How did Native Amazonians shape the Amazon?

March 15, 2017

The popular consensus has long been that the Amazon Rainforest, like much the rest of North and South America, was a vast, untamed wilderness -- untouched by Native Amazonians -- when Europeans expanded into the continent starting with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.


A recent study published in the March 2017 issue of Science Magazine suggests that Amazonian tree communities today were shaped by pre-Columbian Amazonians -- that Amazonians actively domesticated tree species.  The study also hints at a methodology for using the density of domesticated tree species to identify pre-Columbian settlements that have been long subsumed by rainforest. 


As the study authors conclude:


"Detecting the widespread effect of ancient societies in modern forests not only strengthens efforts to conserve domesticated and useful wild-plant populations, which is of critical importance for modern food security (41), but also strongly refutes ideas of Amazonian forests being untouched by man.”


The Editor’s summary:


The marks of prehistoric human societies on tropical forests can still be detected today. Levis et al. performed a basin-wide comparison of plant distributions, archaeological sites, and environmental data. Plants domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples are much more likely to be dominant in Amazonian forests than other species. Furthermore, forests close to archaeological sites often have a higher abundance and richness of domesticated species. Thus, modern-day Amazonian tree communities across the basin remain largely structured by historical human use.



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