Returning to Nature, Only to Find Civilization

Landscape Archeology In the Amazon Basin

The Amazon: an impenetrable jungle untouched by man. While that’s the image people tend to have when it’s referenced, it turns out that’s not quite true. The Amazon is home to some of the oldest civilizations, which has left an impact on its landscape.

Reed’s Assistant Professor of Classics and Humanities Tom Landvatter is also the head of the Portland branch of the American Institute of Archeology (AIA). Through the AIA, he hosted a webinar titled How the Amazon Was Built: Nature and Culture in the Tropical Forest on March 4. The speaker, University of Central Florida Associate Professor of Anthropology John Walker studies landscape archeology in the Amazon Basin. Initially becoming interested in the Amazon Basin through his teachers, Professor Walker and his team primarily study the landscape surrounding Santa Ana del Yacuma, Bolivia, with the support of the town and the communities surrounding it. There, he and his team have found an incredible amount of new data that strongly suggests a large part of the Amazon was shaped by agriculture thousands of years ago up until the present. But if there’s so much agriculture, why hasn’t it been found before?

The Amazon Basin. Photo Courtesy of Associate Professor John Walker.

The Amazon Basin. Photo Courtesy of Associate Professor John Walker.

Traditional methods of archeology don’t work very well in the Amazon. Sure, there have been amazing finds, but on the whole, the humid climate of the Amazon tends to not be very conducive to preserving artifacts — especially after thousands of years. Researchers using landscape archeology, on the other hand, focus on looking at the environment of the place being studied instead of only excavating sites and deducing its history based on material human artifacts. They still use excavation techniques, but a lot of the process also includes satellite imagery, images taken from drones, molecular breakdowns of soil samples, and demographics of specific species of trees in the area, many of which are tools that weren’t developed until very recently. Now that they are in use, we can learn much more about the geography of the Amazon than ever before, and we can extrapolate its past from the data collected.

A lot of historical civilizations in the Amazon lived on forest islands, which are essentially raised areas of forest.  Through studying this land and the surrounding areas, Professor Walker and his team have been able to find meaningful evidence that the civilizations that lived there were able to manipulate their environment in several ways. In multiple sites and time periods, they have found significantly increased amounts of charcoal in the soil, along with significant changes in species of plants around the area and an increase in smaller water-based wildlife. These forest islands are surrounded by floodplains. Within these floodplains, there are raised areas that connect forest islands together and to other places, as if they were specifically designed to allow people to go from one place to another without getting wet. On a larger scale, forest ecologists have found that some tree species are currently overrepresented within the Amazon. These species line up with trees that are commercially useful to people, such as the Inga, a tree with beans sometimes known as the ice cream bean because they are very sweet and taste like vanilla ice cream. These finds, among others, indicate that these historical civilizations were engineering the environment to be more favorable for them. 

Conducting research in the Amazon Basin. Photo Courtesy of Associate Professor John Walker.

Conducting research in the Amazon Basin. Photo Courtesy of Associate Professor John Walker.

Studying the Amazon and other places using both a historical and ecological approach can have a huge impact on our understanding of the planet itself. Professor Walker states, “For the scientific community, I think that the Amazon is an example of how our assumptions need to be tested against the archaeological record.” The Amazon was not as much of a jungle as we might think, and there were extreme impacts on the planet when landscaping was no longer in effect. For example, through researching these forests, scientists have learned that European colonization in the Americas was likely a large factor in the ‘Little Ice Age’ of the 17th Century, as 90% of the Indigenous populations died and forests reclaimed their land, taking CO2 from the atmosphere. Therefore, research such as Professor Walker’s is instrumental in our understanding of how the environment is affected through human interaction. However, how that research is used isn’t only limited to him and his team. Professor Walker believes “that the effect of our research is really up to the people who make decisions about resources and development in Bolivia (and the rest of the Amazon, and in other places as well). I am not sure how many people think about the long-term history of the places that they live, but some do, and I think that doing so can really deepen our appreciation for the past, but also help us see creative possibilities for the future.” Hopefully, those decision-makers will make sure our future is a bright one. 

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