Body painting among the Bororo of Brazil.
Photo credits: Carlos Fernández González.
Carlos Fernández González is an Archaeologist and Anthropologist from Spain. He is currently living in Oxford, England.
In simple words -what does an Archaeologist do? And an Anthropologist?
An Archaeologist rebuilds the past through the study of the material culture of a past society. The material culture includes not only the artefacts produced by that society but also aspects such as the management of the environment. What does that mean? Well, for instance, the Amazon rainforest is to a large extent the result of the controlling and development of certain trees and plants species by the indigenous populations.
As for Anthropologists, well, they study the human being. I would say that Anthropology is a very broad discipline which includes, from my point of view, Archaeology, Ethnography, Sociology, Art History, among other fields of study.
Carlos, how did you become interested in Archaeology? And what about Anthropology?
Regarding Archaeology, I have always been fascinated by the past and the various different “Histories” that we are taught in school or told about at home. In Spanish, the word “historia” means both “story” and “History” and I think that ambiguity captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. In addition, Archaeology has such an aura of mystery to it, that is a very attractive feature for many people.
As regards Anthropology, there was a moment when I felt there were not enough “stories” to help us understand the History of those artefacts and material elements we were finding. What if the Archaeologists’ interpretation of these objects were nothing more than them transferring their own background, experience and way of viewing reality, onto the material culture of the past? It was at that point that I started getting interested in Anthropology and Ethnography. And then Ethnoarchaeology. Essentially, everything is interrelated. I consider myself both an Archaeologist and an Anthropologist, but I prefer to describe my job as “Ethnoarchaeology”.
Which aspects of your work do you find particularly rewarding?
There is an intellectual component that is really satisfying. You are allowed a glimpse into the past in some way; you are able to understand or at least partially understand why something happened the way it did. Studying the past enables us to “read” certain visual features, such as architecture or art history or even the physical landscape around us. So, for example, we might be able to decipher what the different periods of construction were of the façade of an old building in a city such as Granada or Toledo. That’s really a thrilling feeling.
As regards my own personal experience working in this area, it has allowed me to go places and get involved in situations that are unique and extremely powerful from a human point of view. Certainly, travelling and coming into contact with new people, feeling like I am constantly learning and discovering new things – these are all aspects of my work that I find particularly rewarding.
You must have travelled widely and come into contact with many different cultures in your work. Can you recall an experience that was in some way outstanding or particularly impressive for you?
I would say that being present at a funeral of the Bororo tribe in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Bororo tribe have been terribly punished by out-of-control economic and urban development in this area of Brazil. They are a tribe with a really fascinating culture and cosmology, but they live in small reserves surrounded by soya plantations that have poisoned the rivers (due to the use of chemicals and pesticides) and their territory. They used to be a tribe for whom hunting was very important both materially and culturally, but now they can hardly hunt because the animals in their territory have almost disappeared. The people from the cities around the reserves do not accept them and there is a lot of racism and discrimination against them.
And yet, nonetheless, the Bororo still resist the death of their culture, despite the overwhelming forces pushing them towards complete assimilation into the dominant mainstream culture of Brazil. Their funeral rites are a key instrument in this cultural resistance. It is the main way that different sub-groups within the tribe – often scattered at some distance from each other in tiny reserves – come together again and gather to honour and renew their culture. The funeral process lasts for two to three months and includes several acts and rites. The last three days of the funeral are the most intense and I was lucky enough to be there and witness this on my second visit.
Also, I had the opportunity to live and work together briefly with the Myky tribe, another indigenous group in Mato Grosso, who were first contacted in 1971. That was a wonderful experience. Being able to record how they used to use stone axes in the recent past was extremely rewarding for me, both as an Archaeologist and as an Anthropologist. I will never forget how the Myky and the NGO that works with them, CIMI, welcomed me into their culture.
There are many interpretations of the past based on a few facts which are then turned into fantastic, pseudo-archaeological stories, especially relating to extraterrestrial life or evolution. Do you find this to be a problem for Archaeologists and the public image of this science?
Yes, I think this is a problem because some people still do not take Archaeology very seriously as an academic discipline. They see it as some sort of fanciful pastime or hobby, while in fact it is quite a meticulous science. It requires a great deal of hard work and perseverance, sharp skills of observation and a willingness to sometimes work in very difficult conditions. Nowadays, Archaeology also uses methods of analysis from other sciences, such as pollen analysis that helps us to know what the environment was like in the past, or radiocarbon dating, which allows us to know how old something is, as long as it contains organic material.