site of Ngokugu.
Kuikuro Indigenous people excavate a house at the ancient ancestral site of Ngokugu. Image courtesy of J. Toney/AIKAX Portal.

Mongabay: The park was created in 1961, then called the Xingu National Indigenous Park (now called Xingu Indigenous Park). Its borders are well-defined. However, about one-third of Indigenous lands in Brazil still await demarcation. The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled against the marco temporal thesis, which would require Indigenous peoples to prove that they were present on the land they claim is theirs on Oct. 5, 1988, the day the Brazilian Constitution granted them their rights. (Congress still debates a bill to institute it). What’s your view on this development?

Michael Heckenberger: What they propose aims to disenfranchise whole groups. The problem is that throughout history, all kinds of Indigenous groups were depopulated and forced off their lands. There was a tremendous mixing of groups due to the violence of colonialism. Many people assumed that they would just gradually fold into Brazilian society.

What we’ve discovered is that almost everywhere, there are highly resilient Indigenous roots. In many areas, people might not have lived there in 1988, but they may very well have in 1968 or 1888. The problem is that someone has to research and document all this, including the history of expulsion, land grabs and the fact that in the face of colonist groups, mobility was the most adaptive response for survival, which is where you run into problems.

One thing very central in this whole debate, which archaeology has put on the radar, is that we are looking at exponentially much larger Indigenous populations in 1492, prior to Columbus and the European conquest.

From an archaeological point of view, it should be the default, not the exception, to assume that there were Indigenous people living or dwelling in some way on almost every inch of Brazilian land. Therefore, for someone like me, who studies the deep history of the Amazon, introducing the marco temporal is an absurdity, backward and clearly introduced for purely political and economic reasons.

Mongabay: Did the conquest and colonization of Brazil ever stop?

Michael Heckenberger: Oh, no. For Indigenous people in Brazil, and across the globe, it is ongoing. Unfortunately, we can’t say that chapter is closed.

Banner image: Kuikuro men playing flutes. Image by Wilfred Paulse via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

October 11, 2023