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The Amazon is a feral forest garden?!?!

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Hi permies,
I’m so excited to share excerpts of this article with you that a friend of mine wrote about traditional Amazonian peoples and their horticultural systems. In his own words...

Loxley wrote:I have been curious about Amazonian indigenous people’s lifestyles & the size of the pre-Western contact Amazonian population for several years now after I caught a glimpse of recent findings on the topic when I read Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Since then, in order to better understand the primary source material myself, I had been searching for good, lengthy excerpts of the first European account of the Amazon River Basin written by Spanish explorers in 1542. I looked all over for an English translation of the book Account of the recent discovery of the famous Grand river which was discovered by great good fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana, written by Gaspar de Carvajal, but alas I couldn’t fine one. However, I did find several digitally scanned copies of the book in old Spanish that had been uploaded online. Driven by curiosity & a desire to help tell the story to a wider audience, I finally bit the bullet & read the whole thing in Old Spanish.

I wrote this article based largely on what these Spaniards saw nearly five hundred years ago. It was quite the slog to brush off my rusty Spanish & I had to use several dictionaries to get through the Account, but alas, I did it! Not only that, I also brushed off my rusty research skills I gained from getting a history degree some years ago. It was through obtaining that degree that I learned how to find high-quality, trustworthy sources & properly cite them. As a result, you will find no less than sixty-six endnotes accompanying this article should you wish to pursue further knowledge on any of the subjects brought up in the article. I read so many articles & watched several video presentations & documentaries on this subject in order to complete this article in addition to reading Gaspar de Carvajal’s 1542 book. And yet, there is still plenty more out there to read on this topic & in fact I could easily write an entire book on my hypothesis with what I had to leave out!

The article, first published by Permaculture Design Magazine Emergent Design issue #115 February/Spring 2020, gives an astonishing depiction of pre-Western contact Amazonian civilization which more & more scientists are finding evidence to support. The implications – particularly in the fields of agriculture & horticulture – are inspiring. I hope you enjoy reading it! And please let me know what you think.

The following are excerpts of the article:

Forests or Deserts: a Choice
by Loxley Clovis

The scout’s legs were churning at full speed, feet pounding the well-worn, wide road into town from the river banks, adrenaline racing down his spine. It was his duty to let his superior know immediately of any consequential, unplanned activity occurring on the river. As he approached town, armed guards nodded at him and parted to make way as he sprinted towards commander Arripuna’s headquarters. Arripuna, the leader of an enormous, populous, forested area, was just finishing his final town meeting of the day when he saw his scout approaching, so he beckoned him forward to speak. The scout, despite severe shortness of breath from the miles-long run, began to recount what he had just seen rowing down the mighty river: a watercraft unlike any other with a wide hull and outfitted with tree-sized masts and several rowing oars on each side. The men aboard this unusual vessel wore reflective armor that glared in the light of the sun and was as inflexible as turtle shell. Arripuna furled his eyebrows skeptically at some of the more outrageous details as his scout still gasped for breath. The strangers were making their way downstream as fast as the rapid currents and their oars could take them, the scout added. As the sun set and the evening wore on, Arripuna's disbelief of his initial scout’s report began to fade as more accounts began to trickle down from upstream -from the great towns of the Omagua- corroborating similar events as well as physical encounters with the oddly dressed newcomers.

Brother Gaspar de Carvajal stood beside Captain Francisco de Orellana in a marble courtyard, lending the moral authority of the Church as they both defended themselves against charges of rebellion, desertion, and treason brought by the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies and Charles I, the King of Spain.(i) King Charles’ mood swung from vengeance to wonder as he listened to the Spanish explorers who had recently returned from the rich lands across the ocean West of Portugal. They told stories of vast cities in the tropical jungle of the South American continent along a river so large that at times one could not even see the other bank(ii), an unbelievable abundance of food: birds, fish, turtles, corn bread, yuca, too many kinds of fruit to list(iii), artistic enameled pottery of very vivid colors and beautiful drawings(iv), and an entire town lead by warrior women.(v) While some court members chuckled at the mention of women warrior leaders, the court scholar duly noted this fact. Europeans would later liken these warrior women to the so-called Amazon warrior women of the ancient Grecian mythological stories and dub the river that Orellana and his men traversed Amazonas. The Council of the Indies perused Brother Gaspar de Carvajal's hand written book on the journey, Account of the Recent Discovery of the Famous Grand River which was Discovered by Great Good Fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana, as he spoke. Carvajal had presented it to the Council at trial as evidence that he and his fellow travelers were still loyal to the crown. His account included exhaustively detailed notes concerning the dense population of people they encountered along the banks of what came to be known throughout the world as the Amazon River. At one point on the river, the men encountered over five hundred miles of continuous population, including "very large cities".(vi) Ultimately, the king and Council were so convinced by the sincerity of Carvajal and Orellana, as well as the evidence they presented, that they named Orellana governor of the Amazon region and sent him back to the river with two new boats and hundreds of men.(vii)

…(excerpt, get the full article here in the permies Digital Market | Forests or Deserts: a Choice)...

But what did the first European in the region see? Here is Brother Gaspar de Carvajal's 1542 first-hand account of Amazonian pottery:

Gaspar de Carvajal wrote:In this town were houses of pleasing interiors with much stoneware of diverse forms. There were enormous pitchers and vases, and many other smaller containers, plates, silverware, and candlesticks. This stoneware is of the best quality that has ever been seen in the world, and even that of Malaga does not equal it. It is all enameled with glass, of all colors and the brightest hues. Some are drawn to frighten, but on others, the drawings and paintings are delicate depictions of nature. They craft and they draw everything like the Romans.(viii)


Large funerary vessel. Marajo island, Brazil, Joanes style, Marajoara phase | Marie-Lan Nguyen | CC BY 2.5 | WikiMedia.org

For many years, soil scientists assumed that a winter season would be necessary to create such deep, rich soils. Their reasoning went as follows: the leaves and twigs from the trees in temperate regions would fall to the ground during the Autumn and rot during the Winter and turn into soil. In contrast, when organic matter falls from the trees in the tropics, the fungi on the forest floor almost immediately consume the material and make the nutrients available to the next living beings with no season of tree dormancy. According to this reasoning, deep, rich soils, therefore, do not develop in the tropics. All the biology essentially stays above ground. Thus, it has been widely believed for centuries that agriculture -which requires soil- is not possible in the tropics. And therefore, in the absence of food-surplus-generating agriculture, large populations cannot be reached nor sustained in the tropics. But new studies are unraveling this narrative. From a vast body of research that has recently emerged studying the origins of terra preta(ix), we now know that the people of the Amazon actually created this dark, fertile soil, and some -like the Kuikuro people- are still creating it to this day.(x) The process of creating it goes roughly like this; beginning nearly five thousand years ago(xi), people started throwing their food scraps, green yard waste, and broken pottery all together into large piles. Then, they would eventually char these piles using a charcoal creation technique. These charred earths became what is today considered one of the best possible soil amendments for growing large, healthy plants.(xii) Nowadays, soil scientists understand that microscopic open pockets are created in the charred plant matter, creating a habitat for a vast array of living soil microorganisms such as bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa and nematodes.(xiii) These microorganisms are so necessary for the sustainability of healthy, fertile organic soil, that they in fact define the difference between "soil" and "dirt". Dirt being simply sand, silt, and clay; essentially minuscule, sterile pebbles. While soil, on the other hand, includes organic matter, minerals, and an entire ecosystem in miniature: a complex, living food web of tiny critters that naturally work together in symbiosis to make nutrients available to plants. Scientists have started mapping where Brother Gaspar de Carvajal reported seeing Amazonian settlements in 1542 and searching for Amazonian dark earths in these locations. As it turns out, wherever Carvajal mentioned there being settlements, anthropologists and soil scientists have in fact found terra preta there.(xiv) Based on the currently discovered Amazonian dark earth sites, it is now estimated that an area twice the size of Britain was settled by Amazonian people before the arrival of Europeans to the region.(xv)

…(excerpt, get the full article here in the permies Digital Market | Forests or Deserts: a Choice)...

Soil profile of Anthrosol (Terra Preta) | Rockwurm | CC BY-SA 3.0 | WikiMedia.org

We must take into account the oral histories of surviving Amazonian peoples, study art history, soil science, geography, history, anthropology, and the ethnobotany of traditional agroforestry. One possible puzzle piece is that the sedentary Amazonian people may have been sophisticated forest gardeners.(xvi) They appear to have been domesticating various plant species by intentionally selecting them for their best traits.(xvii) Domesticated Amazonian plants include over eighty-five woody species such as brazil nut, ice-cream-bean, Amazonian grape, all manner of fruit-bearing palms such as açaí, as well as non-food agroforestry crops like the rubber tree and tropical cotton for clothing. Individual species could even serve for multiple uses as is the case with the maripa palm (Attalea maripa) which -in addition to having edible fruits- was used in the construction of darts for blowguns, sleeping mats, torches, kindling, as well as for use as thatching.(xviii) It has also been uncovered that oil from certain palm tree seeds and edible larvae cultivated in palm trunks are sources of protein for people.(xix) With such an emphasis on domesticating an impressive array of woody species, the people of the Amazon were likely cultivating vertically-stacked woody gardens around their homesteads. That is, they grew vertical polycultures with understory shrub plants -such as cassava- growing in the shade of overstory fruit trees, while spiritual plants -like the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi)- climbed up the tree trunks. This style of vertically-stacked woody gardening likely created a habitat for all sorts of animals to nest in the garden. Such an animal habitat in their woody gardens likely served as an additional source of protein, natural fertilizer, and possibly even companionship. In the same hemisphere, the benefits of the ancient polyculture horticultural technique of growing corn, beans, and squash together in the same spacial footprint - developed in North America and known as the Three Sisters - are today quite well understood.(xx) The three distinct species of plants, when planted together, mutually help one another out. While growing together, they form a beneficial, symbiotic companion planting. So it should therefore not come as much of a surprise to those who already know about Three Sisters that there are likely South American counterparts to this polyculture gardening practice.

Domesticated tree species of the Amazon basin, from the slide show Forests or Deserts: a Choice.

Designing gardens of productive perennial plants stacked in a vertical fashion is today practiced around the world as a category of advanced gardening known as permaculture. David Holmgren, the co-originator of the term, defines permaculture as "consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature to yield an abundance of food, fiber, and shelter for the provision of local needs"(xxi). After delving deeper into traditional gardening techniques of various peoples around the world, permaculturist Toby Hemenway described some types of traditional gardeners as "horticulturalists"(xxii) an additional category of how humans relate to their environment that he proposed to be added to the two traditional categories of “hunter-gatherers” or “agriculturalists”. According to Hemenway, these people may do some hunting and some gathering, and they may also practice some domestication -as the Amazonians appear to have also been growing domesticated corn according to Carvajal(xxiii)- but mainly, horitculturalists tend semi-wild plants and animals. They were not -and are not- so much hunter-gatherers, nor farmers as they were -and are- sophisticated gardeners. Carefully-curated, vertically-stacked, fauna-rich forest gardens might have been cultivated to grow nearly all of the food, fuel, timber, fiber, medicine, and spiritually significant plants together in the same relative footprint as a diverse polyculture garden. Such intentional, vertical stacking creates an enormous abundance of useful plant matter, possibly bountiful enough to sustain a large population. This horticultural system would likely have been perceived as simply wild jungle to Mediterranean Europeans and not the productive garden that it was, as Mediterranean agriculturalists were used to seeing their domesticated plants grown in vast monoculture crop farms, amber waves of grain from horizon-to-horizon. The cities that Francisco de Orellana and his men saw along the Amazon River in 1542 were likely what Heckenberger refers to as Amazonian "garden cities," cities which also included urban planning, earthworks, roads, and fishponds.(xxiv) Had Orellana stumbled upon a civilization of gardeners?

…(excerpt, get the full article here in the permies Digital Market | Forests or Deserts: a Choice)...

Forest garden diagram | Quercusrobur (Graham Burnett) | CC BY-SA 3.0 | WikiMedia.org

As the Amazonian people fled, their domesticated and semi-domesticated forest garden plots, full of plants which have had their evolution guided by the purposeful, human selection of certain traits, may have been spread by means of reconstruction by these horticultural refugees when they moved to other areas, as well as by mammals and birds that continue spreading the seeds of their forest garden plants to this very day. As the people of the Amazon Basin had focused on perennial plant propagation, such as the aforementioned eighty-five long-living, woody species, and because their curated forest plots were vertically stacked, mimicking the patterns of a natural forest, these plots harbored the potentiality of surviving without the help of humans far into the future. Some of the smaller forest garden plots may have been reclaimed by the untended, wild plants of the rainforest. Perhaps both scenarios, the spread of domesticated species into some areas and the reclamation of wild species into others, played out to varying degrees depending on the environmental factors of the area and the sizes of the original garden plots. Indeed, many of the once-tended Amazonian forest gardens are today feral, meaning they exist in the wild, yet they descended from domestication. One recent study "found that human influence is exclusively responsible for about half of the explained variation of the abundance, relative abundance, richness, and relative richness of domesticated species in the southwestern and eastern regions" of the Amazon.(xxv) As Clark L. Erickson puts it, "instead of viewing Amazonia as a pristine form of nature, it is therefore more accurate to conceive of it in the same way that we would conceive of a garden."(xxvi) Consequently, large swathes of what we today refer to as the Amazon Rainforest may in fact be feral, human-created forest gardens.(xxvii)

If you are a high school, college, university, or permaculture design course (PDC) teacher or student, please consider buying the “Forests or Deserts: a Choice” slide show presentation and notes here to learn and teach others more about this topic.

Support Permaculture Design Magazine by subscribing & buying the back issue Emergent Design #115 February/Spring 2020.

Special thanks to the editor Rebecca Rhapsody of The Story Connective & the team at Permaculture Design Magazine for supporting & publishing this work. Thank you very much Loxley Clovis for letting me share your article & getting this important story out.

Citations (partial list, complete citations bibliography here):
i. Arre caballo! "Francisco de Orellana". https://arrecaballo.es/edad-moderna/conquistadores-espanoles/francisco-de-orellana/.
ii. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación del nuevo descubrimiento del famoso río Grande que descubrió por muy gran ventura el capitán Francisco de Orellana ("Account of the recent discovery of the famous Grand river which was discovered by great good fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana"). pp.16, 18, 20-24, 33-34, 37, 39. http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/descubrimiento-del-rio-de-las-amazonas--0/html/0039c0ae-82b2-11df-acc7-002185ce6064_7.html#I_1_.
iii. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. pp. 6, 9-10, 17, 22, 24.
iv. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. p. 23.
v. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. pp. 31-32, 35-37.
vi. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. pp. 33-34.
vii. Arre caballo! "Francisco de Orellana".
viii. Bates, Albert, "Orellana's Robots". https://medium.com/@albertbates/orellanas-robots-37c3e7b0578d.
ix. Lehmann, Johannes. (2019). "Terra Preta de Indio: Terra Preta – References". Cornell University, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/research/terra%20preta/terrapretarefs.html.
See also: "Terra preta: References and External links." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta#References.
x. "Unnatural Histories – Amazon". BBC.
xi. Levis, C. et.al. (3 March 2017). "Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition." Science. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6328/925.
xii. Solomon, Dawit et. al. (25 February 2017). "Molecular signature and sources of biochemical recalcitrance of organic C in Amazonian Dark Earths". Elsevier.
xiii. Ingham, E. R.. (1999). The Soil Biology Primer. NRCS Soil Quality Institute, USDA.
xiv. "The Secret of El Dorado". BBC Horizon.
xv. Ibid.
xvi. As Erickson put it, "the romantic imagery of Amazonia as a natural wilderness belies a very different reality. Namely that of a land domesticated by humans. In Amazonia native peoples created a domestic landscape resulting from both intentional & unintentional actions. They managed the environment through a variety of techniques that included transplanting, culling, & controlled burning. Instead of viewing Amazonia as a pristine form of nature, it is therefore more accurate to conceive of it in the same way that we would conceive of a garden." Erickson, Clark L., (12 March 2015). Pre-Columbian Monumental Landscapes in the Bolivian Amazon.
xvii. Levis, C. et.al. (3 March 2017). "Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition." Science.
xviii. Henderson, Andrew; Gloria Galeano; Rodrigo Bernal (1995). Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-08537-4. Macía, Manuel J. (2004). "Multiplicity in palm uses by the Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador". Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 144 (2): 149–59. Posey, Darrell Addison (1985). "Indigenous management of tropical forest ecosystems: the case of the Kayapó indians of the Brazilian Amazon". Agroforestry Systems. 3 (2): 139–58.
xix. Erickson, Clark L. (May 2008). Culture amidst the Pristine: The Anthropogenic Forests of the Bolivian Amazon.
xx. Mt. Pleasant, Jane (2006). "38". In John E. Staller; Robert H. Tykot; Bruce F. Benz (eds.). The science behind the Three Sisters mound system: An agronomic assessment of an indigenous agricultural system in the northeast. Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary approaches to the prehistory, linguistics, biogeography, domestication, and evolution of maize. Amsterdam: Academic Press. pp. 529–537.
xxi. Holmgren, David. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren Design.
xxii. Hemenway, Toby. (4 January 2013). "Redesigning Civilization with Permaculture".  http://tobyhemenway.com/videos/redesigning-civilization-with-permaculture/.
xxiii. Carvajal, Gaspar de. (1542). Relación. p. 22.
xxiv. Heckenberger borrows the term "garden city" from Ebenezer Howard. Heckenberger, Michael. (29 August 2018). Amazon Seminar – Indigenous knowledge and settlement patterns.
xxv. Levis, C. et.al. (3 March 2017). "Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition." Science.
xxvi. Erickson, Clark L., (12 March 2015). Pre-Columbian Monumental Landscapes in the Bolivian Amazon.
xxvii. Balée, William. (2013). Cultural Forests of the Amazon: A Historical Ecology of People and their Landscapes. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
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Great article, really interesting!

It would be neat if we had cities like that here one day.
Mike Kenzie
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Thanks Steve,
Agreed, it would be awesome to have Garden Cities! Glad there are many urban and suburban permaculturists working on that right now. :-)

Artist's conception of Kuhikugu - one of the many ancient garden cities of the Amazon - by Michael Heckenberger, Brown.edu.
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Assuming terra preta was indeed human created and not some  anomaly resulting from specific unique environmental conditions (I lean towards the former, but it's hardly proven), it seems odd that this technology was completely lost.  It also was apparently (so far, we only know of one area) confined to a very small percentage of the Amazon basin.  The Spanish/Portuguese explorers may have found larger settlements than existed later (guessing Old World disease was the largest factor, but later extermination policies certainly played in, see Bandeirantes, for example), but we need to remember a large percentage of this area (2.7 million square miles) floods to significant depths (the tributary I grew up on flooded 20' or more every year, some years half again that) annually, and this means long periods where all the soil is anaerobic.  And lots of leaching.  And currents that literally sweep away soils.  The most fertile natural soils are on the downstream ends of the sandbars (very large sandbars often) that form in the less wet season. (Old Amazonian joke: we have two seasons, the wet season and the wetter season.)

A lot of the area is pretty low lying and in flood it becomes the largest freshwater "inland sea" in the world. There are strips of higher land referred to as "terra firma" (solid land or firm land) that rise above flood levels.  The terra preta area in Bolivia is above flood levels as I recall.

My point being that most of the peoples and civilizations the explorers of the area interacted with would have been on the river banks.  Overland explorations tended to disappear never to be heard from again.  So whoever/whatever resulted in terra preta agriculture was not the norm.

That's not to say food forests of a sort could not/do not exist.  I visited inland tribes not yet in much communication with the outside world and their farming happened at least partly in the understory beneath trees.  Some of these planting could/do persist along edges, mostly shorelines, as inland the forest reclaims clearings in a matter of half a decade or so.  Things grow FAST in the tropics. They did clear land, burn it, and plant cassava and such in the clearing, then move on after a few years when the soil depleted.  Some of the paths I walked into their thatched hut camps (strong memory because I ignorant of the risks of handling them) were lined with Amazonian bird pepper plants.

I like that "area twice the size of Britain" line... Britain is dwarfed by the Amazon basin. It's 209k square miles vs 2.7 million square miles.   In other words. current estimates of the area supposed to be practicing creation of terra preta was under 10%, which is still a not insignificant area (just needs some perspective).  I don't know all of the areas included in the areas considered part of this figure, but I do know the Bolivian area is not as low-lying as most of the areas along the rivers. Maranhao is mentioned. That's on the east coast and mostly less prone to flooding, with actual highlands in the southern third.

I do know some of the natives in the upper Amazon basin produce a soil/soil amendment called pa-u (two syllable, accent on the u), which is rotted wood mostly.  Never actually worked with someone making it, don't know if they compost it or just look for rotting downed trees and harvest it.  This is used in planters (usually old dugout canoes up on stilts (floods, you know?)) for growing herbs, annuals, etc.  In the towns I lived in these planters were not common, but were around.  Saw them often on floating houses on the river though.  That's the closest I came to terra preta (to my knowledge) while living down there.  There might be some char in pa-u due to the common practice of slash and burn to this day.

But hopefully change is coming.  I like where syntropic agriculture is going.

I get a little interested (read: passionate) when the topic of the Amazon area comes up because so many who talk/write about it have very limited or no experience of actually living in it.

I suspect 1491 leads many to overestimate the actual situation.  I do suspect there are lost civilizations that used some technologies lost to us (agricultural ones, at least), but I doubt they permeated the whole area.  Seems there would be more residual evidence (residual and cultural) if that were the case.  That area in Bolivia certainly appears to have been one.
Mike Kenzie
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Thank you for the peer review.

The Kuikuro people of the Amazon still create terra preta to this day; so thankfully it is not a completely lost technology. As the Amazon is unfortunately being logged, more and more ancient terra preta sites are being uncovered.

Kuikuro village by Pedro Biondi

The flooding was handled by ancient peoples by building up their settlements on mounds and roads on raised causeways and using flood-retreat farming in the drier months and aquaculture in the wetter months. See Clark Erickson's "Culture amidst the Pristine: The Anthropogenic Forests of the Bolivian Amazon" and "Pre-Columbian Monumental Landscapes in the Bolivian Amazon" for more details. While this was a hallmark in Acre in the Western Amazon, there is also evidence of mound building above the floodplain in the East on Marajó according to Anna C. Roosevelt's Moundbuilders of the Amazon: Geophysical Archaeology on Marajó Island, Brazil.

Cylindrical vessel. Marajo island, Joanes style, Marajoara phase by Marie-Lan Nguyen

The accounts of the explorers certainly mentioned dense populations along the river banks (not surprising as in fact, humans have always settled along river banks and shorelines all over the planet throughout all of human history) as they rowed downstream in their boat in 1542:

Gaspar de Carvajal p.21 (paraphrased) wrote:"Machiparo's towns went on for more than 80 leagues... ...one town went on for 5 leagues."
"que tanto tardamos en salir de la población deste gran señor llamado Machiparo, que al parecer de todos duró más de ochenta leguas, que era toda una lengua, estas todas pobladas, que no había de poblado a poblado un tiro de ballesta, y el que más lejos no estaría media legua, y hubo pueblo que duró cinco leguas sin restañar casa de casa, que era cosa maravillosa de ver..." - Relación del nuevo descubrimiento...

Gaspar de Carvajal p.24 wrote:"There was a very large population; in just one day we passed more than 20 towns & that was just on one side of the river. The river was so large we couldn't see to the other side [possibly implying more towns on the other side]."
"Salimos de esta población y fuimos caminando siempre por muy gran poblado, que hubo día que pasamos más de veinte pueblos, y esto por la banda donde nosotros íbamos, porque la otra no la podíamos ver por ser el río grande." - Relación del nuevo descubrimiento...

Gaspar de Carvajal p.34 wrote:"In the Province of San Juan we encountered over 150 continuous leagues of population."
"esta provincia de San Juan, que tiene más de ciento cincuenta leguas de costa, pobladas de la manera dicha." - Relación del nuevo descubrimiento...

Francisco de Orellana and crew sailing the Amazon River in 1542

The explorers also mentioned roads going inland (note Erickson's raised causeway findings mentioned above) to more populated areas:

Gaspar de Carvajal p.22 wrote:"There were many large-sized roads that went inland..."
"Había muchos caminos que entraban la tierra adentro muy reales..." - Relación del nuevo descubrimiento...

Gaspar de Carvajal p.23 wrote:"[In the region of the Omagua] there were many large roads leading inland."
"Deste pueblo salían muchos caminos y muy reales por la tierra adentro: el Capitán quiso saber a dónde iban, y para aquesto tomó consigo a Cristóbal Maldonado y al alférez y a otros compañeros, y comenzó a entrar por ellos, y no había andado media legua cuando los caminos eran más reales y mayores; y visto el Capitán esto, acordó de se volver, porque vido que no era su cordura pasar adelante." - Relación del nuevo descubrimiento...

Gaspar de Carvajal wrote:"The further we went, the more thickly populated & better did we find the land, there were many roads here that entered into the interior of the land. Very fine highways. Land from the river to a distance of 6 miles more or less, could be seen some very large cities, with glistening white. In addition to this, the land is as fertile & normal in appearance as our Spain." -Relación featured in Unnatural Histories, Amazon, BBC.

Loxley wrote:Based on the currently discovered Amazonian dark earth sites, it is now estimated that an area twice the size of Britain was settled by Amazonian people before the arrival of Europeans to the region.

This quote from the article Forests or Deserts originates from a data point from an old 2002 source. Even in 2002, this was way more human-inhabited Amazonian land that previously thought. With more archaelogical work - as well as unfortunate logging - new sites are being uncovered all the time and the pre-European contact Amazonian population numbers continue to rise accordingly. Even the most conservative pre-contact population distrubution maps based on recent archaeology prove that Betty Meggers' acceptance of Alexander Rice's assertion that Amazonian people were merely "scattered tribes eeking out an existence" has decidedly been tossed to the dustbin of history. As far back as the 1990's reports were putting the pre-contact population of the Western Hemisphere above Europe's. With the last 20+ years of archaeological uncoverings, South America's pre-contact population number has risen dramatically.

Map of the Amazon's terra preta areas by Clement from 2015 (note: 5 years ago).

From the ever increasing uncoverings of terra preta, megaliths, ceramics, geoglyphs, forest island mounds, fisheries, and dozens of domesticated plant species there is now plenty of supporting residual and cultural evidence of large populations in the ancient Amazon. When the overwhelming evidence is considered, it turns out that the book 1491 - published back in 2005 - now appears to be an outdated underestimate considering all the latest field work of serious anthropologists such as Clark Erickson, Michael Heckenberger, William Balée, Carolina Levis and others.
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