The Amazon and its peoples

The history of the Amazon is a history of Ideas – from the 16th century to today, scholars have debated what exactly the Amazon as Pristine or Anthropogenic really means. Von Humboldt in the 1800’s espoused concepts of pristine and romantic forests, where the Indians of the Amazon themselves were lumped in with the beasts of the forest. His view, among others, was responding to the Industrial Revolution while also seeking out in the Amazon goods and resources by which to fuel industrialization.  By categorizing Indian lands as pristine and untouched,  Humboldt and later early 20th-century geographers could legitimate robbing the Amazon of its soul.  The influences of Romanticism can readily be seen in the early chronicles of the region.

Modern scholars, however, view the Amazon as an anthropogenic forest,  where the woods and trees are artifacts of thousands of years of human-generated impact.  Beyond simplistic notions of human generated impacts to the environment, it is likely that forests were actively managed for specific plant species.  Ethnohistoric sources tell us the Amazon was full of roads and cities at the time of first contact. Francisco de Orellana sailed down the Amazon in 1541 looking for El Dorado, failing, but finding in its stead a forest of ridiculous biodiversity populated by healthy and organized Indians. Sometimes criticized as exaggerated,  Orellans account was not corroborated by later explorers in the 18th century.  However,  much as how highly complex Lower Mississippi Valley groups were defragmented by De Soto in 1540,  so too were Amazonians devastated by the Orellan’s egress down river.

Betty Jo Meggers brought the Amazon into anthropological awareness  with the publication of her novel, Counterfeit Paradise, the book predicated upon the notion that the Amazon could only support only small -scale swidden agriculturalists.  This treatise in cultural ecology placed the environment as the limiting factor in the progression/evolution (for lack of better worlds, ugh) of indigenous societies. Bringing the Amazon into a brighter light, unfortunately for the Amazon, was the massive deforestation of the Brazilian rain forests perpetuated by the Brazilian government. In the empty spaces of fallen trees, incredibly large, geometric excavated and mounded geoglyphs were discovered by geographer Hansi.  The span of the ditches and embankments making these geoglyphs can be as wide as 11 meters – they were sometimes excavated as deep as 5 meters, and were often made in the shape of squares, ovals, and rectangles.  Dated to approximately 2000 BP to 750 BP,  these glyphs mark an Amazon as anthropogenic, and not limiting nor pristine.

 

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