In the last two weeks, I was treated to two guided tours, courtesy of one of the teachers with whom I work.
The first was a discovery of the archaeological treasures left behind by the ancient Amerindians who crossed the prehistoric land bridge over the Bering Strait, navigated the land that is now Alaska, Canada, the continental United States, and central America to finally settle in the tropical paradise that is Guyane. There are now six different Amerindian clans in Guyane, six different Amerindian languages being spoken. As Guyane develops and new buildings and housing developments are constructed, more and more ancient Amerindian pottery is unearthed. A new museum recently opened in Kourou at the site of a set of rock engravings unique to Guyane—they resemble no other rock carvings in all of South America.
In the morning, we stopped at a small building hidden just outside of downtown Cayenne where archeological volunteers donate their free time to reassembling, sketching, and cataloguing Amerindian pottery, among other finds, with the eventual hope that they will one day be able to open a small museum collection. It’s a difficult aim: while they find spectacular treasures for their field, it’s hardly enough to draw a general audience—let alone enough government funding.
My colleague showed me pictures of the archeological dig where they found clusters of broken pottery. The pottery “dump” had been carefully assembled—many pieces are thought to have been purposefully broken in order to cover something—presumably bodies in a sort of funeral tradition. The pottery they find is mostly everyday, smooth yet uneven clay bowls of different shapes and sizes. Occasionally, they unearth more elaborate pieces, like giant funeral urns with faces and engraved patterns.
The archeological building itself has an incredible collection of materials, from stone axes to colonial porcelain to bones. Unfortunately, they don’t know enough about the “big picture” behind it all to put together a public exhibition. What surpised me was how little they knew about the Amerindian pottery they discovered—Amerindians still guard their precious heritage today in Guyane, but the archeologists rarely ask them questions—they say that’s the anthropologists’ job. It seems like a weird disconnect to me.
Our next stop was a singular rock engraving of a serpent, presumably marking the territorial boundary or a certain clan or perhaps a danger. As many historical things in Guyane, the rock was hidden behind unkempt jungle shrubs, with a badly deteriorated description behind cracked Plexiglas. Just down the road were two more elaborate carvings, one bearing a turtle symbol. The site had also been discovered in 1997 as the home of one of the funeralistic pottery deposits. Indeed, digging through the dirt, we unearthed a few tiny fragments of red painted clay pottery.
The final stop was the beach—the very same where I presumably picked up a ver de chien (dog worm) only a few weeks before. I didn’t know at the time that the rocks just down from where we sunbathed harbored some very important Amerindian rock markings: polissoirs (literally, polish marks) the ancient traces of where men and boys sharpened their axes. These come in two shapes: long, thin slots for sharpening the edge and round craters for smoothening the sides. Because their axes were made of stone, they needed an equally hard stone to polish their tools. These rocks were the perfect choice of material: granite. Incredibly resistant, formed from the slow cooling of lava at the continent’s edge. There were about twenty markings in total.
La Montagne de Kaw
Last weekend, the same teacher and I embarked on a morning hike series around the Montagne de Kaw (Kaw Mountain)—the elevated plateau that makes up the very edge of the South American continent. Kaw is also known for its marais (marshes), low-lying flatlands of mixed fresh and saltwater home to the majority of Guyane’s caïmans (crocodiles).
We started out on a small, easy 45-minute sentier botanique, where we saw no shortage of typical jungle creatures. First on the list? A small tarantula, of course, which my colleague promptly picked up after shielding its eyes with his machete. Then a scorpion—not a highly dangerous one, as its pincers were relatively proportional to its body. The larger the pincers, the smaller the body—the more dangerous the scorpion. After hacking some bark off a decaying fallen tree, we observed a sleeping beetle larvae, a ghostly white thing cocooned in its hollowed-out hole.
As we made our way back off the trail, my colleague stopped suddenly. “Un grage!” The very venomous diamond-backed snake I had accidentally stepped a couple weeks before. Unfortunately, the serpent didn’t stop for a picture but slithered again into the surrounding brush, this time making no threatening rattle imitations.
Next stop: the edge of the South American continent. Quite literally, La Montagne de Kaw is one of a series of plateaus of laterite making up part of the edge of the South American landmass. It was an incredible rock formation, long hunks of laterite carved by rainfall and subterranean rivers. Most of the plants growing on top of the rock were ferns and small trees, as larger trees cannot push their roots into the hard stone. One enormous tree, however, managed to find an alternative solution. Rather than trying to send its roots down into the rock, it spread its massive foundations along the surface of the rock, its roots the size of medium tree trunks. In the rain, they looked like slick, winding boas. Once we made it to the base of the rock, we entered a small grotto carved out by an ancient subterranean river. There, we found a hoard of bats and spiders—the very same that inspired the animated beasts in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. These spiders were fascinating. They are mostly blind and so live in nearly complete darkness, only making their way out at night. They have relatively large bodies but long, spindly legs and dart sideways like crabs at the movement of the air surrounding them. If I weren’t so interested, I would have been horrified. Luckily, they’re harmless.
After completing that brief excursion, we continued to the end of the road, where it meets the Kaw marshes. There we embarked on the longest sentier (trail) of the day, making a stop off the path to visit a rather large cave, again hollowed out by an ancient subterranean current. This was very Indiana Jones—there was even a skylight shining on the cave floor, marking what might have been an area to display a skull or impressive jewel. We saw dozens of those blind, crab spiders, and encountered swarms of mosquitoes. Several years earlier, my colleague noted, he and some other archeologists had found Amerindian pottery and crocodile bones in the cave. We were not so lucky.
We made a brief stop to see the ruins of a former colonial vestige and cacao mill before making a slow climb a hill. At the top of the long sloping incline was an enormous, elaborate Amerindian rock engraving. It bore the same winding serpent with a triangular head (indicating venom glands) as the singular rock carving I had observed a week before. Unfortunately, we didn’t stay to look for long because literally all of the mosquitoes in the jungle had decided to await us there. But the most exciting part of our day we encountered on the way down.
I had been taught what mygale (tarantula) dwellings looked like, but I had never before encountered one. All the mygales I had seen (only two) happened to be crossing the road in Roura, and were relatively small compared to the enormous beasts that people trap, kill, and sell in glass cases to the cheeky gift shops for Métropole tourists in Cayenne. I happened to glance into a cobwebbed hole at the base of a tree when I saw one. A huge (bigger than my hand), hairy, dark brown spider. My colleague tried to coax it out of its hole so we could study it more properly, but the spider predictably retreated out of reach. Dommage (a shame). “Bon.” He said. “On ne dit jamais deux sans trois.” Meaning, “We never just two—always three.” Meaning that spider and the one I had spotted first thing in the morning were only the beginning.
Indeed, I saw three, maybe four, in addition to that monstrosity, all slightly smaller but still larger than my hand. Finally, we succeeded in aggravating one enough with a stick to the point where it stormed out of its hole in a stiff attack position, bearing its venomous fangs. Much to my surprise, my colleague succeeded again in shielding its eyes and picking it up by the tough abdomen to give me a closer look at its mouth. It was gross and mesmerizing at the same time. I truly respect these creatures, who have relatively little defense against their predators.
I ended the day exhausted but satisfied by our discoveries, with une vingtaine (series of twenty) of mosquito bites on the back of my legs and bum. So I slathered on a handful of Benadryl (extra strength) and took a long sieste, visions of mygales in my head.