Pre-Columbian Amazon tribes lived in sustainable "garden cities"
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
August 28, 2008
Conducting archeological excavations and aerial imagery across a number of sites in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon, a team of researchers led by Michael Heckenberger found evidence of a grid-like pattern of 150-acre towns and smaller villages, connected by complex road networks and arranged around large plazas where public rituals would take place. The authors argue that the discoveries indicate parts of the Amazon supported "urban" societies based around agriculture, forest management, and fish farming. Heckenberger and colleagues write that the structure of settlement is similar to that found in other forest regions, rather than the centralized metropolises of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
A comtemporary Kuikuro village in the Amazon rainforest. Image © Science/AAAS
Kayapó shaman. The Kayapó are a Xinguano tribe that lives in the region.
"These are not cities, but this is urbanism, built around towns," Heckenberger said. "They have quite remarkable planning and self-organization, more so than many classical examples of what people would call urbanism."
Lessons for current land use in the Amazon
The authors suggest that ancient Amazonian societies may provide insight for modern day efforts to sustainably use the region, which is fast being cleared for industrial soy farms and cattle ranches. For example, instead of extensive monocultures which are sensitive to inclement conditions and are at constant risk from pests, a wiser land use might be modeled on the "garden cities" of indigenous Amazonians, where a resilient mix of agroforestry and aquaculture maintain and even enhance biological diversity, while providing nourishment to local populations.
A modern Kuikuro dam, used to help funnel fish (the Kuikuro's primary source of protein) into submerged fish weirs. Afukaka Kuikuro, one of the authors of the paper, is a member of the Kuikuro, the indigenous Amazonian people who are the descendants of the subject settlements' original inhabitants. Image © Science/AAAS
"The recognition of complex social formations, such as those of the Upper Xingu, emphasizes the need to recognize the histories, cultural rights, and concerns of indigenous peoples—the original architects and contemporary stewards of these anthropogenic landscapes—in discussions of Amazonian futures."
Heckenberger and his colleagues first announced the discovery of the settlements in a paper published in Science in 2003. The research contributed to a lively debate over the pre-Colombian human population density in the Amazon. While most experts believe most settlement of Amazonia was limited to the river banks of major rivers and that the bulk of region was sparely populated, some have argued that the rainforest may have supported far higher populations than previously imagined.
Regardless of the controversy, it is increasingly clear that at least some parts of the Amazon supported sizeable and sedentary societies of great complexity. These societies produced pottery, cleared sections of rainforest for agriculture, and managed forests to optimize the distribution of useful species.
[left] Southern (Kuhikugu) cluster (hatched lines are projected from mapped village earthworks); [right] Northern (Ipaste) cluster sites. Global Positioning System (GPS)-mapped earthworks are denoted by red lines for road and plaza berms and black lines for ditches in (B) and (C). Pronounced anthropogenic "scarring" is found around areas of prehistoric sites. Images © Science/AAAS
Michael J. Heckenberger et al (2008). Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon. SCIENCE 29 AUGUST 2008 VOL 321
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