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The Amazon forest was planted by humans?

 
steward
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1491

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact



https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/

(You can read 4 articles/month for free from The Atlantic, FYI)

I just read this 17 yr old article and thought I should share it.  It goes over the theory that the Americas were as heavily populated as Europe back in the 1500's and 1600's, but the introduction of European diseases (by explorers and by the pigs they brought with them) devastated the native populations.  

I have previously heard that much of the "untrammeled wilderness" of America "discovered" by Europeans, was actually tended by humans.  In the Pacific Northwest, the people kept the Douglas Fir in check, because it wasn't useful to them.  Edible Camas flowers were encouraged, on the other hand.

I hadn't heard that there's evidence the Amazon rain forest is maybe the world's biggest forest garden.

For many millennia the cave's inhabitants hunted and gathered for food. But by about 4,000 years ago they were growing crops—perhaps as many as 140 of them, according to Charles R. Clement, an anthropological botanist at the Brazilian National Institute for Amazonian Research. Unlike Europeans, who planted mainly annual crops, the Indians, he says, centered their agriculture on the Amazon's unbelievably diverse assortment of trees: fruits, nuts, and palms. "It's tremendously difficult to clear fields with stone tools," Clement says. "If you can plant trees, you get twenty years of productivity out of your work instead of two or three."

Planting their orchards, the first Amazonians transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings. In a widely cited article from 1989, William Balée, the Tulane anthropologist, cautiously estimated that about 12 percent of the nonflooded Amazon forest was of anthropogenic origin—directly or indirectly created by human beings. In some circles this is now seen as a conservative position. "I basically think it's all human-created," Clement told me in Brazil. He argues that Indians changed the assortment and density of species throughout the region. So does Clark Erickson, the University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, who told me in Bolivia that the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet.  



At the end, there's an interesting idea presented that some of the species present in huge numbers when the settlers arrived: bison, elk, passenger pigeons - were all having population explosions because the humans that had kept their numbers in check for ages were suddenly gone.

Anyway, it's a very interesting article and I recommend it.
 
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The first time I flew to Brazil, I was absolutely stunned with the vastness of the Amazon region.  The flight was from Miami to San Paulo, and we were over the Amazon forest for over 3.5 hours.  Crazy.  That's like flying from California to Ohio, and looking down at trees, trees, trees, deep dark green for the entire time.  As day turned to night, you would occasionally see a string of lights along the side of a river every 100 miles or so, but other than that, vast tracts of no habitation whatsoever.

Yes, small parts of the amazon were cultivated, but we are talking about 2.1 MILLION square miles.  Any field or orchard this is abandoned for even one year is quickly overcome with new growth.  Within 10 years, you wouldn't even be able to tell that there was once a cultivated place there.
 
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Marco Banks wrote:
Yes, small parts of the amazon were cultivated, but we are talking about 2.1 MILLION square miles.  Any field or orchard this is abandoned for even one year is quickly overcome with new growth.  Within 10 years, you wouldn't even be able to tell that there was once a cultivated place there.



Closer to within 3 years than 10.  I grew up there.  Oh, it won't be up to the height of the old growth, but it won't obviously be land that appears to have been cleared.  The soil isn't very fertile due to the constant flooding and leaching (a certain area over in Bolivia excepted), but long days, warm temps... things shoot up to fill in cleared areas.  

Most of the cultivated land was (probably still is) along the rivers, and in fact IN the rivers (sand bars when water is low tend to have nice silt deposits that are very fertile... think Nile before Aswan Dam).  Odd dynamic there in that best fishing is low water times when the fish are concentrated in small areas, and best hunting is high water, when the animals (or the land based ones) are concentrated onto small areas above water.  Between those everything is pretty spread out.

As far as seasons go... we say there are two: rainy season, and rainier season.

No, I don't believe the Amazon forest, err, jungle, was planted by humans as OP suggests.
 
Julia Winter
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I'd encourage you to read the article, it's very interesting.  Nobody is saying that humans planted the entire Amazon, the conservative estimate is 12%  Given the lifespan of trees, that's not so hard to imagine.

Another similar lesser known fact is that the "Great Dying" in the Americas after the introduction of European diseases led to such regrowth of forest that it likely caused the mini Ice Age of the late 1500's and early 1600's

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/31/european-colonization-of-americas-helped-cause-climate-change

“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis.

The drop in temperature during this period is known as the “Little Ice Age”, a time when the River Thames in London would regularly freeze over, snowstorms were common in Portugal and disrupted agriculture caused famines in several European countries.



Humans have been influencing the climate for a long time.  I find this hopeful. I think we can save the planet by transforming scrubland, currently with very little photosynthesis going on, to grasslands and forest.  We need to get on this!
 
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If you haven't read the book this is from (1491), I'd definitely suggest it. It really opened my eyes as to just how colonial-centric my schooling was. The book is more or less a bunch of theories about what the native landscape was pre-columbus. The theories all center around a central theme: The Americas were heavily populated (perhaps more so than Europe), extremely advanced (especially in terms of food production, the most important technology of the time), and cultivated the "wild" landscapes we talk about today.

And at least for my end, I found his theories far more compelling than "traditional" history of the Americas I was taught in school. It seems extremely likely that early peoples were using the Amazon as a food forest given the other innovations in food cultivation we know came from America (potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peppers). Once I was able to rearrange my perspective from Americans were technologically behind Europeans to Americans were innovating in food while Europeans were innovating in war, it really helped a lot of things click into place in my head.
 
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1491, and it's sequel, 1493, are great books. I agree that the writing is insightful. If you're not familiar, where 1491 is mainly concerned with the state of affairs on the continent and in the world leading up to the Columbian Exchange, its sequel concerns the immediate and far-reaching after-effects, as the author sees them.

Although, as to the OP's suggestion, tended might be a better description of their activities than planted.

-CK
 
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I love the research that is coming out showing us that there is a lot to still be learned about the Amazon. We have an idea that it is just wild, but newer LIDAR work is showing ruins (and not just in this region, but in Central America and Asia as well in areas that were previously considered "just wild") indicating that there were large populations, and they weren't just gathering nuts and berries (although Brazil nuts are one of these species that appear to have been traditionally cultivated- an enormous tree that requires forward planning and thinking about the next generation it will feed).
The link I forgot to put in before (it is a CRAZY Monday here in the office, training a new intern, family dramaz, and the usual crazy monday demands): just one example of new research indicating how little we know https://www.businessinsider.com/archaeologists-found-previously-undiscovered-settlements-in-the-amazon-2018-3
Terra preta in regions also considered to have been "just wild" seems to discount this idea. We apparently still have a lot to learn, and like Julia says, the sooner we get on this the better!!
 
Chris Kott
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From what we understand, terra preta is essentially the evolution of middens. So yes, anywhere we find it is evidence of human habitation.

I agree, though, that hope can be taken from this, and the observation that the explosive rewilding of previously managed systems in the Americas due to the die-off of 90% of their caretakers caused the Little Ice Age roughly a century and change later suggests that we can have similar beneficial impacts on the course of climate today.

I think the less-obvious course to take here is to look at the melting permafrost as a site where we can encourage future grasslands. We can encourage migration corridors for wildlife from further south, perhaps encourage some keystone species, namely beaver, to take up residence, creating habitat for moose and thereby drawing wolves. We could have a whole new prairie north of the treeline that eventually transitions into a stunted sort of savannah.

Similarly, if we encourage forest management practices to move towards more sustainability and biome resilience, we can manipulate the ways in which forest ecosystems trap carbon. If we can grow trees that grow for hundreds of years before biological senescence sets in, we can have forests that only see harvest that often.

The thing for us is, though, that we are doing it artificially, and largely for altruistic reasons or reasons of conscience, whereas our ancient counterparts would have manipulated the biosphere to directly benefit themselves. We, therefore, need to find ways for, say, an enhanced forestry industry to support its workers and local advocates and proponents. The same could be said for attempts at rewilding. If there's no economic benefit to the communities impacted by it, or upon whom these projects depend, they face an uphill battle.

If, on the other hand, such projects are undertaken with a view to supporting the local populace in material terms, they suddenly come to care a great deal about them, the more if it literally provides food where before there was famine or bare subsistence.

-CK
 
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I read 1491 a couple of decades ago and it was one of the books that started me on the path that led to permaculture. I can't remember the specifics well enough, so I don't know if it was in that book or a subsequent book that talked about some Indigenous American societies that failed. I distinctly remember one that identified that it was the deforestation of hills around the settled area which led to the crash, so there are both 'learn from what we got right' and 'learn from what we got wrong' lessons in archaeology. Unfortunately, the crash after 1491 was so sudden and pervasive that I can't remember if it touched on what they felt the quality of life for "Joe Average" was. To me, the growth of permaculture, forest gardens, and sustainable living should go hand in hand with a decent quality of life for the majority of humans, rather than the current system where we're increasingly worried about lack of water, lack of quality food, lack of clean air etc for the majority of Earth's population. If we don't understand the past, how can we learn from it?
 
Julia Winter
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Tereza Okava wrote:The link I forgot to put in before: just one example of new research indicating how little we know https://www.businessinsider.com/archaeologists-found-previously-undiscovered-settlements-in-the-amazon-2018-3
Terra preta in regions also considered to have been "just wild" seems to discount this idea. We apparently still have a lot to learn, and like Julia says, the sooner we get on this the better!!



Great article! I love the end:

"Many parts of the Americas now thought of as pristine forest are really abandoned gardens," Christopher Fisher, an archaeologist at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study, told The Wall Street Journal.

The Amazon rainforest, once thought of as completely untouched before European colonization except by small bands of hunter-gatherers, may actually have supported a kind of large-scale sustainable agriculture that influences the growth of the forest to this day.

"The forest is an artifact of modification," de Souza, the study's lead author, told The Washington Post. "It has nothing to do with the kind of practice we are seeing nowadays — large-scale, clearing monoculture. These people were combining small-scale agriculture with management of useful tree species. So it was more a sustainable kind of land use."  



A lot of environmentalists like the idea of removing humans from places.  I think what we're learning is that humans can make things better as well as making things worse.  One of my favorite permaculture ideas is to stop worrying only about your footprint and start worrying about your handprint.  What can each of us do to maximize photosynthesis?  

I truly think the solution to the world's problems can be found in a garden, if you define garden as land where humans influence how things grow.
 
Julia Winter
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Kyle Neath wrote:If you haven't read the book this is from (1491), I'd definitely suggest it.   (snip)

Once I was able to rearrange my perspective from Americans were technologically behind Europeans to Americans were innovating in food while Europeans were innovating in war, it really helped a lot of things click into place in my head.



That is an excellent formulation, I might steal that!  (As you can tell from my previous post, I steal wonderful phrases all the time.)
 
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A few days ago I saw a Tumblr post that talked about pre-Columbian indigenous land management, and one of the contributors to the post wrote a bit about a newer theory as to why Cahokia was abandoned. Here's the post (https://probablyasocialecologist.tumblr.com/post/187800189651/i-dont-think-a-lot-of-people-really-understand), which is too long to quote.  Basically, though, the author of the book Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Homeland puts forth that it wasn't a catastrophe that ended the city, but culture and cultural values.  People spontaneously decentralized and went back to managed wildland settings because they liked a less bureaucratic, more egalitarian lifestyle.  

Coming from a white Euro-American perspective, this blows my mind.  We've always been taught that high population density and hierarchies and specialization led to advancement (because of talent pooling) and abundance (economies of scale), so it seems bonkers that people would decide they didn't want that and walk away from it.  Except that that's essentially what a lot of permaculturists are doing now and are much happier for it.  
 
Just put the cards in their christmas stocking and PRESTO! They get it now! It's like you're the harry potter of permaculture. richsoil.com/cards
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