An Ancient Civilization in the Amazon

(this is from Graham Hancock’s new book, America Before)

Hancock has convinced me that there was an ancient civilization in the Amazon. I’m intrigued by the possibility that it was more peaceable and more ecologically attuned (read “sustainable”) than Old World civilizations, then or now.

  • In 1542, Friar Gaspar De Carvajal kept a detailed diary on an expedition that navigated the Amazon from its headwaters to its mouth. He reported seeing large, prosperous cities, metalwork and ceramics that rivaled the most advanced in Europe during that time.
  • In the Andes, there are ancient drawings in the ground, hundreds of meters across and comprehended only from the air. Recently, more of these have been found in the Amazon to the East, where they have been obscured by jungle.nazca
  • How did they support large, permanent settlements when the rainforest soil is notorious for being depleted after a couple of seasons of agriculture?  Read about Terra Preta, ADE, or Amazon Dark Earth. This is the best part of the story, because it appears to be an ancient, scientifically-designed system of long-term soil development, which hints at a way of doing agriculture that was lost with the Native American cultures.
  • Persisting even today, more than half the trees and vines growing in the Amazon are domesticated varieties that yield edible or useful products for humans: Manihot (cassava), brazil nuts, rubber, peanuts, pineapple, and sweet potatoes. 

Pizarro pillaged the Inca cilvilization and burned their library in 1526. The rich Amazonian civilization was either a figment of Carvajal’s imagination, or it was destroyed by smallpox and other European diseases—a tragic fate to which many American tribes were known to succumb.

The intriguing possibility is that Amazonians (and perhaps other American native populations) had mastered a new kind of agriculture, which has the potential to resolve our modern, Western culture’s war-to-the-death with natural ecosystems. These people were not hunter-gatherers, nor did they plant row upon row of monoculture. Rather, they enriched natural ecosystems with the plants that were useful to them, taking care to plant different species in mixtures that would be complementary in their effects on the soil’s fungi and bacteria, as well as pest-resistant.

One component of this system was the Terra Preta that continues to sustain fertility of vast regions of the Amazon hundreds of years after it was created by simple, sound management techniques of the native people.

Terra preta owes its characteristic black color to its weathered charcoal content,[2] and was made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil. A product of indigenous soil management and slash-and-char agriculture,[3] the charcoal is stable and remains in the soil for thousands of years, binding and retaining minerals and nutrients. [Wikipedia]

2 thoughts on “An Ancient Civilization in the Amazon

  1. “Think of it. The rainforest was coaxed, shaped, and transformed by what can only be described as scientific practices into a vast garden of useful and productive trees. But trees alone cannot feed large populations, so the prehistoric domestication program was extended on a massive scale to include agricultural species that were then successfully incorporated, through the use of terra preta, into the Amazonian ecology.” — quote is from Hancock’s book.

    I would add that this practice of coaxing nature instead of defeating nature requires extensive knowledge of ecological relationships, but little knowledge of biochemistry. And that it creates sustainable ecologies that feed us, rather than fragile monocultures that need to be defended with chemical warfare and that deplete the soil.

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