Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Human-environment interactions in pre-Columbian Amazonia: what do we really know about the environment?

Pitman et al. have just published a very interesting paper: “Volume and Geographical Distribution of Ecological Research in the Andes and the Amazon, 1995-2008” on the Open Access Journal - Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 4 (1):64-81, 2011. They have compiled a dataset of all articles based on the Andes and Amazon regions published between 1995 and 2008 in the two most prominent scientific journals of tropical ecology: Biotropica and Journal of Tropical Ecology.

Map of the tropical ecology field work sites (yellow circles) in the Andes and Amazon regions of South America. Pink circles show those areas in the Amazon basin where evidence of pre-Columbian complex societies has been reported: 1) Llanos de Moxos; 2) Upper Xingu River; 3) Marajó island – modified from Pitman et al.

The map shows a desolating reality: almost no field work has been done in the areas where evidence of pre-Columbian cultural complexity has been found! Can you believe that “historical ecologists” and “environmental determinists” have been quarreling for 30 years about the role the environment plays in allowing the formation of complex societies and we still hardly know anything about the environment? Don’t you think it is time archaeologists and anthropologist take geographers and ecologists to the field with them? Till now, the “multidisciplinary” approach has meant the archaeologist gave a sample to a soil scientist to analyze because he/she wanted an answer to a specific question, then the “answer provider” became a co-author. I think we need something different. From my point of view all archaeological excavations should be carried out with a soil scientist and an ecologist. Scientific research needs to be multidisciplinary in all its phases, especially during the fieldwork.


  1. I think this also means the ecologists need to take a long a few archaeologists ;-)

  2. a typical problem of such compilation papers - they are saying about nothing
    the same i try to establisch here in switzerland but it is very difficult for archaeol and geogr and oekol to speak to each other an really people of strong willing of establishing the cooperation are required :-)

  3. Thanks for this post, Umberto. It strikes me as interesting and valuable -- probably valuable enough to merit a paper. I'm imagining a paper that maps the field sites of ca. 200 archaeological studies of the Andes-Amazon region published in 1995–2008, compares them to the ecological field sites, and asks to what degree the two are related (i.e., that does more precisely what you've done in the figure above). I imagine that would confirm your observation of little overlap between ecological and archaeological field sites. And it would make a nice project for a student. If you're interested, I'd be delighted to collaborate.

    In any case, thanks for the stimulating observation.

  4. also note that a highly recommended paper that addresses these topics is available online at

  5. Very interesting Umberto.
    Por curiosidad...el puntito amarillo pegado al Mamoré en la región de los Llanos (1) ¿representa el estudio de Boixadera? (Elisa)

  6. Nigel
    I think you are right, we should do it. Let's discuss more details via email.

    No, the Boixadera's paper has been published on CATENA. Nigel's paper takes into account only Biotropica and Journal of tropical Ecology.
    But I am curious too about the yellow spot on Trinidad :-)

  7. Umberto, Emilio here (one of the coauthors on Nigel's paper - thanks for the commentary). I agree with Maria - a major advantage of having ecologists and archaeologists working in the same place is that it would remind ecologists that there is no such thing as pristine forests untouched by humans, and that understanding their structure and functioning invariably requires understanding the extent and history of human influence. Ultimately, this could really shift the way in which we approach conservation and development in the tropics.

    I wonder if the pattern you observed is driven by differences in the way the disciplines choose field sites, rather than a lack of mutual interest. The choices in which ecologists work might be more infrastructure-driven, while those working on pre-columbian societies go where the ruins are, irrespective of the infrastructure available.

    Regardless, the database also includes papers from other tropical countries, so with a bit of library work the geographic scope of an "overlap" could easily be expanded to include Mesoamerica. Let me know if you are interested in those data and I would be happy to provide them. They were originally used for the following, which is available on the "publications" page pf

    Stocks, G., L. Seales, E. Maehr, F. Paniagua, and E. M. Bruna. 2008. The geographical and institutional distribution of ecological research in the tropics. Biotropica 40(4): 397-404.

  8. Emilio, I agree with you and Maria in general and I think we can greatly improve our work if we work together. However, as described in the paper by Bush & Silman, very influential studies have been recently published in Nature (Erickson 2000), Science (Heckenberger 2003, 2008), The Handbook of South American Archaeology etc., where anthropologist have rejected years of work of people like Betty Meggers without providing any environmental data at all. I think that a groundless myth of an overpopulated Amazonia has been created and I think that the prehistory of Amazonia needs a re-assessment based on more environmental studies.

  9. Great conversation! Emilio, I was also thinking that the incongruity might be in the types of sites archaeologists and ecologists study. I also work in the Andes and the ecological information we draw upon isn't always at the archaeological site but in a glacier or a lake. It's true that we often read what ecologists write (and vice versa) but we rarely all work together. I think this would be beneficial in all regions, but especially in the diverse and complex Amazon basin.

  10. Well, in the case of the llanos de Moxos there are few field studies that look at specific regions. As far as I remember right now, only the PhD of Robert Langstroth (phytogeography)deals with the area east of Trinidad. This is an area full of archaeological sites and crossed by several good roads. For this area we have several archaeological works. There are no studies at all for the north eastern part (like around Baures) and we have the Boixadera paper and the Hannagart book that refers to the western Llanos. The case of Boixadera is really interesting: he got soil samples from "natural" places and archaeological sites (area around the raised fields) but only published the former. In general I don't see a strong relation between easiness of access and number of studies (maybe this is true only for the area east of Baures). Anyway, for the Llanos we have far more archaeological works than geographical/environmental ones and I cannot see any reason for this but the lack of interest. Things are changing now thanks to our project and Mayle's one :-)

  11. Roberto Langstroth14 April 2011 at 14:46

    There is a simple reason where there has not been much "Amazonian" research in the Llanos de Moxos, the Alto Xingu, and Marajó...they are savanna landscapes, not the humid tropical forests most "Amazonian" researchers get excited about!

  12. Umberto, in other moments and places I told you why I'm so doubtful on certain topics that most people believe as True Faith.

    Surely you remember what Galileo wrote about knowledge more intensive aut more extensive .

    It's fustrating when you see with your eyes that whole academic careers (and something worse) are based on datasets which should be widened by several orders of magnitudes just to be a little reliable...