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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Some prominent anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that most of prehistoric Amazonia was a “A Cultural Parkland” or a human-created “Built landscape”, inferring from a limited number of archaeological sites that lowland forests throughout the Amazon Basin were densely inhabited and significantly altered by pre-Columbian human populations. Despite the limited evidence for such a major human presence, this view (dubbed by Piperno and colleagues the “1491" hypothesis after its sympathetic treatment in a 2005 book of that name by popular science writer Charles Mann) has been prominently featured in the mass media and may come to influence views and policy on Amazon forest resilience and sustainability. Three years ago, Piperno and Mark Bush and Crystal McMichael of Florida Institute of Technology, supported by a three-year NSF grant, began a large-scale test of the 1491 hypothesis. Soil profiles have been sampled from underneath forest along long transects through the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon, and their phytolith and charcoal records are being analyzed. Results are providing vegetational and fire histories spanning a broad area of yet unstudied terra firme (non-riverine forest) landscape. The information is also being expressed at finer spatial scales than possible with sedimentary records from lakes and swamps, which offer a single, homogenized picture derived from a large source area that may have seen variable environmental histories exhibited at smaller distance scales.

In addition to its anthropological importance, our research has significance for modern ecological research and conservation efforts. Ecologists would like to know if past vegetation, fire, and soil dynamics are affecting the current state of the vegetation and carbon balances. Furthermore, the sustainable development of the Amazon’s remaining biodiversity and natural resources, in part dependent on their history and regenerative capacity, is a crucial issue facing conservation biologists and planners. They would benefit from an empirically-robust picture of how resilient these forests are after major disturbances.


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