30 Aug 2008, 7:51pm
Cultivated Landscapes
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Ancient Earthmovers Of the Amazon

Charles C. Mann. 2008. Ancient Earthmovers Of the Amazon. Science, Vol 321, 29 August 2008, pp 1148-1152

Full text [here]

Much of the environmental movement is animated, consciously or not, by what geographer William Denevan calls “the pristine myth”—the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land, “untrammeled by man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a U.S. law that is one of the founding documents of the global environmental movement. - Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The most “pristine” wilderness in the America’s is widely thought to be the Amazon. But in fact the Amazon has been home to humanity and human civilization for thousands of years. New anthropological and landscape geography research has turned up yet another “lost” civilization in the supposedly untrammeled Amazon, further proof that our landscapes hold ancient human tradition and use, the legacy impacts of which may still be seen today.

Wilderness is indeed a myth, a modern Euro-American construct that lacks veracity and validity in the real world. Before we impose more political myth on our landscapes, wouldn’t it be prudent and responsible to see and study them for what they are, ancient homelands and settings of human stewardship, not abandonment?

Selected excerpts:

The forested western Amazon was once thought barren of complex human culture. But researchers are now uncovering enigmatic earthworks left by large, organized societies that once lived and farmed here.

Alceu Ranzi was a geography student in 1977 when he helped discover half a dozen huge, prehistoric rings carved into the landscape in his home state of Acre in western Brazil. At the time, he was helping to conduct the first-ever full archaeological survey of Amazonia, which was being opened up for cattle ranches at a speed that was causing worldwide protests. The earthworks came to light on newly logged land.

The find attracted little attention. The Smithsonian-sponsored National Program of Archaeological Research in the Amazon Basin did not formally announce the rings for 11 years, and even then only in a little-read report. And Ranzi, who went on to become a respected paleontologist, most recently at the Federal University of Acre in Rio Branco, didn’t get back to studying the ditches until more than a decade after that. On a flight to Rio Branco in 1999, he spotted the earthworks again from the air and soon began looking for more. Within a year, he says, “we had found dozens more” of what he calls geoglyphs.

Shaped like circles, diamonds, hexagons, and interlocking rectangles, the geoglyphs are 100 to 350 meters in diameter and outlined by trenches 1 to 7 meters deep. Many are approached by broad earthen avenues, some of them 50 meters wide and up to a kilometer long. The geoglyphs “are as important as the Nazca lines,” Ranzi says, referring to the famed, mysterious figures outlined in stone on the Peruvian coast. …

For most of the last century, researchers believed that the western Amazon’s harsh conditions, poor soils, and relative lack of protein (in the form of land mammals) precluded the development of large, sophisticated societies. According to the conventional view, the small native groups that eked out a living in the region were concentrated around the seasonally flooded river valleys, which had better soil; the few exceptions were short-lived extensions of Andean societies. Meanwhile, the upland and headwaters areas-which include nearly all of western Amazonia-had been almost empty of
humankind and its works.

Yet during the past 2 decades, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, geneticists, and ecologists have accumulated evidence that, as the geoglyphs team puts it, the western Amazon was inhabited “for hundreds of years” by “sizable, regionally organized populations”-in both the valleys and the uplands. The geoglyphs, the most recent and dramatic discovery, seem to extend across an area of about 1000 kilometers (km) from the Brazilian states of Acre and Rondônia in the north to the Bolivian departments of Pando and the Beni in the south (see map, p.1150). Much of this area is also covered by other, older forms of earthworks that seemingly date as far back as 2500 B.C.E.: raised fields, channel-like canals, tall settlement mounds, fish weirs, circular pools, and long, raised causeways (Science, 4 February 2000, p. 786), suggesting the presence of several cultures over a long period. And on page 1214 of this issue of Science, a U.S.-Brazilian team proposes that indigenous people in the south-central Amazon, 1400 km from Acre, lived in dense settlements in a form of early urbanism and created ditches and earthen walls that some say resemble the geoglyphs (see sidebar).

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