Some weeks ago two events, one of them startling, came together to pin-point the mysterious new conundrum of the Amazon.
The first was the appearance on a busy riverbank in the Madre de Dios of a few dozen members of a previously-isolated group of Indians. They killed someone who had been trying to help them.
The naked Indians, seen on TV screens around the world, were described by anthropologists as descendants of an unbroken line of hunting and gathering savages, living fossils of our neolithic past.
This is, according to new Amazon thinking, incorrect. These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago.
The other event was an article in The New York Times that reported on the discovery in Acre, only a few hours travel from the Madre de Dios Indians, of extensive, deep straight, or sometimes circular, trenches, ridges and mounds dating back to pre-Columbian times, indicating a large, well-developed society.
This was just the latest evidence that the Amazon, or at least parts of it, was heavily populated by well-organized societies in much the same way as the high Andes were remodelled by the Tiahuanuco, the Chavin, the Chachapoyas, the Huari, and the Incas.
Over the past couple of decades the pre-history of the Americas has been revolutionized, setting off poison-tipped academic and ecological vendettas.
First of all, the Americas were populated much earlier, at least 33-35,000 years ago, double the time previously calculated. That is back to Neanderthal epochs.
Second, there were many more people here when Columbus arrived than was earlier thought. And, most important, the societies and nations of the Americas were much more sophisticated and structured than was previously understood. They were agriculturalists, not the war-whoopers of the movies. Their mode of life and agriculture had massive, long-term effects on the original pre-human forests. Fire was a basic control mechanism.
Today the evidence of genetics, linguistics and archaeology is clear that the Amazon was not just an impenetrable green hell populated by primitive hunters and fishermen eking out an unchanging, culturally marginal existence.
The same applies to North America. Here most of the descriptions of primitive Indians come from 18th and 19th century travelers who were seeing only the sorry leftovers of great nations that had been obliterated by smallpox, viral hepatitis, influenza and other European and African diseases. The Conquest set off the Dark Ages in the Americas.
In the Amazon the same collapse, featuring malaria and yellow fever, was exacerbated by the rubber boom of the late-1800s and early-1900s.
You can check this out in three fine recent books. Two of these are Charles C Mann’s easy-to-read, well-researched 1491 and a sequel, 1493, just out; and in John Hemming’s Tree of Rivers, a masterly description of the Amazon. Hemming, author of the classic The Conquest of the Incas has also written, earlier, three volumes on the peoples of the Amazon.
Charles Mann describes, for instance, how my old friend William Denevan, Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, discovered how the Beni, on the edge of the western Amazon in Bolivia, was a flourishing, well-organized center of islands and causeways on what is today a bleak, sparsely-inhabited combination of dense jungle and flood-plain, inhabited today by sad remnants of Siriono Indians.
Bill worked on the Peruvian Times just before me in the 1960s and his stories on the Beni and similar mounds and trenches around Lake Titicaca in the PT were the first indication of this revolution in South American prehistory.
“Beginning as much as three thousand years ago, this long-ago society,” Mann writes, “created one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet.”
Mann describes the Amazon as one of the world’s half-dozen agricultural heartlands, where plants were domesticated, the epicenters of civilization. Others were the tropical Andes, Central America, the Fertile Crescent, and China.
The Amazon, including the area where the savage Indians appeared the other day, just north and west of the Beni, was the source of yuca, known elsewhere as manioc or cassava, as well as tobacco, peanuts chili pepper, chocolate, Brazilian broad beans, the peach palm, and Brazil nuts.
It was also the homeland of Hevea Brasiliensis, the rubber tree, which was to be, along with steel and oil, one of the three creators of the 20th century version of civilization.
For the Amazon, including the Indians on the banks the other day of the Madre de Dios, rubber became a disaster, just as gold and silver had been for Peru and Mexico. The malaria and yellow fever, imports from Africa, that it helped to spread turned the Amazon and its western tributaries into what Charles Mann calls “depopulated fever valleys.” Slavery did the rest.
The Amazon as a center of civilization has become the subject of a bitter dispute between two magnificent lady academics, the archaeologists Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution and Anna Roosevelt of the University of Illinois.
Hemming mentions the two warring camps on the issue of whether or not there were tribes with sophisticated, stable, large populations: Dr Meggers says that the Amazon basically had only hunters+gatherers; Dr. Roosevelt says that there were big lively societies all over the place.
Here is a message to me the other day from John Hemming and you will find nowhere else a more precise and appropriately colorful description of the state of play today in Amazon studies.
Broadly, I think that Anna (and her acolytes like Michael Heckenberger) are right to say that there were large chiefdoms on some riverbanks of the main Amazon and its tributaries (although there were also very long stretches of uninhabited river). Those chiefdoms were based on the river and its fish and turtle resources.
But I think that the Roosevelt school exaggerates the size and sophistication of their beloved chiefdoms, which they compare to the great civilizations of Peru.
They also exaggerate the extent of human manipulation of forests. Remember that it was very laborious indeed for early man to fell trees (other than palms) with their stone axes. And they had no need or desire to do so: they were very happy in pristine forests full of game. Planting the trees they liked near their villages was merely rearranging the deckchairs. It did not alter the Amazon landscape.
Meggers is right about the inability of Amazon terra-firma forest to support villages of more than a thousand people maximum – the surrounding game is exhausted otherwise, and the soils under mature forests are too weak to sustain large-scale farming. So, away from the rivers, early tribes were not much larger than their modern descendants at the time of first contact and before being hit by imported disease.
For many years, John was Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and we can all understand what he means by “rearranging the deckchairs.”
But not everyone agrees. Charles Mann in his just-published 1493, calls the Amazon “the world’s richest garden,” quoting archeobiologists and looking at parts of the Amazon today that are carefully-distributed and well-tended collections of trees, plants and fish and game reserves.
Today there are tourists but it can still be a tough place. Near the Acre ruins noted in The New York Times, settlers are still gunned down by big-money ranchers. I remember John telling me of the day in 1961 when he carried the arrow-filled body of his friend Richard Mason back to camp. A decade later, in 1970, I myself was searching the jungles of the Pantiacolla in the Upper Madre de Dios for my friend Robert Nichols, chief reporter of the Peruvian Times of which I was then the editor, who had set out to find Paititi, a version of El Dorado. It transpired that he, and two French companions, had been stoned to death by the Machiguengas.
Unlike John, I am not prejudiced by knowing what I am talking about and I unreservedly plump for the Roosevelt school’s bumptious Amazonian super-civilizations and I am supported by no less than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Their latest movie, due out this year, is The Lost City of Z, where Brad plays Colonel Percy Fawcett, the English explorer, searching in 1925 for El Dorado in the Amazon. Let’s hope that Brad has better luck than Percy, who never returned.
Colonel Percy Fawcett said: “The answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps that of the entire prehistoric world – will be found when the old South American cities are located and opened up to scientific research. These cities exist, and I will prove that they exist.”
Tony Morrison, the wildlife photographer and author, on a recent trip to the Beni:
“Setting out from Trinidad in the Beni we hopped on a 35b bus in the plaza and headed to the great mound at Eviata where the entire village is built above the floodplain. I went there to see the last of the Siriono tribe, as they have a base around the old mission church. What a bedraggled lot they were and the mound is now topped by a huge ENTEL satellite dish — not a bad place to site it as it should be above the annual flood.”
Vera Tulyneva firstname.lastname@example.org . Ms Tulyneva is completing a thesis on “Paititi” at the Universidad Catolica, Lima. Commenting on The New York Times story on ancient remains in the Acre:
“The earth constructions of Acre have been in the news for the past five years. The first one to speak of them was Martti Pärssinen, an historian from Finland who had been working in the region for many years. In fact, they are not “geoglyphs,” i.e. earth figurative drawings of apparent religious/ritual function, but rather utilitarian earthworks, like drainage trenches. Acre, Mojos, Beni, Xingu and many other Amazonic regions are full of them.”
Michael Heckenberger website on Xingu: The Xingu Ethnoarchaeological Project
An article on Acre: Pre-columbian geometric earthworks
and Geometric Earthworks in the Upper Purus
The New York Times: The Nazca Lines of the Acre jungle – Land Carvings Attest to Lost World
Nick Asheshov is a veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur. He was editor of the Peruvian times from 1969 to 1990.
In response to this article, Dr. Jennifer Watling responded: (See her paper on the subject: Watling et al 2017 + SI)
For you to state the following: ‘These Indians are the sad, socially degenerated remnants of nations and tribes that were productive, sophisticated and stable just a few centuries ago’ for me shows a great disrespect and lack of knowledge about indigenous Amazonians and their ancestors, I’m afraid.
Dr. Jennifer Watling
Laboratório de Arqueologia dos Trópicos, Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia,
Laboratório de Micropaleontologia, Instituto de Geosciências,
Universidade de São Paulo