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What happened to the once glorious civilization that resided in the Amazon Rainforest?

By: Yadiel Rivera

The world has witnessed many civilizations. Some made it to the technological era, and some got lost in time. This is the case for a lost civilization that originated in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil. According to some of the first Europeans to explore the Amazon in 1500 BC, said the population in the Amazon was between 500,000 and 1 million people. There were big cities in comparison to European cities at that time. There were many stories, and legends such as the El Dorado, a fabled city with a vast amount of gold. Many explorers died trying to find the Amazonian. Moreover, there was a British soldier and geographer Percy Fawcett who was convinced that there was a lost city which he named “Z” in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil; it’s speculated that he dies because of his sudden disappearance. Not only they were able to cultivate in an infertile land, but, they also their folklore has been passed down to their descendants through the generation. There are still many questions to be answered.

How did they feed themselves?

How did the Amazonian survive with an infertile land? They had a huge population, how did they feed their people? Many scientist and archeologists have discovered a type of soil in the amazon rainforest, which could be linked to the way this civilization feed themselves. This soil is called “Terra Preta” or “Dark Earth”, it was discovered in the 1870s, which at that time nobody researches it. “Patches of this black, unusually fertile soil are dotted throughout the rainforest. Since the 1960s, soil scientists have suspected the terra preta became so fertile as a result of prolonged cultivation by people: in other words, that it was artificial. It was made from accumulated waste such as fish bones and seeds, which were burned to produce charcoal, according to Carolina Levis of the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil” (1). Michael Marshal, a writer, talks about the stories that many researchers from the year 1500, saw the millions of people in the Amazon Rainforest. He also explains that to feed a huge population it is needed to have a vast amount of resources. These resources were created by themselves. At that time, the amazon rainforest wasn’t as it is nowadays. It was a vast land able to support a huge population. They used the “Terra Preta” to create farms and cultivate different plants to support themselves. Nonetheless, “The terra preta soils at Hatahara and the other sites are made from a mixture of plant refuse and animal and fish bones, along with large quantities of charcoal that were deposited after settlers used stone axes and slow-burning fires to clear forest. Such smoldering fires produced more charcoal than ash. The charcoal, soot, and other carbon remain (collectively called biochar) retained nutrients, particularly potassium and phosphorus, that are limited in tropical soils. The resulting improvement in soil fertility may have allowed the land to support a larger, more stable crop-based population, although studies of fossilized pollen have not yet revealed the specific plants they cultivated” (2). Micheal Tennesen, a science writer with more than 300 stories published. In this paper, he goes in-depth on the soils, called “Terra Preta” or “Dark Earth”. This type of soil is formed through burning, for the reason of cultivation. The majority of the soil in the amazon is infertile, the discovery of the Terra Peta indicates that a large settlement with the need for cultivation was present in the amazon. It is still a mystery how the Amazonians found this method to cultivate the infertile land of the amazon rainforest. This process of using charcoal has been passed down to the descendants of the long-lost civilization.

Landscape

New evidence of Forrest’s manipulation could prove the there was a civilization in the Amazonian rainforest. Many scientists have study the presence of trees, and their DNA that is close to rivers and any large body of water in the Amazon rainforest. According to an Academic Journal, “Methodology/Principal Findings: In six sites, we inventoried trees and palms with DBH ≥10 cm and collected soil for charcoal analysis; we also mapped archaeological evidence around the sites. To quantify forest manipulation, we measured the relative abundance, richness, and basal area of useful trees and palms. We found a strong negative exponential relationship between forest manipulation and distance to large rivers. Plots located from 10 to 20 km from the main river had 20–40% useful arboreal species, plots between 20 and 40 km had 12–23%, plots more than 40 km had less than 15%. Soil charcoal abundance was high in the two sites closest to secondary rivers, suggesting past agricultural practices. The shortest distance between archaeological evidence and plots was found in sites near rivers. Conclusions/Significance: These results strongly suggest that past forest manipulation was not limited to the pre-Columbian settlements along major rivers, but extended over interfluvial areas considered to be primary forest today” (3). Carolina Lewis and her co-partners, analyze the trees and soil from the main river in six different cities in the amazon. They discovered evidence of Forrest’s manipulation using the charcoal and the trees. They also found a relationship between forest manipulation and distance to large rivers. This indicates pre-Colombian settlements near the main rivers. This result means that there were human settlements near many river bodies. These settlements stayed in places that had a water body, so it was easier to cultivate. Evidence of this can be found in the type of plant that is around these water bodies. Whether it is a type of plant that only grows in populated areas, or has different purposes. Many of these plants were used for cultivation, which further provides evidence of the human presence in the Amazonian Rainforest 4000–5000 years ago. According to the research paper, Amazonia and the Anthropocene: What was the spatial extent and intensity of human landscape modification in the Amazon Basin at the end of prehistory? “The natural fauna and floral associations were replaced by anthropogenic formations. Amazonia had fewer trees five hundred years ago and the existing forests were more similar to gardens, orchards, and game preserves than wilderness” (4). Dolores Piperno is a senior scientist and an American Archeologist specializing in Archaeobotany. Dolores with her co-partner Peter Becker analyzes the soils and charcoal of the Amazon Basin. They discovered that the central Amazonian rainforest forest has not been stable during the Holocene. They worked on the soils and phytoliths from grasses, which resulted in human presence in the Amazon. They believe that these early settlers change native trees and plants to cultivate useful plants. These planted trees were common in the Amazon.

Structures

Many researchers have ventured inside of the Amazon and have talked with the descendants of this lost civilization. These people still carry some of their ancestor’s skills and monuments. Moreover, some of these researchers have sighted structures, ditches, and monuments hiding underground. As the years go by the earth rises, causing these structures to be under the ground, hiding from the people. The only people that knew about these structures would be the descendants. A researcher by the name of Michael J. Heckenberger ventured inside the amazon and stayed in some of the villages. These villages were the descendants of the lost civilization. After gaining their trust, they took Michael to one of their monuments. In his research paper, he stated, “In January 1993, soon after I arrived in the Kuikuro village, the principal hereditary chief, Afukaka, took me to one of the ditches at a site (X6) they call Nokugu, named for the jaguar spirit being thought to live there. We passed local men who were raising a huge fish weir across the Angahuku River, which was already swelling from the seasonal rains. The ditch, which runs over two kilometers, was two to three meters deep and more than 10 meters wide. Even though I had expected to find an archaeological landscape different from today’s, the scale of these ancient communities and their constructions surprised me. Kuikuro research assistants and I spent the following months mapping it and other earthworks at the 45-hectare site” (5) Michael Heckenberger, his Ph.D. in Anthropology and works at the University of Florida. In this paper, he explains the impact of humans on the Amazon Rainforest. He also analyzes how humans reshaped amazon to their needs. He also implements his evidence of when he was in the Amazon. He went to villages and talked about their ancestors and how they lived. These natives’ inheritance is more than just the “Terra Preta”, they have their ancestor’s monuments. The Kuikuro village is an example of traditions, skills, and folklore being passed down through the generations. The way that they hunt, their settlements, and the way they cultivate. Nonetheless, structures like the ones in Kuikuro village can still be found in many more villages inside the amazon. They are referred to as “Garden Cities”, they are mostly found in north-central Brazil, some even date from 1400 AD. There have also been found ditches on the border of Brazil, and Bolivia. These ditches were called geoglyphs by the scientist and researchers that found them. Also, “The geoglyphs are formed by ditches up to 11 meters wide and 1 to 2 meters deep. They range from 90 to 300 meters in diameter and are thought to date from around 2000 years ago up to the 13th century” (6). Linda Geddes is a London-based journalist. In this article, Linda talks about the giant avenues, ditches, and enclosures beneath the trees of the Amazon. She also talks about the signs of an ancient civilization that had been spotted in northern Bolivia and western Brazil. She goes in-depth on the research of the Geoglyphs. Some signs of civilization were present in these areas. Some of the structures in the “Garden Cities” are not the same as the geoglyphs found in the border of Brazil. They have different purposes, some have ceremonial purposes, and some just for defense.

Why did they disappear?

The amazon rainforest is home to many living animals and insects capable to carry diseases. Many scientists theorize that the disappearance of this civilization can be the result of a disease that spread all over the settlements and wiped them out. There still many diseases on amazon which is killing thousands of people nowadays. According to an interview of Douglas Preston, the author of the book The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, “Mucosal leishmaniasis struck down two-thirds of the expedition — Hondurans, Americans, and Brits alike. It is a very persistent disease, a flesh-eating parasite that attacks the face and eventually causes your lips and nose to slough off, leaving a weeping sore where your face used to be(7). Douglas Preston is a book writer and has been part of an expedition that found a lost city in Honduras. He explains that during his expedition in Honduras, he and some of his co-workers contracted this parasite called, the flesh-eating worm. The symptoms were fatal, but they could’ve survived thanks to modern medicine. There are many more diseases in this part of the world, they can wipe out a big group of people if not protected. This is what many scientists theorized, they think that the lost civilization was wiped out by an infectious disease. The people that survived this disease were the descendants, which created villages such as the Kuikuro village. There is also the possibility that the people of the modern world, was the cause of their demise. There have been events that modern people contacted an isolated tribe, “In some cases in the 70s and 80s, the Brazilian government did try to establish peaceful contact with indigenous people, often with the aim of forced assimilation or relocation. They set up “attraction posts” — offerings of metal tools and other things indigenous Indians might find to be valuable — to try and lure them out of hiding. This sometimes led to violent altercations, or, more often than not, disease outbreaks. Isolated people have no immunity to some bugs, which have been known to wipe out up to half of a village’s population in a matter of weeks or months. During those years, missionaries traipsing into the jungle also delivered viruses and bacteria along with Bibles, killing the people they meant to save.” (8) Rachel Nuwer, publisher BBC Future, explains how isolated tribes are been wiped out by bacterias resulting from contacts by the modern world. She also talks about the reasons why many tribes prefer to be un-contacted. Since the European settlers arrived in South America, they have taken as slaves and murdered these tribes. They also bring with them bacterias and viruses, which the body of these tribesmen doesn’t have any protection against, resulting in the death of many. Besides, it is believed in the science community that this is also the case for the lost civilization in the Amazon rainforest. Adventurers and researchers in looking for the city of gold, like in the book, The City Of Z. They could’ve brought with them the disease that wiped them out.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there was once a glorious civilization with millions of inhabitants in the Amazon Rainforest. They terraformed the Amazon to suit their needs. Most of their settlements were in places close to a river or any water body. But, because the land was infertile, they created a type of soil that was able to fertile the land. They were able to cultivate plants that are still dominant in amazon. Moreover, their structures go all the way to Central America. But, after the Europeans arrived in South America in 1500, they disappeared out of nowhere. Many scientists theorized that the reason for their disappearance was the result of the bacterias and diseases that were brought by the Europeans. Nonetheless, evidence of their existence is in the soil and the tradition of their descendants. In the Amazon, there are many inhabited villages, that were the descendants of this once glorious civilization. As they have the folklore and many structures still intact. Which scientists have been studying all these years.

Bibliography

  1. Marshall, Michael, “Finding the Real El Dorado”. New Scientist, vol 241, Jan. 2019, pp. 26–29.
  2. Tennesen, Michael. “Black Gold of the Amazon.” Discover, vol.28, no.4, April 2007, pp. 46–52.
  3. Levis C., de Souza P.F., Schietti J., Emilio T., Pinto J.L.P.d.V., Clement C.R., Costa F.R.C., “Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in the Purus-Madeira Interfluve, Central Amazonia”, Plos one, 20 November 2012.
  4. Piperno, D. & Becker, P., “Vegetational History of a site in the Central Amazon Basin Derived from Phytolith and Charcoal Records from Natural Soils.” Quantermany Research, Cambridge University Press, 20 January 2017, pp. 202–209.
  5. Heckenberger, Michael J. “Lost Cities of the Amazon.” Scientific American, vol. 301, no.4, Oct. 2009, pp. 64–71.
  6. Geddes, Linda. “Ancient Amazon Civilization Laid Bare by Felled Forest.” New Scientist, vol. 204, no. 2738, Dec. 2009, p. 11.
  7. Liptak, Andrew, writer. Finding a lost city, and also a flesh-eating illness, with Douglas Preston. Feb. 4, 2017, https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/4/14502606/the-lost-city-of-the-monkey-god-interview-honduras-civilization.Apr. 10, 2020.
  8. Nuwer, Rache. Anthropology: The sad truth about uncontacted tribes. Aug. 3, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140804-sad-truth-of-uncontacted-tribes. Apr. 10, 2020.

I'm an enthusiast of the unknown and the ancient world.

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