25 Nov 2008, 12:48pm
Saving Forests
by admin

Telltale Black Earth Indicates Amazon Not a Pristine Wilderness

I don’t have cable so I missed it, but last Thursday the National Geographic Channel aired a special entitled “Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible.” For a review and a video clip from that show see [here]. An excerpt:

Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible?

by John Roach for National Geographic News, 11/19/2008

Centuries-old European explorers’ tales of lost cities in the Amazon have long been dismissed by scholars, in part because the region is too infertile to feed a sprawling civilization.

But new discoveries support the idea of an ancient Amazonian urban network—and ingeniously engineered soil may have made it all possible. …

Scientists have long thought the river basin’s tropical soils were too acidic to grow anything but the hardiest varieties of manioc, a potatolike staple.

But over the past several decades, researchers have discovered tracts of productive terra preta — “dark earth.” …

With the increased level of agriculture made possible by terra preta, ancient Amazonians would have been able to live in one place for long periods of time, said geographer and anthropologist William Woods of the University of Kansas.

The article and TV special follow a Nat Geo News article of last August [here]:

Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network

by John Roach for National Geographic News, 10/28/2008

Dozens of ancient, densely packed, towns, villages, and hamlets arranged in an organized pattern have been mapped in the Brazilian Amazon, anthropologists announced today.

The finding suggests that vast swathes of “pristine” rain forest may actually have been sophisticated urban landscapes prior to the arrival of European colonists.

The topic of terra preta has been examined before at W.I.S.E., most recently [here]. For more on terra preta two excellent starting references are: Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. 2005. Alfred E. Knopf, and Denevan, William M. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. 2001. Oxford Univ Press. Both are extremely well-written and have extensive bibliographies/citations.

The take-home is that the Americas have been home to humanity for 10,000 years or more. The First Residents were more than wandering bands of savages; large and complex societies existed here with art, science, religion, and advanced agriculture. Those civilizations had significant impact on soils, vegetation, wildlife populations, and American ecosystems in general.

This continent was NOT a wilderness. People have been living here for a very long time. Human beings trammeled all over (including the Pacific Northwest) and affected our landscapes in complex and profound ways.

Wilderness and legal wilderness designation are false conceits grounded in ignorance and cultural bigotry. Wilderness designation leads to abandonment of stewardship and the subsequent destruction of history and heritage as well as natural resources. Roadless designation is also a form of conceited blindness, beacuse this entire continent has been well-roaded for millennia.

The wilderness myth is rooted in conquest and genocide and was reinforced by nineteenth-century romanticism [here]. The only thing wilderness designation protects is cultural delusion.

A far better approach to our heritage landscapes would be realization and study of the ancient human-environment relationships and a renewed commitment to stewardship. Instead of abandonment to ignorance and holocaust, perhaps we could begin to intelligently care for our forests and prairies once again.

25 Nov 2008, 6:18pm
by Bob Zybach

Is the terra preta phenomenon limited to Amazonia? My own research in the Pacific Northwest would suggest otherwise.

My work, and the work of others, has shown the precontact (before 1776, say) landscape of the Pacific Northwest was covered by an intense network of trade and resource management trails. These highly developed routes of travel were likewise directly connected to millions of acres of managed croplands, including tended fields bearing seeds, fruits, nuts, bulbs, greens, and other nutritious foodstuffs.

These findings are consistent with those of Frank Lake, Kat Anderson, and others in California, and Douglas Deur, Nancy Turner, and others in western Canada.

Some of the managed areas are known for their rich, black soils, such as Lake Labish in Marion County, and the Letitia Creek subbasin of Douglas County. Lake Labish was known as an area in which local Kalapuyans raised wapato; during historical time, Japanese farmers subsequently raised profitable crops of onions in the drained lakebed.

How about the Kalapuyan mounds in Linn County, or Wapato Lake in Washington County? My guess is that these areas might all reveal soils consistent with the terra preta descriptions.

Research into these locations should be performed for reasons other than simply understanding past cultures and local landscape histories better –- although those are admirable goals in themselves. We should not be so arrogant as to think there is little or nothing to be learned from ancient land and resource managers. There are important lessons to be derived from terra preta soils that can be specifically applied to the management of modern forests, grasslands, and farming ventures.

For people who believe in the Global Warming apocalypse story (or who collect taxpayer dollars studying its “effects”), terra preta soils demonstrate a method for long-term sequestration of carbon. For those that believe in active –- rather than passive –- management of our nation’s forest and grasslands, this soil indicates methods by which these features have been successfully maintained for millennia. For those with an interest in alleviating hunger, or community self-sufficiency, or fossil fuel conservation, these soils demonstrate a method for greatly concentrating our food production, land use, and energy trade efficiencies.

Congratulation to National Geographic for their courage in bringing these theories and findings to public attention, and to W.I.S.E. for supporting and furthering that effort.

25 Nov 2008, 7:01pm
by Mike

In his landmark work, Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (2002, Oxford Univ Press), Dr. William M. Denevan notes:

[S]uccessful programs of revival of raised field cultivation are underway around Lake Titicaca in both Peru and Bolivia, in both cases initiated by archaeologists studying pre-European fields. One of these archaeologists, Clark Erickson, has also established the first modern raised fields in the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia, and there is considerable interest in expanding them there.

On the other hand, the ancient raised fields that have survived to the present, and which provide models and inspiration for revival are threatened by modern human activity. The Guayas raised fields are rapidly being destroyed by wet-rice irrigation systems, and many Titicaca fields are being leveled by ploughing. A large wheat irrigation project in the Department of Puno in Peru wiped out an entire sector of ancient fields. In 1986, the wheat was destroyed by the greatest lake-plain flood of the century, while some of the restored raised fields remained productive.

Certainly a reason for the lack of interest in cultivating wetlands in South America is ignorance of indigenous antecedents and their sustainability and productivity. …

The modern approach to utilization is complete and permanent drainage, conversion from wetland to dryland. The evidence of pre-European raised fields, however, indicates that earlier people had a very different, more positive, perspective about wetlands. They lived in and around wetlands, hunted and fished in them, and cultivated them. Archaeologist Charles Standish, who has studied the Lake Titicaca raised fields, believes: “that [wetland] raised-field agriculture is among the most important intensification strategies utilized by Prehistoric farmers in the Americas.”

29 Nov 2008, 7:30pm
by YPmule

I had to look up more about “terra preta” so I could understand this better.


Impressive stuff!



web site

leave a comment

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Meta