With its abundance of natural life and thousands of plant and animal species unknown to science, it’s easy to understand why, throughout history, the Amazon rainforest has been thought of as belonging to an other-than-human realm. Compared with the intensively farmed fields, booming industrial towns, and towering stone edifices that dominated most of Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, to its first explorers the tropical lowlands were like a lost Garden of Eden, and the fate of its peoples, living in small, autonomous communities, was like that of primordial man: at the mercy of whatever God (or the serpent) had to offer.
With each scrape of the trowel, archaeologists are unearthing more and more evidence that undermines this vision. Large pre-Columbian settlements up to ten times the size of modern indigenous villages are not the exception but the rule across vast swathes of the Amazon and, in many cases, it has taken the destructive effects of modern deforestation for scientists to “discover” what lies beneath the forest canopy. In Bolivia, earthen mounds up to 20 m high and 20 ha in area that rival most Mayan pyramids in size. In Acre, perfectly geometric patterns formed by ditches up to 11 m wide and 3 m deep on a scale equal to European henge monuments. And across the Amazon, large deposits of dark, extremely fertile soils called Terra Preta do Indio that mark the locations of ancient settlements, and which modern science has strived (and failed) to reproduce. Indigenous peoples are not mere subjects of their environment but have actively transformed it over the course of history.
As an archaeobotanist, I study plant remains to understand what resources people were eating, using and cultivating in the past and how people interacted with the ecosystems in which they lived. The cruel irony of being an archaeobotanist in Amazonia is that although we know indigenous peoples employed an abundance of plants to make everything from houses, clothes and tools to basketry, resins and musical instruments, the tropical climate and acidic soils mean that none of these things survive today. In a best-case scenario, we have only fragments of wood, seeds or fruits which – by accident or design – were burnt and survive as charcoal; phytoliths, which are microscopic silica casts of plant cells released into the soil when plants – or food and other things made from them – decompose; and starch grains, which survive inside ceramic vessels and can be studied to detect what plants were being cooked.
Just identifying the species that produced these different remains is often a monumental task when there are over 32,000 possibilities. Moreover, the specific uses of these species are very often lost to us. Nevertheless, archaeobotany, together with the fields of plant genetics and (ethno)ecology, are revolutionising our understanding of Amazonian biodiversity by showing that nature and culture are inseparable, and have been for over 12,000 years.
The oldest known sites in the Amazon such as Caverna da Pedra Pintada in Pará, yield evidence of intensive palm exploitation, and likely management, as well as the use of Brazil nut and other fruits by the very first inhabitants of the tropical forest. In Bolivia, the first human groups to occupy the vast plains of the Llanos de Mojos constructed earthen mounds and were cultivating squash, cassava and other roots and tubers by at least 10,000 years ago. By 6,000 years ago, corn, beans, and likely other crops had arrived from outside of the Amazon and were being cultivated and transformed into local landraces. By the year AD 1492, at least 83 Amazonian species had been “domesticated” to some degree by its indigenous inhabitants through practices which – differing from Western perceptions of this process – prioritised the creation and management of diversity rather than control over nature.
Such practices left behind ecological legacies that can be recognised today in the greater richness of fruit trees, medicinal plants and other useful species that can extend for kilometres beyond the limits of archaeological sites. Indigenous groups and other forest peoples live in and rely on these landscapes today for their physical and spiritual well-being, preserving and further transforming their biodiversity from generation to generation. What European eyes saw as virgin forest encircling the indigenous villages they visited was likely a complex mosaic of orchards and fallow fields in different stages of managed regeneration.
The biodiversity that national and global incentives are today seeking to protect constitutes the biocultural heritage of Amazonian forest peoples who have been actors in its construction for many thousands of years.