Athens on the Amazon

Athens on the Amazon

Historians now think the Amazon was once the site of an ancient civilization that flourished before the conquistadors arrived.

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The source: “Virginity Lost” by Fred Pearce, in Conservation, Jan.–March 2007.

Few environmental causes have attracted more passionate support than efforts to save the vast Amazon rainforest from devel­opment and deforestation. New research, however, suggests that the image of a primeval virgin Amazon is a modern myth. “Rather than wilderness,” writes Fred Pearce, a British freelance writer and the author of Deep Jungle (2005), the Amazon’s tropical rainforests are partly natural and partly “aban­doned gardens.”

In all probability, Pearce writes, “the Amazon was dotted with urban centers and crisscrossed with networks of causeways and irri­gation canals at the same time [that] the Greek empire flourished in Europe.”

The evidence for an urban and suburban Amazon basin began to pile up in the 1980s, when an American oil prospector exploring the grassy lowlands of the Bolivian Amazon in a truck wondered why he was bouncing over corrugated terrain. Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania subse­quently found tens of thousands of kilometers of raised banks across the Bolivian Amazon that he believes were created by humans. A horizontal equivalent of the vertical terraces of the ancient Near East, the corrugated ridges nourished plants and the depressions held water for irrigation. Erickson also discovered a 500-­kilometer-­square area of ponds and weirs used for fish farming. Archaeologist Anna Roosevelt of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago uncov­ered evidence in Ilha do Marajó, at the mouth of the Amazon, of ­thous­and-­year-­old roads, drainage net­works, and small cities of as many as 100,000 people. Further inland, Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida, Gainesville, discovered that the floor of one of the deepest, darkest areas of contin­uous tropical rainforest has not always been forest floor. Most of the supposedly virgin forest was cleared at least once, and perhaps several times, by the Xinguano people for ­farming—­a millennium ­ago.

The early conquistadors found urban societies when they first traveled up the Amazon, but the local civilizations seem to have collapsed shortly after the first contact with Europeans, perhaps destroyed by disease. Francisco de Orellana described a town at the entrance to the Rio Negro in 1542 “that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house.” But knowledge of these cultures seems to have faded as survivors fled into the forests, and farmers, metal­workers, priests, and scholars became hunters and ­gatherers.

“The strange truth is that, by inadvertently wiping out the Indian populations, it was the Europeans who created the modern Amazon rainforest,” ­Pearce writes.

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