Smack in the middle of Brazil’s sun-scorched, dun-colored, vast and desolate northeastern Sertão region lies a national park. Why? What’s there to see? I read a local guidebook, became fascinated and jotted down the park on my bucket list.
The park is home to 800 rock shelters with hundreds of rock carvings and more than 30,000 rock paintings in 4 different styles, painted in red, yellow, white and gray. Furthermore, Serra Capivara National Park unfolds an intriguing theory that Amerindians lived here 100,000 years ago.
A couple of months after first learning about the park, I was in northeast Brazil and visited with a guide. We left around dawn to enjoy the cool morning as long as possible. At ten the sun was already beating down fiercely and we sought the shade of Serra Talhada’s rock walls, which we had climbed to take in a bird’s-eye view.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1991).
- Serra Capivara National Park is an off-the-beaten track destination, offering you all the peace and quiet to study its wealth.
- You can watch Einstein monkeys cracking cashew nuts with 2 stones which they bring down from the river for this purpose. Or you can spot some of the park’s other 280 fauna species and 1000+ types of flora.
- It’s a fantastic park for lovers of prehistoric art as well as hikers.
The First Amerindian Population in Brazil
“At one time this was all sea,” my guide Cida said, stretching out her arms towards a vastness of thorny scrubland vegetation called caatinga, and boquerões: dead-end valleys. After the sea retreated, the red and yellow table mountains started to erode, creating valleys where homo sapiens found shelter, Cida explained. In 1983, pieces of charcoal were found; their dating was proof of habitation 50,000 years ago.
A year later, thermoluminescent samples of rocks validated habitation as long as 100,000 years ago. The museum “Do Homem Americano” in São Raimundo Nonato, the gateway to this park, states these figures as proven facts.
Such revolutionary claims didn’t, and with some still don’t, go down well with those who believe that the first nomads came to the Americas via the Bering Street about 12,000 years ago. Of course, for me there is no way of knowing if these are all well-founded claims, but I can imagine that feelings on the subject run high among scientists.
Serra Capivara’s Largest Collection of Prehistoric Art
Boquerão da Pedra Fudrada is 1 of the 15 historic sites we visited in the full-day program. You could spend a week here and not have seen it all. Whereas some rock shelters are easily accessible (the site we were visiting is one of the 30 sites accessible by wheelchair), others demand climbing vertical ladders or bushwhacking and scrambling over rock formations.
With 1100 polychrome compositions, Boquerão da Pedra Fudrada is the richest site of the park. Red-and-white-colored crabs, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths, acrobatic figurines and a lovely image of two figures kissing are among the designs called serra capivara style. Deer are among the creatures depicted in line drawings, serra talhada style.
The majority of paintings are 6,000-12,000 years old; some have been dated older than 25,000 years. It is unknown why the rock painting and carving were discontinued, or why people left. There are neither indications of war nor of waves of migration. It remains one of the park’s mysteries.
Questions about the Rock Paintings and Carvings
Our last historic site was Toca da Ema do sítio do Brás I – they do know how to come up with impractical names for their sites. Cida has worked here for more than 20 years and loves sharing her detailed knowledge with visitors. But that didn’t mean she could answer all my questions. “There remain many puzzles to be solved,” she said as she pointed to images on the wall. “The movements of the figures are generally easy to interpret, but we struggle with the isolated, often geometric figures of which we have no idea what they represent.”
Why are emus almost always depicted in groups of four?
What is the meaning of a series of lines next to each other?
What does the figure carved within a half circle convey?
I left with more questions than answers. As I peeked one last time through the Pedra de Fudrada, and the bright blue sky behind it, I realized that’s okay. I had seen only 15 of the 800 sites and was saturated with all I learned. This park, and the 785 sites I have yet to see, will remain on my bucket list for a second visit.
- Although, São Raimundo Notato – the gateway to this UNESCO site – has had an airport since a year or so, it is still not operational because of political and economic battles in Brazil’s higher echelons. But Google it; the situation may have changed when you go there.
- For now the closest airport is in Petrolina (Pernambuco), which has bus and taxi connections with São Raimundo Nonato.
- Downtown are several guesthouses; Hotel Pousada Serra da Capivara (Rodovia PI 140) is much praised by foreign visitors.
- To visit Serra Capivara National park, a guide is mandatory. Check the reception at the above-mentioned hotel or at the tourist information office-cum-souvenir shop Loje de Artesão downtown. I recommend a tour with our guide Cida (or Aparecida: Aparecidapolouapisjpi@gmail.com).
- The Museum Do Homem Americano (Rua Abdias Neves 551) is a good place to read up on the park’s art and regional history.
- Bring a hat, sun lotion, lots of drinking water and wear good walking shoes.
Photos by: Coen Wubbels