Terra Preta and the 'domestication of Amazonia' before European conquest


During most of the XXth century, Amazonia was seen as an untouched forest, minimally impacted by the small and simple Amerindian populations who inhabited the region. According to proponents of this view, the apparent absence of complex societies in Amazonia was related to a certain ‘under-development’ of  agriculture in the region, which was restricted by the poor soils that predominate across most of the basin (this view later became known as ‘environmental determinism’).

In the last two decades, this view has been increasingly challenged by numerous evidence showing that, in fact, many areas in Amazonia were densely occupied and significantly transformed in the past. The build-up of archaeological research in different parts of the basin, intensified in the 90s, started to frequently unveil complex - and sometimes large - archaeological sites, associated with substantial landscape-scale transformations in the biotic and abiotic environment. These modifications included several types of earthworks (e.g. mounds, causeways, roads, geoglyphs), water management systems (e.g., channels, changes in river courses), anthropogenic forests, anthropogenic soils (Terra Preta), among others. These discoveries not only indicated a larger and more ubiquitous human presence in the basin than previously thought, but also fuelled a wider change in how Amazonia is seen and understood. According to this new perspective, instead of being constrained by their environment, people transformed the places they inhabited and the resources they managed, resulting in landscapes that are the product of an interplay between ecological and cultural processes.

The (re)discovery of Terra Preta by scientists played a major role in this paradigm change. First, because these anthropogenic soils are an example that the poor soils themselves – which were pivotal in the environmental determinist argument – can also be enriched due to human activity. Second, given that the formation of Terra Preta occurred under relatively permanent settlements, these soils also pointed out to a widespread pattern of sedentism in Amazonian societies, which usually requires more elaborate forms of resource management and plant cultivation. Third, the abundant archaeological remains associated with Terra Preta, besides the soil itself (ceramics, lithic material, burials, etc.), suggested the existence of a certain degree of cultural complexity, e.g. with evidences of trade and warfare. Last but not least, the discovery of some large Terra Preta sites (e.g. the Açutuba site near Manaus, with ~90 ha, and the Santarém site, with ~200 ha) and of some sites connected by extensive road networks (e.g., the Upper Xingu) suggested the existence of cities and urbanism in pre-Columbian Amazonia.

Besides the mounting archaeological data, evidences from different disciplines (palaeoecology, plant genetics, plant ecology, linguistics) are converging and increasingly supporting the idea that pre-Columbian Amerindian populations had an important role in shaping – or ‘domesticating’ -  Amazonian landscapes.  However, this is still the subject of a lively ongoing academic debate, particularly in what concerns the spatial extent of these pre-Columbian landscape transformations. While historical ecologists argue that Amazonia was a ‘cultural parkland’ with a large part (if not most) of its landscapes transformed to some degree, some ecologists and palaeoecologists  argue that the impacts of human populations were very local, and that most of the area of the basin shows little or no sign of humans in the past. Significant interdisciplinary research efforts are being made to address this question, but the discussion is still speculative given that the vast majority of the basin remains poorly known both from the ecological and the archaeological point of view. Still, it is today common ground that the legacy of pre-Columbian populations in  Amazonian landscapes is very heterogeneous but much larger than previously thought, and Terra Preta played a central role in the rise and consolidation of this view.


Suggested reading:

Heckenberger et al. 2003. Amazonia 1492: pristine forest or cultural parkland? Science 301 (5640): 1710-1714.

Clement et al. 2015. The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20150813.

McMichael et al. 2015. Comment on Clement et al. 2015 ‘The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20151837.

Clement et al. 2015. Response to comment by McMichael, Piperno and Bush. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20152459.

Clement and Junqueira. 2010. Between a pristine myth and an impoverished future. Biotropica 42 (5): 534-536.

Barlow et al. 2011. How pristine are tropical forests? An ecological perspective on the pre-Columbian human footprint in Amazonia and implications for contemporary conservation. Biological Conservation 151 (1): 45-49.

Bush et al. 2015. Anthropogenic influence in Amazonian forests in pre-history: an ecological perspective. Journal of Biogeography 42(12): 2277-2288.


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