Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lost Cities of the Amazon

The Amazon tropical forest is not as wild as it looks

When Brazil established the Xingu Indigenous Park in 1961, the reserve was far from modern civilization, nestled deep in the southern reaches of the vast Amazon forest. When I first went to live with the Kuikuro, one of the reserve’s principal indigenous groups, in 1992, the park’s boundaries were still largely hidden in thick forest, little more than lines on a map. Today the park is surrounded by a patchwork of farmland, its borders often marked by a wall of trees. For many outsiders, this towering green threshold is a portal, like the massive gates of Jurassic Park, between the present—the dynamic modern world of soy fields, irrigation systems and 18-wheelers—and the past, a timeless world of primordial nature and society.

Long before taking center stage in the world’s environmental crisis as the giant green jewel of global ecology, the Amazon held a special place in the Western imagination. Mere mention of its name conjures images of dripping, vegetationchoked jungles; cryptic, colorful and often dangerous wildlife; endlessly convoluted river networks; and Stone Age tribes. To Westerners, Amazonian peoples are quintessential simple societies, small groups that merely make do with what nature provides. They have complex knowledge about the natural world but lack the hallmarks of civilization: centralized government, urban settlements and economic production beyond subsistence. In 1690 John Locke famously proclaimed, “In the beginning all the World was America.” More than three centuries later the Amazon still grips the popular imagination as nature at its purest, home to native peoples who, in the words of Rolling Stone editor Sean Woods in October 2007, preserve “a way of life unchanged since the dawn of time.”

Looks can be deceiving. Hidden under the forest canopy are the remnants of a complex pre-Columbian society. Working with the Kuikuro, I have excavated a network of ancestral towns, villages and roads that once supported a population perhaps 20 times its present size. Huge swaths of forest have grown over the ancient settlements, gardens, fields and orchards, which fell into disuse when epidemics brought by European explorers and colonists decimated the native peoples. The region’s rich biodiversity reflects past human intervention. By developing a mix of land uses, soil-enrichment techniques and long crop rotation cycles, the ancestors of the Kuikuro thrived in the Amazon despite its infertile natural soils. Their accomplishments could inform efforts to reconcile the environmental and development goals of this region and other parts of the Amazon.

To most people, the Amazon forest is the quintessential case of pure nature slowly being destroyed as humans intrude. In fact, what seems pristine has itself been shaped by humans. In some areas the forest is secondary growth that took hold when native peoples were wiped out by their encounters with Europeans. The author and his colleagues have found extensive pre-Columbian ruins. Communities had a self-similar or fractal structure in which houses, settlements and clusters of settlements were organized in similar ways. Thus, the history of the Amazon is rather more interesting than usually thought. The environmental challenge is not only to preserve unspoiled wilderness but also to recover the techniques of sustainable farming and forestry that the ancestors of the region’s present inhabitants developed.

Source of Information : Scientific American October 2009

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