The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

This is just a by-the-way thing, for people who haven’t picked up on it…

The Washington Post yesterday had this story headlined, “Archaeologists discover 81 ancient settlements in the Amazon.” It said in part:

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests; they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”…

Though conservationists often speak of this region as having been a “pristine” landscape, studies by de Souza and others suggest that indigenous people influenced and enriched the rain forest for hundreds of years….

Surprising? Only if you indeed think of the pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who barely touched the land they lived on.

But in fact, researchers have been debunking that view for years.

If you haven’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, you should. That 2005 book, followed six years later by the equally fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, endeavored to bring us laymen up to date on what modern researchers were learning about this hemisphere before Europeans came to stay.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember two main points, new things, that I learned from it:

  • The American population before 1492 was many times as large as previously estimated. But Europeans, the people who wrote the history, never met these people. That’s because, thanks to inter-tribe trade, European diseases wiped out millions — entire villages, entire cultures — before the newcomers even encountered them. (Europeans would land on a coast, coastal Indians would be infected by their diseases and pass them on to inland tribes they traded with. Thus, European diseases raced well ahead of actual Europeans.) That’s one reason the conquistadores were able to conquer. The Incas, for instance, had been ravaged by disease to the point that their empire was on the verge of collapse before Pizarro arrived.
  • The Indians had a dramatic effect on the land before the arrival of whites. They were big users of slash-and-burn land management, including in the hallowed Amazon rain forest. In fact, much of the jungle found by white settlers was only a generation or two old, having grown up after the local land managers died off.

I may be misremembering a detail or two, since it’s been 1491-coverawhile since I read it. But I think I have the broad outline right. One of the most dramatic assertions I remember from the book was that the Little Ice Age the planet experienced from the 16th to the 19th centuries was at least in part caused by this sudden drop in human population in the Amazon basin, which allowed the rainforest to surge, taking in more carbon dioxide and lowering global temperatures.

Of course, this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest, which the nature-loving folk who went before would never have done. (Or, if it doesn’t debunk it, at least adds layers of complication. Apparently, the Indian methods were more sustainable.) At the same time, it reinforces the idea that what humans do and don’t do affect global climate.

All of which reinforces my long-held belief that life is more complicated than most people give it credit for being.

I know I’ve recommended this book before, but the Post story reminded me of it, so I’m recommending it again. It’s fascinating to learn that things you thought you knew were so, are not…

15 thoughts on “The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

    1. Claus2

      The fact is, it’s likely nobody really knows… that these numbers are just confirmed settlements or educated guesses. How much of the planet has been actually explored… 20%? Considering 70% is water, I’m guessing 20% maybe a high estimate.

  1. Norm Ivey

    There’s this from the article just after the quote you posted:

    “The forest is an artifact of modification,” de Souza said. He quickly added: “It has nothing to do with the kind of practice we are seeing nowadays — large-scale, clearing monoculture. These people were combining small-scale agriculture with management of useful tree species. So it was more a sustainable kind of land use.” [emphasis added]

    Man is not destroying the planet. We’re just making it a little more inhospitable.

    1. bud

      I guess it depends on how you define destroying. Sure a couple of degrees more warming or a couple hundred million more mouths to feed may justifiably be described as “more inhospitable”. But at some point “destroy” becomes a fait accompli. It is absolutely imperative that we solve the population explosion once and for all. Sure we’ve made great progress but until we reach zero or even negative population growth we are in great peril. (This was not a consideration for the ancient indigenous people of the Americas). As a corollary to that indisputable truth we must seek to arrest the ongoing global warming threat. While people get all worked up about tiny issues like ISIS the real threat to our security is population growth and global warming.

      1. Norm Ivey

        Still not destroying the planet. Screwing ourselves by heating it up, and changing weather patterns and climate. But we’re not destroying it. If we care about our grandchildren, we’ll get busy trying to make some changes. I think we care about money more, so we’ll continue with our destructive behaviors until the economic incentive is strong enough to change our minds.

    2. Mr. Smith

      The instant I saw Brad’s headline, I figured what followed would sooner or later end up here:

      “this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest”

      It debunks nothing of the sort. And anybody who uses the term “tree hugger” instantly loses credibility.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Really? Because I consider myself to be one. What’s wrong with it? Don’t you love trees?

        I do, but I love the forest more, to bring the conversation to a familiar argument here on the blog… 🙂

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Just read your comment again. You really seem to see things in black-and-white, polarized terms.

          Whereas my point is the opposite. Human beings, and the way they interact with the planet, are almost always far more complicated than a lot of people give them credit for being…

          1. Mr. Smith

            [Big eye roll.]

            Folks who use terms like “tree huggers“ (and don’t be coy, we all know what they’re saying when they do) are the ones who think in black-and-white terms.

            If you don’t want to be associated with those folks, then don’t use such loaded terms. Someone who claims to be so interested in words should be able to avoid a bone-headed move like that. What’s more, by omitting the section Norm referred to, you intentionally distorted the piece you were citing. Another blow to proper understanding and good journalism.

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