Environmental impact of geometric earthwork construction in pre-Columbian Amazonia

John Francis Carson*, Bronwen S. Whitney, Francis E. Mayle, Jose Iriarte, Heiko Pruemers, J. Daniel Soto, Jennifer Watling

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

There is considerable controversy over whether pre-Columbian (pre-A. D. 1492) Amazonia was largely "pristine" and sparsely populated by slash-and-burn agriculturists, or instead a densely populated, domesticated landscape, heavily altered by extensive deforestation and anthropogenic burning. The discovery of hundreds of large geometric earthworks beneath intact rainforest across southern Amazonia challenges its status as a pristine landscape, and has been assumed to indicate extensive pre-Columbian deforestation by large populations. We tested these assumptions using coupled local-and regional-scale paleoecological records to reconstruct land use on an earthwork site in northeast Bolivia within the context of regional, climate-driven biome changes. This approach revealed evidence for an alternative scenario of Amazonian land use, which did not necessitate labor-intensive rainforest clearance for earthwork construction. Instead, we show that the inhabitants exploited a naturally open savanna landscape that they maintained around their settlement despite the climatically driven rainforest expansion that began similar to 2,000 y ago across the region. Earthwork construction and agriculture on terra firme landscapes currently occupied by the seasonal rainforests of southern Amazonia may therefore not have necessitated large-scale deforestation using stone tools. This finding implies far less labor-and potentially lower population densitythan previously supposed. Our findings demonstrate that current debates over themagnitude and nature of pre-Columbian Amazonian land use, and its impact on global biogeochemical cycling, are potentially flawed because they do not consider this land use in the context of climate-driven forest-savanna biome shifts through the mid-to-late Holocene.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10497-10502
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Volume111
Issue number29
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 22 Jul 2014

Keywords

  • paleoecology
  • Amazonian archaeology
  • human-environment interactions
  • Anthropocene
  • Amazon rainforest
  • WESTERN AMAZONIA
  • RAIN-FOREST
  • PRISTINE MYTH
  • STARCH GRAINS
  • LAND-USE
  • POLLEN
  • BOLIVIA
  • FIRE
  • DIFFERENTIATION
  • LANDSCAPE

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