- Having celebrated her 90th birthday earlier this year, the archaeologist Niéde Guidon spoke to Mongabay about her work to protect Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park, in the northeastern state of Piauí, which is home to the largest and oldest concentration of prehistoric art in the Americas.
- On top of her efforts to create the national park, Guidon’s innovative approach in the 1970s contributed to the social development of the local communities in the surrounding area by supporting the building of schools, incentivizing tourism, opening a ceramics factory and transforming housewives of the region into “guardians” of the park.
- In the 1980s, Guidon challenged the orthodox Clovis First theory, which claimed that Homo sapiens arrived in the Americas 12,000 years ago by crossing the Bering Strait. The archaeologist claimed to have found human remains in Serra da Capivara dating back as far as 32,000 years.
- Today, the Olho D’Água Institute, created by the current head of the national park, is preserving Guidon’s legacy by continuing collaborative archaeological work, which involves the local population in efforts to preserve prehistoric heritage.
Niéde Guidon has long since stopped her walks through Serra da Capivara National Park. Living as a recluse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the archaeologist, who retired from her position as president of the Museum of the American Man Foundation (FUMDHAM) in 2020, has become used to her life of isolation. “At 90, I think I’ve already worked quite enough. My friends, volleyball and tennis matches and even a bit of reading keep me company [from day to day],” the Franco-Brazilian researcher told Mongabay.
Guidon has lived with her dogs in a house at the back of the FUMDHAM, in the city of São Raimundo Nonato, in the rural interior of the northeastern state of Piauí, for 30 years. And now, between journeys between France and Brazil, threats from powerful figures and scientific achievements, she is celebrating the reopening of the national park that she helped to create, after it had remained closed during the pandemic and the insecurity caused by the government of former President Jair Bolsonaro.
The scientist, who celebrated her 90th birthday on March 12, has received a series of tributes this year to mark the occasion. With her movement now restricted because of the arthritis she developed after having contracted chikungunya in 2016, Guidon has already handpicked the events she will attend in person. One of these was an event that took place on June 9, in which most of the town of São Raimundo Nonato came out in force to celebrate Guidon’s life and career.
The event was attended by the French Consul General in Recife, Jérémie Faucon, and the acting governor of Piauí, Themístocles Filho, and a whole host of other political and academic personalities who landed at the municipality’s recently reopened airport — a long-standing wish of the archaeologist, who was labeled by some as a “megalomaniac” for the many pet projects she backed throughout her life to improve the social, infrastructural and scientific conditions of the area surrounding the park.
“There was a Piauí and São Raimundo Nonato before Niéde Guidon, and there was one after her,” the mayor of the city, Carmelita Castro, told the local press at the ceremony, which took place on the grounds of the FUMDHAM, a nonprofit institution founded by Guidon in the 1980s with the aim of running the park, which is home to some of the world’s most important archaeological sites. Today, the area is maintained in partnership with the ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation) and receives support from a number of public bodies, such as IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency.
Another attendee at the event to pay homage to Guidon was Eric Boëda, a professor and researcher at Paris Nanterre University and today head of the Franco-Brazilian mission that has accompanied Guidon in her work in the park ever since she first made her discoveries. Boëda is, to a certain extent, taking on Guidon’s mantle in the archaeological field. On the day of the event, the French consul general from Recife confirmed the French government’s plans to fund a new mission in the region, much to the delight of Guidon.
Disrupting the archaeological consensus
Born in the city of Jaú, in São Paulo state, Niéde Guidon first heard of São Raimundo Nonato 60 years ago, while she was working in the University of São Paulo’s Paulista Museum, after having studied history at the same university. At the time, she was working on a photography exhibition of prehistoric paintings that had been discovered in Lagoa Santa, in the state of Minas Gerais, thought to be the only of their kind in Brazil. It was upon receiving a visit from the then-mayor of the northeastern city of Petrolina that Guidon was made aware of the existence of “some drawings of caboclos,” as the mayor described them, that bore some resemblance to those that were the subject of the exhibition. The photographs that the mayor showed Guidon were of a rock shelter in Serra da Capivara.
Enthused by what she had seen, Guidon excitedly prepared a visit to the region to see it firsthand, only to be held up by a number of setbacks, primary among them the fateful year of 1964, the first of the Brazilian military dictatorship, which loomed over the country and forced Guidon into exile. She fled to France, the country in which, years before, she had done a specialization in prehistoric archaeology at Sorbonne University. The archaeologist would only make it to São Raimundo Nonato in 1973, after eight years in Paris.
From 1973 onward, and for the rest of her life, Guidon would be known as “doctor” by everyone in the city. Her persistence and force of will changed not only the lives of many of the region’s inhabitants, but the course of the field of Brazilian archaeology.
One of her most well-known theories is on the dating of when the Americas were first settled by humans: Guidon discovered remains of bonfires at the archeological site of Boqueirão da Pedra Furada that she claimed dated from 32,000 years ago, a theory she detailed in a 1986 article for Nature magazine. The piece caused a sensation in the world of archaeology, since it posed a direct challenge to the widely believed Clovis First theory, which argues that the Americas were settled around 12,000 years ago through migration across the Bering Strait. According to Guidon, Homo sapiens arrived on the continent from Africa at least 100,000 years ago.
Researchers and archaeologists, mainly from North America, have continued to dispute Guidon’s theories to this day. Discoveries in the fields of genetics and biochemistry have seen Guidon’s theories gain more consistency year by year, with a new wave of researchers increasingly confident in the dating proposed by the archaeologist.
“Today I’m retired, but I can say that there is always the need for scientific theories to be proven. I believe that our work was done with the utmost rigor, knowledge and professionalism. If there are still those for whom doubts persist, they should do the same work and then disagree or agree with due reasoning,” the archaeologist said.
A national park in the middle of Brazil’s arid backlands
“In the first years here [in Serra da Capivara], we realized that the overwhelming poverty in the region would never allow us to protect the park’s prehistoric legacy. Someone who is going hungry only thinks about how they are going to solve their immediate problems,” Guidon said.
Guidon recalled the main obstacle when she arrived in the town of Coronel José Dias, neighboring São Raimundo Nonato. The researcher saw up close the harsh reality of the local inhabitants, who survived on the meager harvest from their agriculture and did not have access to electricity, education or health care. They did not even begin to imagine the prehistoric treasures hidden beneath the ground: more than 800 archaeological sites with cave paintings and engravings as much as 12,000 years old.
Over time, as research progressed on the region’s archaeological sites with a team of archaeologists and scientists from across Brazil and the world, Guidon started to appeal to the local authorities, public and private institutions and politicians to turn their attention toward Serra da Capivara. In 1979, six years after arriving in the rural part of Piaí, she managed to get the Brazilian federal government to create Serra da Capivara National Park, measuring 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) and spread over the municipalities of São Raimundo Nonato, João Costa, Brejo do Piauí and Coronel José Dias. It was the start of a dream.
Merely delineating the park’s boundaries was not enough, however. Social work with the local inhabitants also had to be carried out on a daily basis. One of the most important steps in this regard was the creation of the Museum of the American Man Foundation (FUMDHAM), the park’s administrative body. Ever since it was founded, it has held the social, economic and cultural development of the area among its primary goals, with the body’s management plan committed to integrating the local population into conservation efforts for the park.
With the creation of the park, many families who lived in Serra da Capivara were forced to leave their land. Guidon did what she could to relocate these local residents to other houses. She saw the right to housing as a personal battle but faced obstacles in the shape of local policies. The consequences were varied, with some residents who lost their land leaving the area, while others, who stayed, improved their lives and took advantage of the new policies. This is a process that was detailed in the book Niéde Guidon: An Archeologist in the Sertão, by the journalist Adriana Abujamra, which was published in April.
“To talk about Niéde is to talk about the past, the Caatinga, the environment. Niéde’s story holds so many other stories, such as her work to empower the women who were by her side,” Abujamra told Mongabay. For the journalist, the image of an independent, self-assured female “doctor” arriving in the Sertão — as Brazil’s arid backlands are known — driving a country wagon while dressed in a pair of jeans, is a very symbolic one. “To this day, femicide levels are very high in the northeast. Just imagine, back in the 1970s, a woman in a position of power arriving in the park. Managing others, contracting workers, incentivizing women to free themselves from submission,” Abujamra added.
One of Guidon’s most well-known moves was her decision to promote many of the region’s housewives into guardians of Serra da Capivara National Park. Known locally as “guariteiras,” these women would stand at the park’s entrances and guide visitors, protect the park’s perimeter and prevent the hunting of wild animals.
All of this started when, one day, on one of her walks, she found one of the guardhouses in disarray. In the ensuing discussion with the security worker, she heard a sexist explanation about “who should clean the place.” This led Guidon to decide to turn the role into one fulfilled by women. Over the decades, other roles that have traditionally been the preserve of men have been demystified, so much so that today many local women have their own sources of income, whether that be from working in local businesses, in the ceramics factory or in the national park itself.
Incentivizing social development
Marian Rodrigues, the current head of Serra da Capivara National Park, told Mongabay that as a little girl growing up in the community of Várzea Grande, today known as Coronel José Dias, she observed the coming and going of researchers with fascination. Her father, who was the only one in the village to have a car in the 1970s, used to take them to the archaeological excavation sites.
“In our heads we imagined that it was gold that they were taking from there, because they were always talking about an “archaeological treasure,” Rodrigues said. “I really wanted to understand what it was all about, so I went into teaching, one of the few professions that a woman could do at the time.” Rodrigues followed the transformation of the area from the very start, from the demarcation of the park’s boundaries to the revolts, the victories and the legends that surrounded Guidon.
It was no wonder. One of the unique examples of Guidon’s work in Serra da Capivara came in the 1990s, when FUMDHAM’s projects were going from strength to strength. The Community Support Nucleus was born, with the aim of supporting the construction of full-time schools and health clinics in this rural corner of Piauí. Teachers moved to the region from São Paulo, as well as educators from universities such as the University of São Paulo. Together, they developed a first-rate, innovative curriculum using pioneering methods to teach subjects such as environmental studies, art and popular music.
“Bit by bit I was introduced to conservationist ideas and I understood that I could be something more than a primary school teacher. I wanted to search for answers in order to understand what was happening with the community, the park, and I was able to get deeply involved in research,” said Rodrigues, who worked in the local schools at the time.
Rodrigues worked at FUMDHAM for 12 years, always with the aim of “becoming a doctor,” just like Guidon. During her time at FUMDHAM, Rodrigues had contact with academics from many parts of the world who would come to the foundation to carry out research at the park’s archaeological sites. Years later, when Rodrigues was fulfilling her goal of doing a Ph.D., in Portugal, she founded the Olho D’Água Institute, a nonprofit organization founded on the principles of what is known as collaborative archaeology.
“We want to promote a relationship between the community and the park, about how archaeological projects must be carried out in partnership with the local community at every stage of the process.” In July this year, the institute celebrated its 10th year.
Rodrigues’ project follows the same ideals as Guidon’s pioneering work in promoting education in the Brazilian Sertão. The Olho D’Água Institute has already trained hundreds of local residents to work in businesses and tourism activities. For Guidon, who arrived in São Raimundo Nonato when the city did not even have basic sanitation facilities, her struggles and campaigns over the years have transformed into concrete change, such as the construction of the ceramic factory, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses, as well as the development of beekeeping in the region and the construction of the much-anticipated São Raimundo Nonato airport.
“When Doctor [Niéde] celebrated her 90th birthday, I took some flowers to her house, and she looked at me and said, ‘Take care of the park, okay?’ It made me nervous,” Rodrigues recounted, visibly emotional.
“I always say that I just did my job, and now I see the region changing so quickly and growing, with the crucial participation of the local population,” Guidon said. “Young people are not migrating as much as in the past because they find jobs here. Private enterprise is growing day by day; people are less reliant on the state than they were. The two activities that we founded in the hope that, one day, the region would develop — that is, tourism and beekeeping — are today successful and practically self-sustaining. There is still work to do, but it looks like there is no way back now. São Raimundo Nonato has its place on the world map.”
Banner image: Niéde Guidon. Image courtesy of André Pessoa /Projeto Raízes do Piauí.
Guidon, N., & Delibrias, G. (1986). Carbon-14 dates point to man in the Americas 32,000 years ago. Nature, 321(6072), 769-771. doi:10.1038/321769a0