Skip to comments.Bird's-Eye View Of The Amazon (Airborne Archaeologist Challenges The Myth Of A Pristine Wilderness)
Posted on 05/30/2004 5:31:44 PM PDT by blam
Birds-Eye View of the Amazon Airborne Archaeologist Challenges the Myth of a Pristine Wilderness
by Ted Mann
In the office of a typical archaeologist, you would expect to find things like stone tools, pottery fragments, and maybe even a few Wooly Mammoth bones. But Clark Erickson is no typical archaeologist. Oversize rolls of aerial photographs are stacked into tubular pyramids on a desk and worktable in his University Museum office. They fill up file cabinets and populate a storage room. At last count, he had about 700 giant aerial and satellite imagesalmost all of them picturing some region of the Amazon.
He rolls out a 1958 U.S. Air Force photo of a Bolivian savannah. Even with the vast acreage blown up to movie-poster size, the details are as impenetrable as braille to the sighted. See that, he says, pointing to a line running across the landscape. Anything thats straightits not natural. With a finger, he traces a symmetrical block of toothpick shapes. These are raised fields. See, you can pick out the linear patterns. With Ericksons narration, more and more geometric designs pop off the glossy printsettlement mounds, fish weirs, irrigation canals, roads. The photo begins to look like a prehistoric engineering blueprint. Unlike most archaeologists, Erickson doesnt begin his research in excavated holes; he starts in the sky, reading the landscape for markers of vanished civilizations.
For the past decade, Erickson has used aerial imagesborrowed from the military, scientists, and even oil companiesto guide his fieldwork. What hes discovered about the prehistoric Amazon challenges many textbook teachings. Before Columbus, he argues, the area was heavily populated and agriculturally advanced. His work has led to a surprising supposition: Humans may have engineered nearly every aspect of the Amazon landscape.
As an undergraduate, Erickson wasted no time becoming an archaeologist. He was part of an excavation on the first day of freshman-year classes and then spent two summers at digs on Lake Titicaca in South America. The biggest discovery of his young career came at the endin the rear-view mirror of a beat-up Volkswagen bus. The team was departing on a five-hour drive back to civilization. On an unpaved, uninhabited stretch of road, cresting over a ridge, Erickson stole one last glance at the diminishing lakebed. Through the cracked windows, he couldnt believe what he saw: an unnatural crosshatch pattern. It covered several square miles, and it seemed to be human-made.
In this part of the Amazon, farming is difficult. The soil spends half the year scorched in desert heat and the other half inundated with rain. For this reason, say scholars, the region is incapable of sustaining large civilizations. Erickson believes the raised fields he glimpsed through the back window of his microbus were a solution hit upon by an ancient people. The system of mounds and canals provided irrigation in the dry season and drained the soil during floods. Ten years before, geographer William Denevan had written about the fields, but by the 1970s, when Erickson was there, no archaeologist had studied them. No one knew the age of the structures, who built them, or if they even worked.
By the time Erickson earned a Ph.D., he was itching to return. But as he hiked the dirt roads in search of the earthen structures hed glimpsed before, the ancient fields seemed to have disappeared. From that point on, he says, I vowed never to set foot on the landscape without having studied aerial photographs first. Now he rents a $300-an- hour Cessna, and a team of three students helps him photograph the sites from every angle.
With aerial images, Erickson rediscovered the missing raised fields, and he immediately began analyzing them. Subsequent digs proved that the mounded fields date back to about 100 B.C. and may have been cultivated until A.D. 1100. The dimensions of the rectangular plots were astounding: Each row rose three feet high, measured up to 30 feet wide, and stretched 1,300 feet long. Between the rows were canals, also 30 feet wide and three feet deep.
As much as he learned about the fields, he kept coming back to one nagging question: Were they productive? To answer this, he tried a little experimental archaeology recreating ancient tools and methods in order to better understand how the raised fields worked. With help from colleagues and local farmers, he built a field from scratch and worked it year-round. We found that productivity was three to four times traditional practices like slash-and-burn, he reports.
The more time Erickson spent in South America, the more he kept running into, and collaborating with, a group of sympathetic researchers, including Denevan and anthropologist William Balée. Together, the three men challenged conventional thinking about the Amazon. To begin with, they dismissed the pristine myth that the Americas before Columbus were an untouched Eden. Denevan countered that, in fact, much of the Amazon is anthropogenichuman madeand the sheer number of engineered earthworks and their size, he concluded, would have required a massive workforce.
Looking at an aerial photo of the Baures region of Bolivia, Ericksons index finger dances between dark polka dots covering bare earth. These, he notes, are forest islands and mounds that can rise 60 feet above the savanna. Causeways radiate from them like spokes on a wheel. Erickson and Balée have shown that the mounds were once settlements, housing between 500 and 1,000 inhabitants. Beneath the canopies of the island forests, the two men discovered pottery, bones, and orchards of fruit trees. The dozens of raised causeways, however, still leave Erickson scratching his head. Most are straight as a ruler, stretching from mound to mound. It looks like everyone in the society had their own road and used it once!
For all the evidence that Erickson and his colleagues have offered, there is still resistance to the idea of a once populous Amazon. Old-school anthropol-ogists, like the Smithsonians Betty Meggers, hold that the regions aluminum-rich soil couldnt have supported the agricultural base a large civilization needs to thrive. Environmentalists push the pristine myth and, Erickson fears, often see his work as some excuse that were giving developers to go and rape the Amazon. Even natural scientists abhor the new anthropocentric view of the Amazon. When I give talks at the Field Museum in Chicago, there is always a bunch of them literally yelling at me. Meggers went so far as to claim, in the journal Latin American Antiquity, that the myth of El Dorado is being revived by archaeologists.
In an ironic twist, the lost gold of El Dorado may turn out to be that oft maligned soil. In the 1990s, geologists began examining Amazonian earth, and though much was inhospitable, large swaths turned out to be fertile. Called Amazonian Dark Earth, or terra preta by locals, this near-black soil has amazing properties. Dark Earth retains its nutrients during tropical rains, while other soil is leeched, and like potting soil, it is far more productive for growing crops. The trait that makes it so exceptional, and enigmatic, is its ability to regenerate. Locals quarry and farm the rich soil, and their supply always grows back. Dark Earth re-creates itself atop a base layer and growsjust like a living organism.
Scientists are still analyzing the biology, but Erickson believes the Amazon Indians enriched their earth with a microorganism, one that resisted depletion and helped fertilize. If better understood, this process of inoculating poor soil with a bacterial booster could aid parts of the undeveloped world starved for agriculture. Recently, geographers estimated that the creators of this ancient technology managed to terraform at least 10 percent of Amazoniaan area the size of France. Along with the raised fields, fish weirs, causeways, and other anthropogenic features, Dark Earth may in fact be one of countless footprints left by a lost civilization. Indeed, if Erickson is right, the Amazon could be humankinds largest engineering relic.
Ted Mann, C00, wrote for the winter issue.
Kudos to Erickson. ("It does move!" BUMP)
Thanks, blam. Another good post.
Seems environmentalism is shown again to be only about prohibiting private property.
Wrong. Its books and computers now. I have three computers and have long since covered the two windows with extra book cases. (Didn't like that view anyway.)
And I have a private office upstairs with 48 feet of additional bookshelf (all full) and another computer.
Something has happened for man and his culture disappear from there.
What and why?
I propose we're not advancing but rather digressing.
Perhaps entropy was the wrong word ... how about 2nd Law of thermodynamics.
A few years ago, I saw a NG special on this area (described in this article) and one archaeologist said that it would have taken a population of 50 million to do all that work.
Recently had to read "A River Ran Wild" for a children's lit class. Found it very biased in that it makes it seem that the indigenous peoples did very little to the land. Hopefully, more such research can help put the story straight.
The strange productiveness might be related to fish emulsion.
A nastier smelling product I can't imagine but it makes plants grow.
"Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thoughtan altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.
What happened was tuberculosis, influenza and measles.
These diseases, inadvertently introduced into the Americas by the newly arrived Europeans, spread like wildfire through the indigenous populations.
Literally millions died, 99% of whom never met a European or even knew of their existence. There is little doubt that this is what happened in the Amazon.
There have been a number of past posts on this subject here on FR. After I do a bit of research, I'll post the links if I can find them.
We progress and antigress at the same time.