Amazonia Research Paper

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The world’s largest tropical rain forest, the Amazon, has often been referred to as a “false paradise” inhospitable to human societies. New research revealing evidence about landscape manipulation and soils, however, suggests that various ancient societies practiced relatively intensive forms of agriculture. Thus, historians can now study the variety and complexity of human adaptation to both the challenges and the potential of the Amazon basin proper and the surrounding regions.

As the largest tropical rain forest on the planet, Amazonia holds a unique place in world history. A vast region that extends through present-day Brazil and seven other South American nations (Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela) it symbolically stands for the dominance of nature over humans and as a source of still-unknown plants and animals. But in fact Amazonia has been an intensively managed, human-made environment for many hundreds of years.

Early Settlement

Human occupation of Amazonia is much more ancient and more extensive than had once been assumed. By about 9000 BCE two lithic (using stone tools) traditions had become widespread in Amazonia as evidenced by stone implements, including arrowheads and edged cutting tools for processing animal game and grindstones for preparing maize, found by archaeologists. By 5000 BCE two more practices had emerged. First, there is evidence that by 2000 BCE groups on the Atlantic coast were using domesticated plants, with maize use emerging in the Minas Gerais region by about 1500 BCE. Second, current research indicates that occupation of the lower Amazon began around 10,000 BCE, and there has been a dramatic discovery of ceramics from around 6000 BCE in a site along the lower Amazon, making this the earliest example of pottery in the Americas.

Close examination of this early period in northeastern Amazonia, along the Guiana coastal region, illustrates the close relationship between agricultural adaptation to a complex environment and a resultant development of appropriate lithic technologies. Transitions from gathering to the horticulture of certain plants, particularly the ite palm (Mauritia flexuosa) and the mora tree (Mora excelsa), as well as other utilitarian species, are directly reflected in the development of the lithic repertoire. Although these subsistence techniques are theorized as being ancestral to the emergence of tropical forest horticulture in the region, the developmental analogies are probably stronger with the sambaqui (shell-mound) peoples of coastal Brazil than with the occupants of the tropical forests because their horticultural and foraging repertoires are quite distinct. This suggests that progressive adaptation to the complexities of the Amazonian environment was a process repeated across the whole region.

Various ancient societies also practiced relatively intensive forms of agriculture, evidenced by widespread landscape modification throughout Amazonia. In fact, it has been argued that the landscape of Amazonia, as it is seen today and as it has been for the last 350 years or so, is the historical product of a return to a semi-wilderness as a consequence of the colonial depopulation of the native inhabitants. Moreover, the current evidence for the existence of prehistoric roads and causeways in both the llanos (prairies) of Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela and in the heart of Amazonia itself indicates that these landscape modifications were related to the presence of large and complex societies.

For example, recently investigated systems of extensive ridged fields and agricultural mounds along the Atlantic coast of the Guianas underline how limited knowledge of the “tropical forest” region really is. The presence of complex agricultural techniques to deal with the low-lying, swampy conditions in this region, as well as the use of intensive farming practices from at least 700 CE, shows how complex adaptations were made to the variety of Amazonian environments. Thus archaeological evidence also fits well with the historical sources that report both significant population and a complex agricultural repertoire among the indigenous groups.

Soil Holds Clues

Apart from this physical manipulation of the landscape, recent research on ancient Amazonia has focused on anthropic or anthropogenic soils (that is, soils whose formation is directly related to human activity) and trying to assess what kind of soils in Amazonia may have been generated through human activities, how widespread they actually are, and to what extent such soils were intentionally fomented. The banks of the main channel of the Amazon as well as of many of its tributaries are replete with black earth sites, illustrating both the continuity and antiquity of human presence. The use of such sites for agricultural purposes thus illustrates both sophisticated knowledge of soil properties and systems of agricultural management that were stable over many generations.

These kinds of soils, particularly terra preta (black earth), which is black anthropogenic soil with enhanced fertility due to high levels of soil organic matter and nutrients, are common throughout Amazonia. This agriculturally valuable soil was created either through direct agricultural fertilization or as a consequence of intense human settlement, when human waste materials enrich the soil with nitrogen. The historical evidence shows that there was no one-to-one relationship between the presence of agriculturally favorable soils and the past existence of complex polity or an extensive cultural repertoire, but the investigation of anthropogenic soils now provides clear evidence that human occupation was not simply dependent on supposedly conducive environmental conditions, but also could persist in regions where terra preta was formed, consciously or not. Recent investigation of the many well-documented terra preta deposits along the main Amazon channel, as well as along its tributaries, has thus produced important and convincing data on the agricultural dynamics of past human populations.

Agriculture and Diet

The addition of maize to modes of subsistence that previously centered on palms and manioc, as well as the systematic exploitation of other food plants, has also been the subject of study. But interest in the advent of maize cultivation results from seeing maize use as a token of social and cultural complexity, given its easy storage and high nutritional value, and so evidence of its use in Amazonia, where the use of manioc varieties is predominant in the historic and ethnographic reports of aboriginal horticulture, is especially significant. But this apparent predominance of manioc agriculture in ethnographic and historical materials about Amazonia may result from the way in which manioc use increased over the last five hundred years as a result of indigenous access to steel tools via trade with the Europeans. The use of steel axes would have permitted much greater clearance of forest for the forest of manioc, a root that must be dug from the earth, than the use of stone axes would have. As a result, and also stimulated by European trading interest in manioc flour, there were distinct advantages for domestic groups in opting out of the systems of intensive agricultural production that sustain large civilizations. Consequently the dietary use of manioc, as opposed to maize, may well have increased substantially during the historic period.

Basic Questions Remain

The nature of these transformations over the last five hundred years is critical to an understanding of ancient Amazonia, but the sheer size of the region and the lack of sociocultural continuity between past and present society and culture, as a result of colonial conquest and depopulation, make comprehensive study of the environmental history of the region especially challenging. Many of the basic questions of Amazonian prehistory remain to be addressed more completely, not least of which are those of the scale and longevity of human occupation. It seems likely that ethnography and history, as much as archaeology, will continue to play a role in the discussion of human adaptations to the Amazonian environment. Work in progress that emphasizes ethno-archaeological techniques, systematic survey, and interpretation of historical records, as well as the deployment of new technical resources, such as geophysical survey, seems well positioned to do justice to the complexity of Amazonian antiquity.

As these techniques are deployed and the database grows, it already seems likely that issues of human environmental adaptation will be cast in a different framework to that which produced the idea of Amazonia as some kind of false paradise whose apparent botanical bounty belied the actual poverty of its soils for human usages. Already much of the work there tends to suggest that Amazonia is too complex an environment, and its human adaptations too various, to be adequately characterized as either utterly unfavorable or uniformly conducive to human settlement. The very uncertainties about the definition of an Amazonian region, discussed earlier, reflect the fact that the conceptualization of Amazonia as a homogeneous entity is in itself flawed. As debates about models of the Amazonian environment are being replaced with actual investigation of human adaptations through time, researchers are in a better position to appreciate the variety and complexity of human adaptation to both the challenges and the potential of the Amazon basin proper, as well as of the surrounding regions.


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