Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

by Dave

The University of Chicago Magazine: Features

The Amazon of the Western imagination, they say, is a place hardly touched by history or humanity. For colonists and entrepreneurs of various centuries it was both useful and profitable to see the forests as wilderness and to overlook the people who lived or had lived in them. The idea of pure and untrammeled nature has also served a more spiritual purpose, preserving the image of an unfallen world, untainted by war, industrialism, and other afflictions of civilization. To some an empty land ripe for exploitation, to others a lost Eden, the Amazon has seemed a forest out of time, inhabited, if at all, by Stone Age tribes living in harmony with nature, greeting helicopters with volleys of poison-tipped arrows.

Michael Heckenberger understands the myth’s attraction. An anthropologist from the University of Florida, he has studied indigenous people who live in the forests of the upper Xingu River, in southern Brazil. Here, in what was once among the least accessible regions of the Amazon, a large reserve has been set aside for the use of native tribes. In recent years, mile-wide soybean fields have been encroaching upon the forest. Entering the reserve from the kingdom of soybeans could not be more startling.

“It’s like driving through the gates of Jurassic Park,” Heckenberger said. “You feel like you’re going back into time into some primordial landscape.” A 2007 National Geographic article, “Last of the Amazon,” records a similar reaction. Recounting a trip to the upper Xingu, writer Scott Wallace describes his visit to “the very core of an ancient primeval forest” and “the green cathedral that towered above us.”

Heckenberger and others call such impressions misleading. The forests are not nearly as ancient or primeval as they seem. In fact, before Europeans arrived at the New World’s doorstep, bringing disease and destruction, the Amazon was well settled: “There ain’t no part of it,” he said with folksy emphasis, “that wasn’t touched by human hands in one form or another.”

Heckenberger began studying the people of the upper Xingu almost two decades ago. He first visited the region in 1993, when he spent a year living in a Kuikuro village. (He was eventually adopted into the tribe.) As an anthropologist he wanted to experience life in a non-Western culture. He also wanted to investigate the extent of the demographic collapse that struck the Amazon after 1492. Historical records and archaeological evidence had demonstrated massive depopulation along the river’s major tributaries. He hoped to determine if the same thing had happened in more remote parts of the basin.

What he found in the forest were the remains of a much larger and more complex society than he had expected. With the help of the Kuikuro people, a remnant of those pre-Columbians, he has mapped the outlines of a “hyper-self-organized society” that inhabited the upper Xingu as far back as 800 ad. These tribes lived mainly by fishing and growing manioc, a staple in the tropics whose starchy root is boiled, fried, and pounded into the flour known as tapioca. They built walled settlements, fish weirs, canals, bridges, raised causeways, and an elaborate system of paths across the landscape. Heckenberger and his colleagues have found 19 different settlements, organized in two clusters, in a region the size of Belgium. These settlements, he argues, were not isolated communities but rather components of regional polities that rivaled the cities of ancient Greece in extent, population, and political and social organization. And their inhabitants carefully engineered and tended the countryside around them, creating a mosaic of fields, trees, and waterways. Although smallpox and other diseases probably decimated the population in the years after European contact, their ancestors still used some of the ancient earthworks. “Not only is no part of this forest natural,” Heckenberger said, “but no part of this forest is not planned, either.”

Researchers studying other parts of the Amazon have reached similar conclusions. Far to the northwest, on a flat plain beneath the Andes, Clark Erickson and colleagues have documented even more extensive land use. In northeastern Bolivia they have mapped ancient, abandoned, raised fields and other earthworks on the savanna that covers much of the Department of the Beni. They have found an estimated 1,000 settlement mounds, along with causeways, canals, forest islands, fish weirs, reservoirs, and ditches—a whole regional hydrologic system, Erickson said. They also have found mounds up to 80 kilometers away, “in what everyone assumed was pristine forest that has never been touched.”

Erickson, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ancient inhabitants of the Beni, as in much of the Amazon, were canoe-faring people who could travel and transport goods over long distances using canals and rivers as their highways. They built the earthworks as far back as 3,000 years ago, using them on and off until just before Columbus’s arrival.

Such findings have transformed how scholars read the history of the Amazon. In the middle of the last century, Erickson said, they saw the past as “relatively flat and shallow,” with little cultural variation. That view began to change in the 1970s. Archaeologists confirmed the reports of early European travelers that large populations once lived in the Amazonian bottomland and along its tributaries. The discovery of “dark earths”—plots of highly fertile soil—attested not only to long periods of intensive cultivation in the region but also to the skill and ingenuity with which early inhabitants improved the soil.

Archaeological and historical evidence now show that the humans who shaped the land were not the “one-size fits all Amazonian Indian” of the popular imagination, Heckenberger said. “There were indeed small-scale groups, probably very similar to some of the ones we know today. There were also some very large groups that covered very large regions and that were integrated across large regions. Combined, you had a network of societies across the Amazon.”

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