This month two contesting papers have been published on the question how pre-Columbian society in the Amazon looked like. One is from Piperno et al. in The Holocene and the other one is from Clement et al. in Proceedings of the Royal Society. Both are putting forward an alternative to the now-abandoned concept of a ‘virgin’ Amazon. Previously, is was believe the Amazon rainforest was a pristine untouched wilderness before European settlers came over. The discovery of so-called ADE (Amazonian Dark Earth), prehistoric geometric ditches and the preposition of certain plant concentrations being a relic of prehistoric management led researchers to the conclusion that the region has actually been relatively densely populated. In 2013, Stéphan Rostain wrote an interesting book on the topic called Islands in the rainforest.
Today, researchers are divided.
Clement et al. explain all archaeological sites as a connected system. Densely populated regions were found along the rivers, which also spread along smaller tributaries and locally in between rivers. They describe the region as a social-ecological mosaic landscape with production systems. The lack of more archaeological evidence in the dense forests is due to its large area and its remoteness, rather than the preposition nobody had lived there. Instead, they state the current findings actually proof these regions might as well be full of undiscovered man-made features.
On the other hand, Piperno et al. is trying to urge for caution in proposing wild hypotheses and stresses that the present archaeological findings are still open for interpretation and rather local, not at all wide-spread. They acknowledge a much higher population number before the arrival of Europeans and also propose large communities along the main rivers, but not much more. The press seemed to pick up more on the paper of Clement et al.
p.s. That same week, the press picked up on related news from the Amazon in genetics. The tribes living in the Amazon for millennia seem to be closely related to Australasian people (Australian and Papuan indigenous people). The discovery of Skoglund et al. is, just as the research of Piperno et al. and Clement et al., breaking with the well-established theories. Until now the roots of native Americans have been believed to come from Eurasians crossing the Bering street during the end of the Ice Age. These wanderers then moved south. The new research shows it might have been a little bit more complex back in the days. Who were / are the Amazonian tribes?