Amazonia was densely populated in the past and human action has shaped the present-day forest | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Amazonia was densely populated in the past and human action has shaped the present-day forest Geoglyphs like these in Acre state, North Brazil, bear witness to the existence of large human settlements in Amazonia in the past (photo: Maurício de Paiva/Pesquisa FAPESP)

Amazonia was densely populated in the past and human action has shaped the present-day forest

September 21, 2022

By José Tadeu Arantes  |  Agência FAPESP – A “minor revolution” has come about in Brazilian archeology in recent decades, says Eduardo Góes Neves, Director of the University of São Paulo's Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP). The revolution took place in his research field, which is the Amazon. Refuting the fallacy that the Amazon is a “land without people for people without land”, a slogan coined by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985, Neves has shown that 8-10 million people lived in the region for 8,000 years or more before the arrival of European explorers.

After 15 years of research, always with FAPESP’s support, Neves has now presented his findings in a manner suited to readers unversed in the technical language of archeology. His book Sob os tempos do equinócio: oito mil anos de história na Amazônia Central (“In equinoctial times: eight thousand years of history in Central Amazonia”) is published by Editora Ubu. The book was produced with FAPESP’s support

“In contrast with the official timeline, which begins with the arrival of European colonizers in 1500, the territory Brazil now occupies has a very old history dating from some 12,000 years ago,” Neves told Agência FAPESP. “Archeologists have discovered that the Amazon region was densely populated throughout this long period. Fragments of artifacts found beneath supposedly virgin forests, geoglyphs and black soil [terra preta] are important signs of this substantial human presence in the region.” 

The archeological finds include fragments of sophisticated pottery that can be favorably compared to the artifacts left behind by other pre-Colombian societies. Hundreds of geoglyphs – geometrical features drawn on the ground by rearrangement of sediments or removal of surface soil or rock – have been identified in three Brazilian states (Amazonas, Rondônia and Acre) and in Bolivia. Black soil was produced by these ancient communities. The areas in which it is found are the most fertile in the Amazon, whose original soil is naturally infertile.

“In the Amazon there’s very little rock of the kind seen in other parts of South America, and stone archeological structures are extremely rare. However, these other signs I mentioned can give us an idea of what its ancient societies were like, before diseases brought by the Europeans, attempts at enslavement and massacres destroyed millions of the original population,” Neves said.

Human action

Another significant sign of the presence of human communities is provided by the composition of the Amazon’s plant cover. The biome has some 16,000 known tree species, but half of all the trees in the region represent only 227 species, or 1.4%. This species hyperdominance is largely due to past human management. “The idea that the Amazon Rainforest is pristine and untouched is very widely held but quite mistaken. It is the product of human action, human management to create the tree composition that exists in the present,” Neves said.

The tree species that became hyperdominant through management include some of the most important from the economic and social standpoint, such as assai, cacao, Brazil nut, rubber and cupuassu.

The discovery of the role played by forest management has not only revolutionized scholars’ understanding of the Amazon but has also cast doubt on the usefulness of rigid historiographical categories such as Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. “It used to be said that the Indigenous populations of Amazonia hadn’t completed their transition to the Neolithic owing to their reliance on non-domesticated species such as assai and Brazil nut. We now know these plants weren’t domesticated because there was no need. Cassava and cacao were domesticated, but assai and Brazil nut were plentiful and growing all around in the forest. Management was sufficient to maintain the abundance,” Neves said.

Archeology is not concerned only with the past but also with the future; understanding what has been casts light on what may be or will be. “There are different ways of living and prospering in the Amazon. The currently dominant model, which fells trees, burns the forest, digs holes in the ground, contaminates the rivers and transforms the luxuriant landscape into a desolate wasteland, isn’t the only possibility. It’s possible to live in and off the forest without destroying it. The people who do so – Indigenous and riverine communities and descendants of enslaved Africans – are the great guardians not just of the living forest but also of the archeological treasures it hides,” Neves said.

This is one of the most important lessons to be learned from the study of the original population, he believes. Disagreeing with the official account according to which the territory that was to become Brazil had 6 million Indigenous inhabitants when the Portuguese came, he says the Amazon alone was home to between 8 million and 10 million people. “It’s clearly an underestimate to speak of 6 million. This underestimate is part of an attempt to erase the Indigenous presence,” he said. “Recent research shows that the population was far larger. Of course, it may have fluctuated up and down. The archeological record dates from 8,000 years ago, and there are gaps in it over such a long period, but we have evidence of continuous occupation for the past 2,500 years.”

Neves warns about the inaccuracy of picturing Amazon cities in the same framework as ancient cities in the Middle East or Mesoamerica. He refers technically to the most populous of these as “low-density tropical urbanism”. Despite the term “low-density”, he adds, thousands lived in these settlements, which were connected by a network of roads whose traces are still being discovered. “When Santarém [the third-largest city in Pará state] was founded, in 1661, 6,000 Indigenous people lived there. That’s four times the population of Rio de Janeiro at the time,” he said.

The drastic population reduction caused by colonization has only been reversed in recent decades by the influx of large numbers of migrants from the Northeast and South, and by rapid, chaotic and environmentally destructive urbanization.

Neves sees continuity behind this curtain of ruptures and social traumas. “Archeology is very close to people’s lives,” he said. “If you travel through Amazonia and visit Indigenous communities and the dwelling places of the forest people, you realize how common it is for people to live on archeological sites. That’s not a coincidence. These sites usually have the most fertile soil, the Brazil nut trees, the assai trees and other plants disseminated by past human activity.”

Neves’s research was supported by FAPESP via five projects (19/07794-9, 05/60603-4, 17/11817-9, 99/02150-0 and 02/02953-0). FAPESP also supported the research in other ways, including dozens of scholarships for scientific initiation, master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral research and research internships abroad awarded to scientists supervised by Neves.

The 224-page book Sob os tempos do equinócio: oito mil anos de história na Amazônia Central can be purchased at:


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