Saturday, August 30

Virgin Amazon Partly Manmade

The Amazon was apparently clear-cut in the 13th century to build densely packed towns, villages, and hamlets far more organized than medieval Europe.

An anthropologist has uncovered dozens of organized, densely packed towns, villages and hamlets dating to the 13th -16th centuries hidden in the Brazilian Amazon. After 15 years of mapping it all out, Heckenberger and his international colleagues report their findings in the journal Science this week.

They found that vast swathes of apparently "pristine" rain forest had been cleared for elaborate settlements across an area the size of New Jersey prior to the arrival of European colonists.

The repeated patterns within and among settlements across the landscape suggest a more highly ordered society than contemporary medieval towns in Europe. There was clear evidence of a sophisticated man-made landscape.

The planned structure of the settlements showed regional planning and political organization only found in urban societies: Heckenberger noted that while rural landscapes that grew up in medieval European settlements were randomly oriented, by contrast, here things were all oriented at the same angles and distances across the entire 8,000 square mile landscape.

Larger towns, placed at cardinal points from the central seat of power, were walled much like a medieval town. Between the settlements was a patchwork of agricultural fields for crops such as manioc along with dams and ponds likely used for fish farms. The whole landscape is gridded off like latticework.

Each town had its own central plaza and was protected by an earthen wall. They were surrounded by smaller, non-walled residential hamlets. The towns, villages and hamlets were interlinked by roads, the largest of which followed the direction of the sun at the mid-year solstice.

These indigenous peoples from the Amazon had little stone close at hand. They built with earth and, after they were wiped out, the forest reclaimed the land, leaving little trace.

The World Without Us imagines what will happen to remains of our own structures after we are gone. This gives us an example of that concept.

The discovery forces a rethink of the long-held assumption that these parts of the Amazon were virtually untouched before colonization. Similarly, research published in January found that what has long been thought of as the "original" New England landscape had in fact created by British settlers in the 17th century.

So, the virgin Amazon rain-forest... it's partly man-made.

From National Geographic
Contemporaneous portrayal of comparatively chaotic European village life by Pieter Brueghel The Elder

For Matter Network