Amazon Archaeologists Say 20 Million People May Have Lived in the Region

By Juan Forero
     Sept. 6 (Washington Post) -- SAN MARTIN DE SAMIRIA, PERU -
To the untrained eye, all evidence here in the heart of the
Amazon signals virgin forest, untouched by man for time
immemorial - from the ubiquitous fruit palms to the cry of howler
monkeys, from the air thick with mosquitoes to the unruly tangle
of jungle vines.
     Archaeologists, many of them Americans, say the opposite is
true: This patch of forest, and many others across the Amazon,
was instead home to an advanced, even spectacular civilization
that managed the forest and enriched infertile soil to feed
     The findings are discrediting a once-bedrock theory of
archaeology that long held that the Amazon, unlike much of the
Americas, was a historical black hole, its environment too
hostile and its earth too poor to have ever sustained big,
sedentary societies. Only small and primitive hunter-gatherer
tribes, the assumption went, could ever have eked out a living in
an unforgiving environment.
     But scientists now think that instead of stone-age tribes,
like the groups that occasionally emerge from the forest today,
the Indians who inhabited the Amazon centuries ago numbered as
many as 20 million, far more people than live here today.
     "There is a gigantic footprint in the forest," said Augusto
Oyuela-Caycedo, 49, a Colombian-born professor at the University
of Florida who is working this swath in northeast Peru.
     Stooping over a man-made Indian mound on a recent day, he
picked up shards of ceramics and dark, nutrient-rich earth made
fertile hundreds of years ago by human hands. "All you can see is
an artifact of the past," he said. "It's a product of human
actions," he said.
     The evidence is not just here outside tiny San Martin de
Samiria, an indigenous hamlet hours by speed boat from the jungle
city of Iquitos. It is found across Amazonia.
     Outside Manaus, Brazil, Eduardo Neves, a renowned Brazilian
archaeologist, and American scientists have found huge swaths of
"terra preta," so-called Indian dark earth, land made fertile by
mixing charcoal, human waste and other organic matter with soil.
In 15 years of work they have also found vast orchards of
semi-domesticated fruit trees, though they appear like forest
untrammeled by man.
     Along the Xingu, an Amazon tributary in Brazil, Michael
Heckenberger of the University of Florida has found moats,
causeways, canals, the networks of a stratified civilization
that, he says, existed as early as A.D. 800. In Bolivia,
American, German and Finnish archaeologists have been studying
how pre-Columbian Indians moved tons of soil and diverted rivers,
major projects of a society that existed long before the birth of
     Many of these ongoing excavations follow the work of Anna C.
Roosevelt. In the 1980s on Marajo Island, at the mouth of the
Amazon, she turned up house foundations, elaborate pottery and
evidence of an agriculture so advanced she believes the society
there possibly had well over 100,000 inhabitants.
     Her initial conclusions, published in 1991, helped redirect
scientific thinking about Amazonia, with younger archaeologists
who followed buttressing and building upon her findings.
     "I think we're humanizing the history of the Amazon," said
Neves, 44, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "We're not
looking at the Amazon anymore as a black box. We're seeing that
these people were just like anywhere else in the world. We're
giving them a sense of history."
     The number of scientists who disagree has diminished, but
influential critics remain, none more so than Betty J. Meggers,
director of Latin American archaeology at the Smithsonian
Institution. She said the new theories are based more on wishful
thinking than science.
     "I'm sorry to say that archaeologists like to produce
sensational refutation of previous theories," said Meggers, whose
1971 book, "Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise,"
holds that the region is unfit for large-scale habitation. "You
know, this is how you get your promotions."
     There is also concern among some that the new theories could
pose a danger to the Amazon. If the forest were not as unspoiled
as previously thought, they wonder, then wouldn't that serve as a
green light to developers today?
     "Just because the indigenous had complex societies that
managed the forest can't justify the large-scale transformations
in the Amazon today," said Zach Hurwitz, a geographer who
consults International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif.-based
environmental group that has raised concerns about dam building
projects and mineral exploration.
     In some ways, the theory that the Amazon may have been a
wellspring of civilization should come as no surprise in the 21st
century. In a long perilous journey along Ecuador's Napo River in
1541, Spanish friar Gaspar de Carvajal, a chronicler of the
European conquest, wrote of "cities that gleamed white," canoes
that carried dozens of Indian warriors, "fine highways" and "very
fruitful land."
     But until recently, scientists and explorers had all but
rejected his work as fantastical, the diaries of a man who would
write anything to justify to investors back in Spain that the
hunt for El Dorado would bear fruit.
     In sharp contrast, explorers in the 20th century noted that
the Amazon held no pyramids or stone aqueducts, like those of
Mexico. And the people they encountered belonged to small bands -
Amazonian Indians who appeared to be little more than human
relics forgotten by time.
     Roosevelt, a professor of anthropology at the University of
Illinois, said that was because the civilizations encountered by
Europeans quickly disintegrated, victims of disease.
     But until their demise, she said, their cultures were
anything but primitive. "They have magnitude, they have
complexity," she said. "They are amazing."
     Archaeology in the Amazon is not easy. Few rock formations
meant that any buildings had to rely on wood. Left untended - or
abandoned - they would soon be quickly swallowed by the jungle.
     So those scientists who go today rely on new technologies to
unearth the past, from satellite imagery to ground-penetrating
radar and remote sensors to find ceramics.
     Oyuela-Caycedo, the University of Florida archaeologist, and
Nigel Smith, a geographer and palm tree expert, have yet to use
these tools here, a short boat ride from this town, San Martin de
Samiria. Instead they have been trying to get a feel for the land
beneath their feet.
     On a recent morning, using a soil coring device,
Oyuela-Caycedo extracted a heavy, black dirt in a spot he calls
Salvavidas, or Lifesaver. It was terra preta, black,
nutrient-rich, as good for agriculture as the soil in Iowa.
     "It is the best soil that you can find in the Amazon," said
Oyuela-Caycedo, who wore netting over his face to protect him
from mosquitoes. "You don't find it in natural form."
     Three feet deep here, and stretching nearly 100 acres, this
terra preta could have fed at least 5,000 people. The forests
here were also carefully managed in other ways, Oyuela-Caycedo
believes, with the Indians planting semi-domesticated trees that
bore all manner of fruit, such as macambo, sapote and jungle
     Bits of colorful ceramics - matching that found elsewhere in
the Amazon - seem to show that those who lived here were the
Omaguas, the same people Gaspar de Carvajal encountered nearly
500 years before.
     There is no doubt, Oyuela-Caycedo said, that the Omaguas
faced hardship: insects, poisonous snakes, poor soil. But their
environment had vast potential, he said, and the Omaguas
exploited it before their civilization was brought to heel by
     "The only thing they had to do was to change and transform
the landscape," Oyuela-Caycedo said. "And that is what they did."
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