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Was the Amazon a manufactured landscape?

June 18, 2012

Was the Amazon a manufactured landscape?

Population estimates for the Amazon Basin before Europeans arrived range from 2-10 million people

Population estimates for the Amazon Basin before Europeans arrived range from 2-10 million people. A new reconstruction of Amazonian prehistory by STRI’s Dolores R. Piperno and colleagues suggests that large areas of western Amazonia were sparsely inhabited.

Their data clash with the belief that most of Amazonia, including forests far removed from major rivers, was heavily occupied and modified by humans. The team’s research is published in the June 15 issue of Science.

First author Crystal McMichael, from the Florida Institute of Technology, sampled soil across the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon. A lack of charcoal indicated that the few fires caused by humans did not result in much structural damage. Plants typical of human disturbance like grasses were scarce in the phytolith record.

“Planners may assume that Amazonian forests were resilient in the face of heavy prehistoric human modification,” said Piperno. “These views are gaining currency. Hopefully, our evidence to the contrary will help to place these questions into a more rigorous empirical context.”


McMichael, C.H., Piperno, D.R., Bush, M.B., Silman, M.R., Zimmerman, A.R., Raczka, M.F., Lobato, L.C. 2012. Sparse pre- Columbian human habitation in Western Amazonia. Science 336(6087):1429-1431 doi:10.1126/science.1219982

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