Ancient peoples shaped the Amazon rainforest
We often think of the Amazon rainforest as a vast expanse of nature untouched by humans. But a new study in Science suggests that's not true -- in fact, today's rainforest is shaped by trees that were cultivated by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago.
|The canopy of a forest in French Guiana with Amazonian hyperdominant |
domesticated palm species [Credit: Daniel Sabatier]
The team made the discovery by overlaying data from more than 1,000 forest surveys on a map of more than 3,000 archaeological sites across the Amazon. By comparing forest composition at varying distances from archaeological sites, the analysis generated the first Amazon-wide picture of how pre-Columbian peoples influenced Amazonian biodiversity. The study focused on 85 tree species known to have been domesticated by Amazonian peoples for food, shelter, or other uses over the last several thousand years. The researchers found that throughout the Amazon basin, these species were five times more likely to be common in mature upland forests than non-domesticated species. In some parts of the basin, domesticated species were found to be both more common and more diverse in forests closer to archaeological sites.
"That's even the case for some really remote, mature forests that we'd typically assumed to be pristine and undisturbed," says Pitman.
|Hans ter Steege (right side) is the coordinator of the Amazon Tree Diversity Network |
with local communities in a forest plot [Credit: Hans ter Steege]
The team, made up by hundreds of ecologists and social scientists worldwide, was led by Carolina Levis, a PhD student at Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research and Wagenigen University and Research in the Netherlands. "For many years, ecological studies ignored the influence of pre-Columbian peoples on the forests we see today. We found that a quarter of these domesticated tree species are widely distributed in the basin and dominate large expanses of forest. These species are vital for the livelihood and economy of Amazonian peoples and indicate that the Amazonian flora is in part a surviving heritage of its former inhabitants," says Levis.
The study also pinpointed regions of the Amazon that today concentrate especially high diversities and large populations of domesticated species. Southwestern Amazonia, where large stands of Brazil nut trees remain a foundation of local residents' livelihoods, is one such example. Other regions showed fewer domesticated species, or a weaker relationship between domesticated species and archaeological sites, highlighting the need for more research on the history of Amazonian settlement. The degree to which the recent history of Amazonian settlement has affected the distribution and abundance of domesticated species in the Amazon also remains to be studied.
While the small number of domesticated species used in the study was sufficient to reveal a strong human signal in modern forests, the authors point out that the signal may be even stronger than they documented, since hundreds of other Amazonian tree species were used by pre-Colombian peoples and also deserve study. Untangling the complex interplay of historical, environmental, and ecological factors structuring the 16,000-species Amazonian tree flora remains a focus of the team's work.
"The questions are pressing," says Pitman, "since both types of pre-Columbian heritage -- archaeological sites and the forests that surround them -- are at risk from road-building, mining, and other threats to the Amazon."
Source: Field Museum [March 02, 2017]