The myth of the “untouched” Amazon

Whether we read the racist rants of Rush Limbaugh, or the concerned exhortations of Survival International, we get the impression (intentionally or not) of “uncontacted tribes” as a kind of living museum of our collective human past.

This view is based on a very nineteenth century vision of unilinear social evolution, in which human beings gradually progress from the most primitive state of hunter-gatherers, up through simple agricultural societies, on to early kingdoms, and cumulate in the wonder that is modern Western democracy.

The problem with this view is that it overlooks important exceptions in the archaeological record. There we find a different story, where complex societies can occasionally move in the other direction. I don’t know the current state of research which first made a splash in 2003, but then there was a spate of news coverage about the “Lost cities of the Amazon” discovered by Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida and his colleagues:

Heckenberger’s team has found 19 settlements to date, at least four of which were major residential centers. The settlements were built around large, circular plazas, with roads leading out from them at specific angles, repeated from one plaza to the next.

Heckenberger, who collaborated with two Kuikuro chiefs on the Science study, believes the engineered features of the landscape all involved elements of the Kuikuro’s understanding of the entire cosmos. Road directions and the orientations of other structures are keyed to the directions of the sun and stars, for example. Today, the Kuikuro continue this sort of “ethnocartography,” as Heckenberger calls it.

Roads in the ancient settlements were up to 165 feet (50 meters) wide, the width of a modern-day four-lane highway, and flanked by large curbs. The researchers report that the roads linked settlements, every two to three miles (three to five kilometers), along an extensive grid. This kind of planning would have required the relatively sophisticated ability to reproduce angles over large distances, according to Heckenberger.

Where the villages converged on wetlands, the researchers discovered the remains of ancient bridges, moats and canals. The Kuikuro still use many such structures today.

The entire area in between settlements was carefully engineered and managed, according to the researchers. It was likely either cultivated, or maintained as a sort of parkland — a managed area, rather than wild or pristine forest. Satellite images reveal that the vegetation now growing in these areas looks quite different from older forest.

This suggests that today’s hunter-gatherers might be descended from the builders of four-lane highways, bridges, moats and canals….

Read the article in Science.

More news stories.

Earlier on Savage Minds

3 thoughts on “The myth of the “untouched” Amazon

  1. Yes, the fact that cultural change goes in many directions (often at the same time) is one problem for this kind of perspective. But there are many other problems in the whole notion of “uncontacted tribes.” Including the fact that groups do have contacts with one another (even if they never had contacts with “us”). And the fact that some of the most important aspects of culture have very little to do with technological development.

    A personal, knee-jerk reaction:
    I must admit, I have a very hard time understanding a piece such as this one:
    I’m just very surprised that someone could write something like this in 21st Century UK. It looked like a spoof. Is Daily Mail the UK equivalent of The Onion?
    Though I don’t usually like being snarky, I felt compelled to tease the article’s author about his writing. I guess I should chastise myself. But I’m not Christian.

  2. The daily mail isn’t a spoof, but it is a pretty odious tabloid that spends a lot of time bashing immigrants. This kind of carry-on from them is not in the least suprising.

  3. I don’t know if you’ve read 1491 by Charles Mann, but it’s an excellent book. He talks at length about both the specific example of the Amazon being a “new” forest and of various theories as to why societies might “regress” to hunter gatherer cultures.

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