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Ancient Amazon Contained Urban Landscapes, Provides Lessons for Sustainable Development
A modern Kuikuro dam, used to help funnel fish (the Kuikuro's primary source of protein) into submerged fish weirs.
[Image © Science/AAAS]
The Amazon River basin was a very different place before the arrival of European colonists in 1492, characterized by densely populated urban landscapes, researchers report in the latest issue of Science. They describe an Amazonian history that is quite different from most modern perceptions of the indigenous people who once inhabited the world's largest rainforest.
Using a combination of archaeological techniques, including remote sensing and active excavation of sites, Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida and colleagues paint a vivid picture of the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon, prior to European contact. Their findings act as new pieces to a complex archaeological puzzle, and also provide important lessons for us in the development of the Amazon River basin today.
According to the Social Science Encyclopedia, quoted in Heckenberger's report, early urban societies such as those of the Upper Xingu region described by the researchers, are distinguished by a "reasonably large and permanent concentration of people within a limited territory... identified with a broad-type of ritual-political centre... " This definition matches the structure of the ancient Amazonian societies as Heckenberger and his team describe them. Their new evidence suggests that the indigenous peoples of the Upper Xingu once lived within a grid-like pattern of towns and villages, connected by complex road networks, and arranged around large community centers, or plazas, where public rituals would take place.
The new data also reveals that the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the dense Amazon Forest created a highly productive culture and landscape centered on agriculture, multi-generational resource management, and extensive wetland management, such as fish farming.
Charred remains of a house that has been burned. [Image © Science/AAAS]
The techniques that the researchers used, and the robust results obtained, lend support to the argument that archaeological studies should move beyond the narrow, typological approaches that are often employed today. In his report, Heckenberger suggests that many contemporary studies tend to lump early urban societies into general categories of cities or states, rather than focusing on the different degrees and kinds of urbanism involved.
In the case of the Upper Xingu, there is little evidence of large singular cities, but instead, land use is more spread out, switching between centralized and sparse settlement patterns. These finding also supports claims that ancient civilizations in forested regions are generally more dispersed than classical "oasis" civilizations, such as those in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Indus River areas.
In this way, the indigenous peoples of the ancient Amazon River basin created a sort of "garden city," designed to promote sustainable urban development, centered on agriculture, resource management, and subtle gradients between urban and rural areas.
These discoveries about the original architects of Amazonian societies are important now, as scientists and community leaders determine the fate of the Amazon River basin, and they may provide important lessons for sustainable development in the region today.
The Heckenberger report is published in the 29 August issue of Science, the journal of AAAS.
28 August 2008