Amazon, Ecology, Indigenous Worlds
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The Ecological Zones of the Amazon Basin and the Civilizations that Grew from Them

Periodically, the media will announce that the surprise discovery has suddenly been made that the Amazon Basin had been the home of “advanced, spectacular civilizations.”

In reality, this fact has been well known in the archaeological community for decades. But the general public knows still knows little about it, so the media continue to treat each new discovery of ancient civilizations in the Amazon as a surprise.

New discoveries continue to be made.  Since the original version of this article was written in 2006, major discoveries have been made in Santarem, Brazil, on the lower Amazon,  in the upper Purus River region of Brazil and Bolivia, in Chachapoyas, Peru, and in San Martin de Samaria in Peru.

Archaeologists today estimate that the pre-Columbian population of the Amazon Basin was as high as 20 million – far more than live in the Amazon today, even including the large cities such as Belem, Manaus, and Iquitos.

Yet these dense and organized populations had a very different relationship with the natural world than most recorded civilizations.

There are four major types of ecological zones in the Amazon.  Each one has given rise to a way of life adapted to it.  The four zones are the varzea, or fertile floodplains; the upland forests that lie above flooding; the savanna; and the blackwater ecosystems.   All of these zones except the blackwater ecosystems have given rise to civilizations.

The Varzea: land of river cities

The varzea is also called the whitewater floodplain. (“Whitewater” rivers in this context means nutrient-rich rivers, washing down soil from the Andes.)  These rivers seasonally flood and leave silt upon the land.   

These river-fertilized soils are the most fertile in the Amazon Basin, but because of the seasonal flooding, have the shortest growing season.  The crops that were grown on the river-fertilized soil were varieties bred to mature during the half year of dry season.  As much manioc was produced in four to six months as could be produced in a year and a half on the terra firme.

Not surprisingly, the combination of the most fertile soils with an abundance of aquatic resources made the shores of the Amazon River and its major whitewater tributaries the most densely populated zones of the regions.  The Amazon and its major tributaries were also major trade routes; pottery shards testify to the widespread trade conducted by the Omaguas in particular, who lived at the headwaters of the Amazon but had trade networks stretching for thousands of miles. (Lathrap 1974)

However, the cities along the Amazon were actually seen and recorded by the chroniclers of the first European expedition, which was led by the conquistador Francisco de Orellana in 1541.  Orellana described the Amazon as a busy waterway which had, on both sides of the river, populous towns with elaborate temples, plazas and fortresses.  His chronicler, Fray Gaspar de Carvajal recorded cities that extended for miles along the banks of the major rivers of the floodplain. He relates that, for one stretch of 80 leagues (275 miles) they found people “all speaking one language and densely populated with towns and villages with scarcely more than a crossbow shot between them. Some of the towns extended for five leagues (17 miles) without any separation between the houses.”   

Many roads led to the interior.  A few settlements were located on the flood plain where during rainy season they were accessible only by canoe.  In one place “inland from the river, at a distance of two leagues, more or less, there could be seen some very large cities that “glistened in white.”  Villages were composed of communal houses each occupied by an extended family. The towns and villages were organized into confederations which traded and fought with another.

The Spaniards’ accounts describe a superabundance of food.  Carvajal wrote that, in one village, they found enough meat and fish and cassava bread “to feed an expeditionary force of a thousand men for a year.” Turkeys, ducks, and parrots were raised in the villages, and ducks were hunted by the thousands using nets.   Fish were obtained in great abundance, and manatees were a favorite prey.  Turtles, each “larger than a good sized wheel,” were raised in corrals, estimated to contain sometimes six to seven thousand animals. Turtle and cayman eggs were eaten.  Wild rice and water lily seeds and tubers were harvested.  Carvajal added that “what is more amazing is the slight amount of work that all these things require.”

The Omagua people produced arts and crafts of a very high level, especially pottery, described by Carvajal: “plates and bowls and candelabra of this porcelain of the best that has ever been seen in the world… all glazed and embellished with colours, and so bright that they astonish, and, more than this, the drawings and paintings which they make on them are very accurately drawn just as with the Romans.”

This was primarily the land of the Omagua, who were a well-organized and apparently an aggressive and expansionist power along the western length of the Amazon River.

At the other end of the Amazon River, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, an island larger than the country of Switzerland lies in the river’s mouth: the island of Marajo.  On this island, archaeologists have found evidence of a large-scale but decentralized civilization. In a huge cave called Painted Rock Cave, signs of human culture have been found dating back as far as 13,000 years.  Ceramic bowls found in Painted Rock Cave and other places in the area are the oldest known pottery in the Americas, and there is evidence that four thousand years ago, the Indians of the lower Amazon were growing at least 138 crops.  There are mounds 1,800 years old, elaborate road systems, and artificial ponds and canals. Anna C Roosevelt, curator of the Field Museum in Chicago, who has excavated the site, says that the mound-building culture lasted well over a thousand years, had possibly well over 100,000 inhabitants and covered thousands of square miles.  “They have magnitude. They have complexity. They are amazing, and they are not primitive,” says Roosevelt.  Amazonia, Roosevelt says, “was a source of social and technological innovation and continental importance.”

Upland Forests: the land of Ayahuasca

The upland or terra firme forests of the Amazon (meaning areas above flooding, not a contiguous zone) are extremely heterogeneous, an extremely diverse range of microecosystems.   They have the greatest number of species and the greatest accumulation of plant biomass on the planet” (Moran 1993:58).  The region (known as the “eyebrow of the jungle”) where the rainforest meets the foothills of the Andes, from Colombia to Bolivia, is the most biodiverse region on Earth.

The Upper Amazon was the cradle of horticultural diversity for both the Andes and the Lower Amazon.    It was a natural laboratory for developing the science of breeding diverse varieties of plants adapted to microecosystems. This science, highly developed and systematized much later by the Incas, made it possible to develop crop varieties adapted to the extremely varied growing conditions and made  highland Andean civilization possible.  There is, in fact, credible evidence that the civilizations of the highland Andes, as well as the other civilizations of the Amazon, had their original roots in the Upper Amazon.  (See Lathrap, The Upper Amazon, 1970.)

This is the home of such famous groups as the Shuar (the “Jivaro headshrinkers”), the Shipibo, and the Ashaninka.  Most of the ancient cities of the region (such as Puyo, Ecuador, ancient capital of the Puyo Runa or “Cloud People”) were made of biodegradable materials and have disappeared.  One city whose stone ruins still exist is Kuelap, ancient capital of the Chachapoyas culture of northern Peru.

The Quechua- or Kichwa-speaking peoples (Runa) have a key place in Amazonian as well as Andean history.

Quechua is most famous as the “language of the Incas,” because it was the official language of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire. It served as the shared second language of communication in the

Andean highlands, among many different peoples who spoke many different native languages. And  the Amazonian Kichwa or Quechua speakers collectively comprise probably about 1% of the Quechua-speaking population.

The popular assumption (mentioned as fact in some tourist guides) is that Amazonian Kichwa speakers (since they speak an “Andean language”) originated as post-Inca or post-conquest migrants from the Andes.  However, the linguistic evidence is conclusively strong that Kichwa was not first introduced to Ecuador by the Incas, but that it was already being used in Ecuador and nearby parts of Peru long before the Inca Empire arose — as a trade language along the Napo River.

Linguistic evidence suggests that Kichwa was first used in Ecuador, including both the Amazon region and the highlands, at least eight centuries before the arrival of the Incas in Ecuador — that is to say, Kichwa may have been spoken in the Amazon as long as fourteen hundred years ago.  The Incas arrived in that region less than five hundred years ago.

The Puyo Runa, or Cloud People, remember their ancient capital of Puyo on the upper Pastaza River, where today lies the present-day city of Puyo, the capital of the present-day province of Pastaza, Ecuador.

In present-day Ecuador, there is a mountain pass called Papallacta where highland Indians and lowland Indians.  Its name translates as “potato town” because potatoes were the major trade item brought by highland Indians.  The Napo River begins below Papallacta Pass and flows down to finally join the Amazon River near present-day Iquitos. Thus, the Napo River connects the highlands with the Amazon River. This appears to be the region of the most active contact and cultural interflow between the Andean highlands and the Amazonian lowlands.  Highland influence is conspicuous on the music of the Napo Runa and on the women’s traditional dress.   The highland curanderos of Ecuador, for their part, incorporate many elements of Ayahuasca shamanism into their curing rituals, without using Ayahuasca itself.

The Napo River, by all evidence and scholarly consensus, appears to be the original home of the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and of the cultural form known as Ayahuasca shamanism that is now widespread in the Upper Amazon.  However, it does not appear to the the place where DMT-containing admixture plants (Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana) were first combined with the Ayahuasca vine.  (Highpine 2013)

Yet, collectively, the Indian peoples of the Upper Amazon (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and far western Brazil) seem to have been much more resilient than groups in most other areas of the Amazon.  This region coincides with the use of Ayahuasca, and with the deepest plant shamanism in the world.  There may be no connection between this and the survival of the Upper Amazonian peoples…. or there may be.

The Savanna: earthworks and forest islands

In the savannas of the southwestern Amazon Basin — the Beni province of Bolivia and nearby regions of Brazil – are some of the richest discoveries of what is possible through traditional sustainable horticulture.


In the Llanos de Moxos region of the Beni, indigenous peoples built a vast infrastructure of earthworks that enabled their culture to flourish over several thousand years. (Erickson 2000). Archaeologists have uncovered  massive raised field systems, elevated causeways, transportation canals connecting river systems, pyramid-like mounds, clusters of odd,  zigzagging ridges scattered through the savanna that may have been fish farms, and other earthworks.  Raised fields are connected in groups of islands, aligned in a north-south direction. Mounds, as high as nearly 60 feet, rise above the floodwaters.  (Mann 2000a)   Trees grow on the causeways and mounds, protected from the savanna’s seasonal fires and floods. Soils were enriched by burning, mulching, and depositing wastes, and are filled with fragments of pottery.

Although these peoples abandoned their earthworks from four hundred to seven hundred years ago, Erickson and others argue that the process of ecological change begun by the Beni mound builders continues to this day.   They permanently transformed regional ecosystems, creating “a richly patterned and humanized landscape” that is “one of the most remarkable human achievements on the continent.”  They grew crops on raised fields; practiced agroforestry, planting groves of palm, nut, and fruit trees; and raised fish and apple snails..

Erickson estimates both from the amount of labor that had to have gone into these works and from the potential crop yields on these permacultured mounds that the population just of this corner of Bolivia would have been in the hundreds of thousands. “The quantity and mass of material deposited indicates that a lot of people were responsible, creating the mounds over a period of at least 2000 years,” beginning 3000 to 5000 years ago.

Pottery shards — the only artifact not subject to decay — show that the villages were linked by trade networks that stretched over thousands of miles and reveal a complex mosaic of societies linked by networks of communication, trade, alliance, and perhaps warfare.


In 2003,  the upper Xingu region of the southern Amazon in central Brazil archaeologists discovered an ancient network of large villages linked by roads in a carefully organized, gridlike pattern..The villages were built around large, circular central plazas, and were defined by curbs, moats and ditches  up to 1.5 miles  long and 16 feet deep.

The villages were evenly spaced two to three miles apart in in a “galactic” pattern around a hub. Straight roads  — as wide as 165 feet in some places, the width of a modern-day four-lane highway — lead out from them at specific angles, repeated from one plaza to the next. described by Heckenberger (2003) as “gridlike or latticelike organization of nodes (plazas) and connecting thoroughfares.” “This kind of  elaborate regional plan would have required the relatively sophisticated ability to reproduce angles over large distances.” “The sophistication of the layout bespeaks a knowledge of mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and engineering.”

Where the villages converged on wetlands,  bridges, moats, canals , causeways and artificial ponds were found, many of which are still in use today. The biggest villages had residential areas as large as 200 acres. Between the villages were open parklands and working food forests. .  Heckenberger estimates that each cluster of six to twelve villages supported between 2500 and 5000 people, and the complex, geometrically patterned set of interlinking roads radiating out of the plazas show that there must have been a great deal of social interaction among the villages, which implies that all of the villages were occupied simultaneously. Having mapped all of the sites within a 15 mile by 15 mile square, Heckenberger and colleagues tentatively estimate that the population of the region numbered in the tens of thousands.

Heckenberger characterized the areas between the villages as “saturated anthropogenic landscapes.”  They had great fortified cities —  according to Heckenberger — “with a complicated plan, with a sense of engineering and mathematics that rivalled anything that was happening in much of Europe at the time.” … “The Xinguano people built their villages according to a very clear plan, at a very large scale, and all of them are interconnected with one another.

The Kayapo

The Kayapo, a group about a hundred miles north on the Xingu River studied by Darrell Posey, still practice a related system:

The Kayapo recognise ecosystems that lie on a continuum between the poles of forest and savanna. They have names, for example, for as many as nine different types of savanna – savanna with few trees, savanna with many forest patches, savanna with shrub, and so on. But the Kayapo concentrate less on the differences between zones than on the similarities that cut across them. Marginal or open spots within the forest, for example, can have microenvironmental conditions similar to those in the savanna. The Kayapo take advantage of these similarities to exchange and spread useful species between zones, through transplanting seeds, cuttings, tubers and saplings. Thus there is much interchange between what we tend to see as distinctly different ecological systems.

Kayapo agriculture focuses upon the zones intermediate between forest and savanna types, because it is in these that maximal biological diversity occurs. Villages too are often sited in these transition zones. The Kayapo not only recognise the richness of these zones, but they actually create them.  They exploit secondary forest areas and create special concentrations of plants in forest fields, rocks outcroppings, trail sides, and elsewhere.

The creation of forest islands, or Apêtê, demonstrates to what extent the Kayapo can alter and manage ecosystems to increase biological diversity…. Apêtê look so “natural”, however, that until recently scientists in fact did not recognise them as human artifacts.

Purus River and Santarem

New discoveries continue to be made. In 2010, in the Purus River region that stretches from northern Bolivia to the state of Amazonas in Brazil, as described here and here, scientists have documented more than two hundred and ten geometric structures, some of which may date as far back as the third century A.D. They are spread out over an area that spans more than two hundred and fifty kilometers.

Blackwater ecosystems:  the fish forest

The blackwater ecosystems  the most barren and nutrient-poor ecosystems in the Amazon.  Unlike the “whitewater” rivers that that bring nutrients from the Andes to fertilize the floodplains, “blackwater” rivers are nutrient-poor, and flooding does not enrich the soil as it does in the varzea.

In the blackwater ecosystems, the primary food source is fish.  And the fish depend on the forest for their food supply.  River margins provide food for fish — leaves, fruits, flowers, seeds, insects, insect larvae, arachnids, crustaceans, and worms.  At least fifty fish species feed almost exclusively on fruit that falls into the river. Other fish feed on insects which, attracted by the fruit, fall into the river. During flooding cycles, waters overspill their banks and allow fish into the flooded forests to feed. Fruit trees are planted to feed the fish and forests along the rivers are protected. Instead of the rivers replenishing the land through flooding, the forest replenishes the river.  In effect, the forest is maintained as a grazing ground for fish.

The Uananos of the Uaupes River of Brazil are acutely aware of the importance of food sources from the adjacent forest in maintaining fisheries:

The Uanano describe fish spawning as a fruit-exchange dance. Any interruption of these dances or interference in the supply of fruits requisite to them is severely punished by retribution of the fish elders. While the adult fish are caught as they swim back from the “dances,” in exchange, the Uananos protect the offspring and preserve their food source — the forest. The Uanano depend upon the generosity of the fish and the forest and avoid offending them.   (Chernela 1982)

Writing of the Makuna of Colombia, who live farther upstream on the Vaupes River (called Uaupes in Brazil)  says:

In the Amazon, forest and river are closely linked. In an environment where considerable tracts of land are permanently or periodically inundated, it is difficult to tell where the forest ends and the river begins. The rain-forest with its myriad of waterways is thus very much an integrated whole, to which its animal inhabitants have adapted. Tree-dwelling species stay in the upper layers of the forest to escape flooding, while ground living animals have developed an amphibian capacity to move freely between land and water. The jaguar and its principal prey — tapirs, peccaries, and large rodents — are, for example, excellent swimmers, while other predators such as anacondas, caymans, and otters, live most of their lives in the rivers.

This close interdependence between the life worlds of the river and the forest is reflected in the peculiar Makuna idea that fish and game animals may transform into one another. In their hunting tales fish at will walk up on land to feed on the fruits and seeds of the forest. Conversely, game can turn into fish and disappear into the depths of the rivers to escape the hunters. Therefore, they say, fish never have empty stomachs, and hunters often fail to track down game along the river beds.

In the words of a Makuna shaman:

When the fish travel along the river they visit the fish people of other houses, just like people visit one another in this world. The fish people go to drink and dance in each other’s houses. As they leave one house and enter another they take off the old dresses and put on new ones; each house is different, with its own name and history. The fish change accordingly. Even the river changes from one place to another; the water is here bitter and heavy, there light and sweet like the juice of sweet fruits. The fish also change with season; in the appropriate season they perform forest fruit rituals, make dabucurí feasts, and play their Yuruparí instruments. Therefore the fish has to be blessed differently according to season and place, depending on when and where it was caught.   (Arnhem 1996:29)

The main horticultural crop in blackwater ecosystems is bitter manioc. Bitter manioc cultivation solves one of the great problems of Amazonian populations: how to cultivate soils extremely poor in nutrients, extremely acid, and with toxic levels of aluminum.  Manioc, a plant that appears to have evolved in just such areas of  South America, can produce impressive results where nothing else will grow.  Manioc is even adapted to drought, during which it loses its leaves and goes into dormancy, gaining its leaves again with the return of soil moisture.

More than a hundred varieties of bitter manioc have been reported among blackwater populations. Bitter (toxic) manioc has been developed through selective breeding from the sweet (nontoxic) varieties. The toxic chemicals in bitter manioc (which must be processed out for human consumption) help to protect against insects and herbivores, so in the blackwater ecosystems, conscious selection favors the more toxic varieties.

Blackwater ecosystems are the classic “counterfeit paradise” of the Amazon, fragile ecosystems that place severe limits on human population.  They are drained (and flooded) by “blackwater” rivers that carry no fertilizing agents. Garden sites in blackwater regions cannot be used more than a single year without yields declining dramatically, and a garden clearing cannot be more than an acre or so in size, or it may not reforest itself.  Thus, the spaces cleared for gardens must be small or the area cannot revegetate, because it needs the leaf litter from the surrounding forest in order to reforest.  Without the leaf litter the surrounding intact forest, the soils would become either white sands (podsols) or brick-like laterites. Then the deforestation would become permanent. And when the forest cover is removed, these soils quickly erode, altering the river channel and depositing silt in the river.  So the garden remains small and is moved every single year.  And in blackwater ecosystems, it may take over a hundred years for the cycle to complete itself and the primary forest to return  Thus (outside of areas of terra preta, see below) human populations in blackwater ecosystems must remain small and nomadic.

Terra Preta

Terra preta  is a phenomenon found across all four types of ecosystems, although it is rare in the upland forests closer to the Andes.   Terra preta  (“black earth”), also called Terra Preta do Indio (“Indian black earth”) is the Brazilian name for certain highly fertile dark earths in the Amazon region created by indigenous peoples. Terra preta soils exist across a wide range of  parent soil types — red or yellow kaolinite ferralsol, acrisol, sandy podzol, and terra preta is distributed throughout a wide range of Amazonian environments — black and whitewater ecosystems, bluff edges and headwaters, floodplains and terra firme. It is estimated that 10% of the Amazon Basin is terra preta. The area of terra preta already mapped is immense — twice the size of the UK.

The properties and behavior of terra preta defy scientific understandings. Terra preta does not form naturally out of compost, even where composting is intentional. Contemporary settlements, even indigenous ones, do not create terra preta.

Yet, terra preta seems to continuously regenerate itself.  In Brazil, there are sites where prehistoric terra preta has been intensively farmed for nearly forty years with no addition of any fertilizer. Some scholars suggest that terra preta essentially represents a “living organism” because of its capacity to regenerate itself.   

Archaeologists have surveyed the distribution of terra preta and found it correlates with the places in which conquistador Francisco de Orellana’s chroniclers described seeing cities. Radiocarbon dating shows that the terra preta seems to start around the time of Christ, perhaps a few hundred years earlier. This is the same time that archaeologists first see complex polychrome pottery and evidence of mound building in the Beni and on Marajó Island. The abundance of pottery shards found in every deposit of terra preta, and the traces of ancient roads connecting them, demonstrate that terra preta correlates with intensive human occupation.

Organic matter in terra preta averages 40 to 50 cm deep, but may be as deep as one to two meters (!)  Radiocarbon dating demonstrates the extremely fast rate of terra preta formation — a meter of soil produced in just a few decades.  It is calculated that 24500 tons of silt and algae or 9000 tons of mulch would be required to cover one meter of topsoil over one hectare, so this which implies high labor investment and complex social organization.

In the modern world, intensive agriculture and population growth are associated with ecological destruction and soil decline – but in the Amazon, as a result of farming and as a result of population growth, the soils grew richer, not poorer.  Terra preta today also appears to be preserving plant species that cannot survive elsewhere in the Amazon, thus helping to preserve and promote biodiversity.

Besides creating continuing soil fertility, terra preta has another benefit that its creators cold not have foreseen: it helps to sequester carbon dioxide.

The technology for creating terra preta seems to have been lost by present-day indigenous populations of the Amazon. Special inoculations of microorganisms were involved, but those bacterial cultures and the technologies for using them are today lost.   But when the mystery of creating terra preta is solved, it may be one of the greatest gifts of the Amazonian native peoples to the world.

The Times of Destruction

The Pastaza Runa refer to the “Times of Destruction,” when they experienced the most severe population crash.  accessibility, the density, and the networking of these civilizations made them extremely vulnerable to both epidemics and European slaving.

The first epidemics quickly swept up and down the major rivers, where populations were most concentrated; the Amazon River itself, once the most densely populated zone of the Amazon Basin, had 100% population loss. The indigenous populations of the varzea became virtually completely extinct; their cities, made entirely of biodegradable materials, vanished into the earth without an archaeological trace.   No indigenous populations remain along the Amazon River proper, and the impression passed down in the last few centuries was of a thinly populated river.   

The Zaparos, once a major power on the Pastaza River of Ecuador and Peru, are today reduced to about five Zaparo speakers.  The Omaguas are today reduced to about ten speakers of the language living near Iquitos, Peru.

The settlements found in the Xingu had thrived for eight hundred years, from 800 CE to 1600 CE, when the population crashed due to European epidemics.  These epidemics wiped out the population before Europeans ever set foot in the Xingu.  The Upper Xingu region is so remote that Europeans did not reach the area until more than two hundred years after the first colonists arrived in Brazil.  By then, the villages were mostly abandoned, the people long since decimated by the spread of European diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza.

The Napo River is the most accessible part of the Amazon Basin.  In fact, it was the first area penetrated by Europeans, and the first area hit by epidemics, that even preceded the Europeans themselves (the banks of the Napo River were already depopulated by the time Orellana saw it).

The indigenous peoples who survived the epidemics are for the most part those were in the “boondocks,” on the fringe of the major Amazonian civilizations. Since then, tribes and communities have continued to be shattered by various destructive forces, from epidemics to missionary disruption to virtual enslavement on encomiendas or land grants, the Rubber Boom, and, in recent decades, massive colonization, deforestation, land losses, and the poisoning of rivers by petroleum companies.


The stereotypical picture of the Amazonian Indian is of a naked hunter in the jungle, shooting poisoned darts at monkeys from blowguns.  This picture is not inaccurate:  indigenous Amazonians traditionally were, and as much as possible continue to be, hunters and gatherers, traditionally didn’t wear clothes, and many did and do hunt with blowguns and poisoned darts.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are hunters and gatherers, but they are not only hunters and gatherers; they are not even mainly hunters and gatherers.  They are mainly gardeners of the forest, but practitioners of a kind of gardening that obscures the distinctions between “wild” and “cultivated.” They practice a kind of horticulture that is not only sustainable, but has proven to be the only sustainable way of cultivating in a tropical rainforest environment, and that has actually helped to increase biodiversity.    The modern Amazon rainforest is only 15,000 years old (having largely dried up during the Ice Age) and humans have been active participants in this ecosystem since the beginning.  Humans have actively participated in creating the most biodiverse region in the world.

All of the Amazonian countries today  have aggressively promoted “colonization programs” in the Amazon, as a solution for their landless peasant problems, and envisioned the rainforest as supporting large-scale commercial agriculture, both cultivation and cattle raising.  But traditional western agricultural practices – including permanent clearing and monocropping – has proven an ecological disaster, resulting in permanent deforestation that continues to spread as poor colonists move from exhausted lands to new areas

The rainforest conservation community has responded for decades by stressing that the soils of the Amazon are so poor that the Amazon could only support a small population.  The discovery that Amazonian Indians had large populations in the past was resisted for a time because it is believed that this could give the green light to even more intensive colonization of the Amazon. But colonization has been destructive because it is based on agricultural practiced completely unsuited to the rainforest.

The sustainable practices used by the Indians, conscientiously applied, could support millions of people sustainably and without destroying biodiversity — but the greater the population, the more conscientiously the practices must be followed.

Indigenous wisdom remains vital to our world.  It is a living part of the human cultural wealth and can help to guide humanity in re-aligning its way of living with the world.

Image: Rain, River, Forest, a Camp, by Morgan Maher


  1. Kenneth Richard says

    Well, on the one hand, the European explorers claim to have seen cities in the interior, and to have witnessed a community of houses stretching some 17 miles, along the Amazon River. So, how is one to believe that disease had wiped these populations out, before Europeans had arrived?

  2. >>how is one to believe that disease had wiped these populations out, before Europeans had arrived?

    It didn’t wipe them out before the Europeans arrived, but before the Europeans returned. Orellana passed, saw the big cities, then no Europeans returned for hundreds of years, in that time span, the diseases (that had jumped from community to community) wiped out the population.

    This is not unheard off, a few decades after initial contact the diseases where travelling without Spanish intervention. In many cases the Spanish would arrive somewhere years, even decades after the European epidemics had decimated the population.

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