George Simon: in search of lost time

Guyanese artist and archaeologist George Simon’s recent find in the Berbice Mounds may rewrite the history of the Western Hemisphere

George Simon on site at the Berbice Mounds excavation. Photograph courtesy George SimonPhotograph courtesy George SimonSimon is renowned for his sense of where artifacts may be found at an archaeological site.  Photograph courtesy George SimonThe depth of the Berbice Mounds is unique in Amazonia. Photograph courtesy George SimonThe mounds number in the thousands. Photograph courtesy George Simon

Like the hummingbirds he loves to paint, George Simon is hard to catch up with. At the age of sixty-five, the Guyanese artist and archaeologist is still as busy and elusive as these darting birds with their ethereal beauty. Difficult enough in peacetime, but trying to pin him down as he prepares to move to Mexico is like trying to find a hummingbird in a war zone (of house- and luggage-packers).

When I phone, I can overhear the audio-trail of whoever picked up at the other end, hunting through the house, calling out or quietly muttering to themselves, “Where is George?” before footsteps pad back to the phone to give the bad news of his disappearance. If I am lucky, after hanging on for twenty minutes of patient silence, Simon remembers I’m waiting, or is reminded to pick up the extension.

The day he’s due to depart Guyana, his house is filled with boxes marked “Not to go!” and remnants of furniture. I learn there has been a sighting of Simon — apparently he dashed in a few minutes before (and disappeared).

“George! George! George!” his wife calls upstairs, and rushes back to the war zone, checking off the house inventory. I wait.

When he is pinned down, Simon speaks in calm, kindly, and unhurried tones to a frazzled journalist. In between his constant hummingbird missions, Simon practises meditation, and his artworks, which can be seen all over in Guyana — in the national art collection at Castellani House, at the University of Guyana, the National Cultural Centre, the Umana Yana — are similarly meditative on themes of indigenous spirituality and the environment.

Very early in his career, Simon was a mechanical reproducer of Amerindian petroglyphs, which he confesses he did not fully understand at the time, having been divorced as a youth from his indigenous heritage. But his understanding and spirituality grew along with his studies in archaeology and art, and now he “tries to portray to every individual indigenous person that power is inside them, and not outside, as they have always been told, and that they are enriched by the environment in which they live.”

For Simon, art, the environment, and archaeology are the same in the indigenous way of life, not separate strands, and he also wants to use his art as a peace-and-respect bridge to intercultural understanding in racially divided Guyana. Many of his paintings depict the “connectedness” of sky, earth, human, and spirit in the Guyanese landscape. The poet Ian McDonald writes: “I will never forget — the experience was on a par with my seeing the collection of Turners in the Tate Gallery in London for the first time — seeing George’s great series of Essequibo paintings exhibited at the Umana Yana in Georgetown. They were a glory I will never forget, glowing with genius in that wonderful setting.”

But though celebrated for his paintings, Simon’s most influential work may turn out to be in the field of archaeology. His years-long fieldwork in Berbice in eastern Guyana has led to a major discovery that may upend current scholarship. As the late anthropologist Neil L. Whitehead put it: “The existing textbooks on South America, the Caribbean and world history will now have to be re-written.”

It might not have turned out this way. Simon, a Lokono Arawak, was born in the village of St Cuthbert’s Mission, far up the Mahaica River in Demerara. Attending the mission school, Simon was adopted at the age of twelve by a British Anglican priest, James Pink. He later left the village with his adopted father, eventually going with him to Britain in 1970, when Simon was twenty-three years old — intending to train for holy orders, like the Reverend Pink.

But twists of fate along the way — chance meetings, chance influences, or maybe the guiding spirit of a humming-bird — re-directed Simon with an invisible surety to his destined path. He returned to Guyana in 1978, soon joining the staff of the Walter Roth Museum in Georgetown, where his outstanding talents as artist and archaeologist and mentor of the indigenous peoples were most needed. And Simon continues to walk through life with a felicitous, serendipitous knack for discovery.

Consider this story, a true one. In 1991, exploring the remote Pakaraima Mountains, Patamona country, Simon’s guide related a story told him by a hunter. This man remembered being out hunting with his father, as a child, ten years before, when they came across a site with huge pots. “Could you direct me to them?” Simon asked. The hunter led him to an overhanging boulder in the forest. “From here on you go on your own,” the hunter and the other guides told him. “We will not come with you because we do not want to get sick, and we do not want our families to get sick.” Simon slithered down the boulder via a tree growing up from the forest floor below. At the bottom, there indeed were these huge urns, unknown to archaeology.

The following year, Simon returned with Neil Whitehead to investigate further. The urns were gone. Only the impressions of where they had been were left in the ground. Embarrassed — this was a funded expedition — Simon started looking around, hoping to spot fragments, but there was nothing. Then on the forest floor at the base of the boulder he observed two rocks touching each other, leaving a space to squeeze through. He manoeuvred his way in, and there before him was a cave. Whitehead handed down a flashlight, and Simon followed the cave as it turned — looking out for snakes on the ground, not only for wall drawings or signs of human habitation. On the floor was a rockfall, going right up to the roof of the cave, maybe fifteen feet high.

He “happened” to flash the light up, and there above him was a pot, right up in the roof of the cave on top of the rockfall, decorated with a snake curled around the rim, with its tail in its mouth. As the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger puts it: “Like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Simon and Whitehead managed to climb up and bring the pot down carefully by relay, to examine it outside in daylight. Inside were human bones, broken. They discussed taking samples for analysis, but instead put it back.

That evening, back at base, Whitehead became extremely ill, more so than ever in his previous experiences with tropical illnesses — fever, diarrhoea, hallucinations. Next day, the expedition continued their journey nonetheless, proceeding to another village. While the guide went ahead to the top of a mountain, Simon waited for Whitehead, who was coming on slowly. When he lost sight of Whitehead, Simon turned back, and found his colleague flat on his face on the trail. Whitehead was moaning, “I am so sick . . . It’s them bones . . them bones.”

“I remember his words clearly,” says Simon — “Them bones.” “But we didn’t take any bones,” George replied. But Whitehead, it turned out, had indeed taken some very small fragments for analysis. He begged Simon to throw them away out of his backpack.

Simon remembers he had been “warned” by an old Carib woman from Orealla Village to be very careful with these matters, and to be respectful: to talk to the spirits, and to placate them with alcohol and tobacco. But he had not passed this advice on to Whitehead, he says, not knowing how the researcher would react to such indigenous spirituality. “When I brought the pot out, I talked to it,” Simon says, “and told it, I am just taking you outside to have a look.” It is a tradition with Patamona people that they do not go to abandoned burial or habitation sites for fear they will become ill, and out of a fear of interfering with ancestral remains.

Simon told Whitehead he couldn’t throw away the bone fragments. Instead he took them wrapped in plastic a long way outside the village to a solitary tree. He placed them at the root of the tree with a rock over them, speaking to them and apologising for having brought them so far away from where they had been. Whitehead, described as a brilliant scholar and much loved by his students, later wrote a book on what the Amerindians of Guyana call “Kanaima,” and which he describes as “dark shamanism.”

With Whitehead feeling “poisoned,” the Pakaraima project had to be abandoned. When he recovered, the colleagues travelled to the Middle Berbice area instead, to follow up on an extraordinary discovery made by Simon a few years earlier.

Back in 1982, while flying on a mission over Berbice, Major General Joe Singh of the Guyana army had spotted an area of strange earth mounds, and reported them to the Walter Roth Museum. In 1985, Simon was dispatched to investigate. One of his ingenious techniques in exploring possible archaeological sites is to look for armadillo holes in the savannahs, where these unpaid diggers may have excavated artefacts. Simon found evidence that the mounds — which turned out to number in the thousands — were once inhabited by prehistoric communities, and may even have been built by human labour.

At first, Simon’s amazing discovery was discounted. His investigations continued on and off, until the 1992 trip piqued Whitehead’s interest. Nearly two more decades would pass, but eventually, in 2009 and 2011, a joint venture between the Universities of Guyana, Florida, and Wisconsin led to a professional exploration of the Berbice Mounds. Co-led by Simon, Whitehead, and Michael Heckenberger, the project excavated mounds at two sites, Dubulay (a.k.a. Dubuli) and Hitia. They also found remains of raised fields, forest islands, ritual S- and L-shaped and linear mounds in the Middle Berbice savannahs, evidence of pre-Columbian occupation.

The archaeological cuts show that the Berbice Mounds are anthropogenic — the result of deliberate human labour — consisting of an extremely fertile man-made soil called terra preta, evenly laid down in alternating light-dark layers. The archaeologists also found ceramic potsherds with appliqué patterns linked to the Lokono peoples — George’s ancient ancestors. Some layers in the mounds investigated had been “capped” deliberately with ceramic sherds. Full carbon dating of the finds has not yet been completed, but the oldest of these remains so far dates to 6,000 BP (Before Present). As Whitehead remarked: “This is older than Stonehenge in Britain, older than the Great Pyramids of Pharonic Egypt and . . . may represent one of the world’s most important heritage sites.”

Why are the Berbice Mounds so important? For centuries it’s been believed that the Amazon region never harboured any very large settled populations in pre-Columbian times, only smaller, mobile societies — because once the tree cover is cut, the soil of the Amazon forest becomes notoriously infertile, with all its nutrients washed away. It is impossible to sustain very large settled populations without intensive agriculture.

Anthropologically, agriculture is key for the transition of early man from hunter-gatherer to settled village life. The Amazon landscape has long been thought “pristine,” little affected by a small pre-Columbian population, although modern indigenous peoples have been accused of unsustainable “slash and burn” methods, with little knowledge of intensive agriculture. All of these previously accepted ideas have now been overturned.

First there is the Middle Berbice 6,000 BP date, which now fills a data-gap in the world’s record of early human history. Although similar sites have been found elsewhere in the region, the Berbice Mounds could represent the oldest settled agricultural site in Amazonia — and maybe the world, says Simon, possibly continuously occupied by the Lokono for over five thousand years, to the present. This timeline further suggests that humans may long have had an impact on the “pristine” Amazonian environment not previously realised. Furthermore, previous ideas of low pre-Columbian population levels will have to be revisited, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of mounds. The evidence suggests sophisticated methods of agriculture, with the raised fields designed to deal with flooding in wet seasons and irrigation in dry.

Then there is the terra preta earth, created by enriching existing soils with organic material, which has remained fertile for thousands of years. Also know as Amazonian Dark Earth (ADE), it has been found in other Amazonia sites, in Brazil and elsewhere. Heckenberger, however, who has also worked intensively in the mid-Amazon, is awed by both the unique depth of the Berbice Mounds — ten feet — and the relatively much darker soil colour, neither of which he encountered elsewhere. Alex Mendes, owner of Dubulay Ranch owner and dig member, says the difference between corn grown where terra preta is found and that on flat brown sand “is crazy — like cheese and chalk.” Terra preta is even dug up and sold in some parts of Brazil, a different kind of black gold, which leads to green.

A 2002 BBC programme which documented scientific experimentation on ADE elsewhere in Amazonia noted agricultural yields rose by a stunning 880 per cent in one test result, as well as the curious fact mentioned by a farmer who “mined” ADE for gardeners: if 20 centimetres of ADE was left undisturbed for twenty years, it seems to regenerate, or grow itself back. If it can be re-discovered how this earth was made, and the process reproduced, the environmental implications are huge, both for the wider Amazon region and for Guyana, a developing country attempting to progress in an innovative, environmentally friendly “low carbon” fashion. (No forests cut down, less use of fertiliser.)

For George Simon, however, the absolute urgency now is to have the endangered Middle Berbice site declared a protected area and world heritage site. He is impressed with the concern Guyana’s president and minister of culture have shown, and in 2012 Simon was awarded an Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence, recognising the importance of his archaeological work. But even as he prepares to shift his home base to Mexico (after stints in Chad and Haiti earlier in his career), Simon worries that the fast-encroaching ravages of “progress” may literally scoop the Berbice Mounds away, before they have given up all of their long-buried secrets. Hidden in plain sight for centuries, the mounds have already changed the way historians understand Guyana’s past. They could also change the way the country thinks about its future.