Comments on prehistoric agriculture in amazonia

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  • 1. Comments on Prehistoric Agriculture in AmazoniaWilliam M. DenevanWilliam M. Denevan is professor emeritus of geography andenvironmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.We know very little about pre-European agriculturaltechniques in Amazonia. This is unfortunate, given that state-ments regarding prehistoric demography and settlement pat-terns, including size, location, and duration, are based in parton assumptions about food productivity. There is only scat-tered physical evidence, and information from ethnohistoryand ethnography is of limited value.Anthropologists have generally portrayed surviving indi-genous hunters and gatherers (foragers), shifting cultivators,and other traditional economies in Amazonia as representa-tive of prehistoric food-production systems. Even where suchgroups have clearly undergone considerable acculturation, ithas been suggested that their food-getting ecologies (and set-tlement behavior) have changed little since prehistoric times,even with changes in crops and tools (Meggers 1995: 35). Thisperspective, however, is coming under increasing attack. Fewgroups anywhere have been isolated from the world econ-omy and technology, directly or indirectly, not only today butsince 1492.Archaeologist Anna Roosevelt has stated that in Amazonia"theories about pre-Conquest subsistence cannot be testedwith ethnographic data" and that "present-day Indians re-source management modes may not be representative ofprehistoric ones" (Roosevelt 1989:31). Beckerman (1987:88)points out that in Amazonia "the systems we see operatingtoday are for the most part tiny remnants of what was once amuch larger system of farmers and fields." There are com-parable statements by Colchester (1984:311) and Roe (1994:198-200), among others. Furthermore, most surviving Indiansare located in the terra firme high forests of the interfluves,where resource conditions (soils, game, and fish) are relativelypoor, whereas numerous prehistoric Indians, now mostlyextinct, were located in or adjacent to the resource-rich flood-plains (vdrzeas).That low-productivity shifting cultivation was the dom-inant system is indeed only an assumption. There is no directevidence for it. We know that forests were cleared, but thisdoes not necessarily indicate shifting cultivation. I have ar-gued in an article in 1992 that stone axes were so inefficientfor clearing forest that long-fallow shifting cultivation, socommon today, would not have been feasible. Too much timeand energy were required, especially for large hardwoodtrees. Initial clearings would have been made where treeswere small, as along streams and at tree falls; at forest patchesdominated by palms, bamboo, or lianas; and at sites of formerhuman activity (villages, camps, trails, fields). Once initiated,a small clearing could be gradually enlarged to a considerablesize. Once established, a field would likely have been used formany years, given the labor required for clearing a new fieldwith stone axes. Thus most terrafirme agriculture, I argue, waspermanent or semi-permanent until metal axes were intro-duced making frequent shifting of fields practical. Soil fertilitywas maintained by ash from in-field burning, organic addi-tives, integration with tree crops, and the creation of fertileanthropogenic soils. Even without soil improvement, maniocproduction can continue for many years on poor soil, weedand pest invasion being more of a problem than soil fertility.Forms of Prehistoric CultivationWe can designate three general types of prehistoric fieldson the basis of habitat. The first is floodplain cultivation.Clearly, annual crops were obtained from playas, islands, andnatural levees during periods of low water. The early explor-ers of the Amazon River gave some indication of this(Meggers 1996:125-126). However, as Meggers (1996:12,28-29)and others have pointed out, periodic major floods every fiveto ten years cover the entire floodplain destroying most or allcrops. Consequently a safety valve was necessary, and thisprobably was the adjacent bluffe, the well-drained edges ofterra firme, and especially bluffs that impinged against navi-gable channels so that easy access was provided to the mainriver channel (Lathrap 1970:44; Meggers 1991:199; Denevan19%). Thus there apparently was a complementary system inwhich villagers farmed both the good soil/high risk flood-plains (vdrzea) and the poor soil/low risk bluff fringe (terrafirme).The second field type is the raised field. Remnants ofthese ridges, platforms, and mounds are located in seasonallyflooded savannas in northern Bolivia (Denevan 1966; Erickson1995), the Orinoco Llanos in Venezuela (Zucchi and Denevan1979), and the coasts of Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana,and northern Amapa, Brazil (Rostain 1991). They may wellhave existed on Marajo Island and elsewhere, but if so theyhave since been destroyed or buried under sediment. Theraised fields we discovered in the Llanos de Mojos in Boliviain 1961 were the first indication of intensive prehistoricCulture & Agriculture 54 Vol. 20, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
  • 2. agriculture in Amazonia outside the major floodplains. Thesefields are as much as 25 m wide, 350 m long, and number inthe tens of thousands. They were probably cultivated con-tinuously, or nearly so, given practices with similar fields inMexico and in the Old World tropics today. Fertility couldhave been maintained by additives of rich organic muck thataccumulated in the ditches between the fields.The third general form of prehistoric agriculture is terrafirme cultivation. We can speculate that, using stone axes,long-fallow shifting cultivation in the upland forests was rare;instead semi-permanent short-fallow systems were morecommon, and these were integrated with and rotated withpermanent gardens and managed agroforests, both domi-nated by useful perennial trees and especially by fruit trees.There are numerous mentions of the importance of fruit treesin the sixteenth-century accounts. The most intensive terrafirme agriculture, however, was probably on anthropogenicblack earths, terra preta do indio, and I want to give particularattention to them.Terra PretaThese soils have long been known, but they remainpoorly studied and seldom have been mapped (Woods 1995:159-160). However, their locations are well known to localpeople who farm them because of their high fertility. Theblack color of the soil is apparently due to ash from repeatedin-field burning and from household fires. Fertility is en-hanced by relatively high levels of organic material, calcium,and phosphorus, with higher pH and moisture levels than forsurrounding soils. Terra preta soil has been dated to 450 B.C.near Manaus and 200 B.C. on the Rio Ucayali in Peru (Eden,etal, 1984:126).On bluffe, terra preta sites have been described which are80, 90, 200, and 350 ha in extent, though averaging 20 ha(Smith 1980:560,1999:26). Anna Roosevelt (1987:157) believesthere are 500 ha (5 km2) of terra preta underlying the city ofSantarem. Some sites are several kilometers long, thus sup-porting sixteenth-century reports of large riverine villagesextending for several leagues (Denevan 1996:659). Meggers(1995:27-28), on the other hand, argues that only patches ofthese large sites were occupied at any one time. Furthermore,only portions of terra preta sites are actually middens frompast villages (Woods and McCann 1999).On interior terrafirme, small terra pretas are described bySmith (1980:563) along the Trans-Amazon Highway as beingonly 1 to 2 ha or less, suggesting single or several houses thatremained in place long enough to create terra preta. Katzer(1944:35-38) reported 50,000 ha of mostly small terra preta sitesbetween the Rio Tapajos and the Rio Curua-Una. This patternseems supportive of the Tropical Forest Model of small terrafirme forest communities and low population densities in con-trast to large riverine villages (Raymond 1994:177). In recentyears, however, several studies have demonstrated that terrapreta sites on terrafirme can be enormous.In 1996, geographer/ethnobotanist Joseph McCann andgeographer/soils archaeologist William Woods examined terrapretas in the vicinity of Santarem and between the Rio Tapajosand the Rio Arapiuns, where some sites are very large (over120 ha at Oitavo Bee south of Santarem; Woods and McCann1999; McCann and Woods, n.d.). Smith (1980) and others havesuggested that terra pretas are primarily prehistoric middenscontaining ceramics, bones, ash, and other settlement refuse.McCann and Woods, however, found sites which are not uni-form middens. Sectors with ceramics are separated by largesectors of black or brown soils without ceramics.1McCann andWoods believe that the non-midden terra pretas were formedby long-term agricultural activity including in-field burning,mulching, and composting. Phosphorus and calcium levelsare lower than for the midden terra pretas, but organic mattercontent is high. The non-midden terra pretas consequently arestill more fertile than the surrounding natural soils. Onceestablished, both types of terra preta would have been soughtout for cultivation, as they still are today.McCann and Woods see no natural explanation for terrapreta soils.2They occur on a wide variety of slopes and sub-soils; they are both clayey and sandy; they are surrounded bythe typical terra firme red and yellow tropical soils.3Whenabandoned for long periods they still retain their fertility. Infact, there is some evidence that they are not only self perpet-uating but actually expand because of intense microbiologicalactivity. "We suggest that some combination of long-termmulching and frequent burning produces the heightened or-ganic content and dark color of the [non- midden terra preta]expanses. Though perhaps temporarily reducing near-surfacesoil biota,firemore importantly contributes charcoal and ash,which increase soil pH and thereby suppress Al activity toxicto soil biota" (Woods and McCann 1999). "This increasedmicro-biological activity over time is the key to terra pretaformation and persistence" (Woods, pers. comm.).The creation of a brown soil from intensive, long-lastingagricultural activity, in contrast to an origin from middens,has been suggested in several other studies. These studies,however, do not emphasize that agricultural terra preta maybe much more extensive than midden terra preta. The Dutchsoil scientist, W.G. Sombroek (1966:175), mentions a brown orless dark soil, which he calls terra mulata, in the Belterra areaeast of the Rio Tapajos, without artifacts, occurring in bandsaround black terra preta. He believes that "It seems likely thatthis soil has obtained its specific properties from long-lastingcultivation." His map shows terra preta along a bluff backedby a much larger area of terra mulata. At Araracuara on the RioCaqueta in the Colombian Amazon, brown anthropic soilformed where "cultivation was done in the mature or second-ary forest in a semi-intensive way, probably located awayCulture & Agriculture 55 Vol. 20, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
  • 3. from the living area, and always done in the same place toimprove the soil" (Andrade 1986:54, in Mora et al. 199177).4The Araracuara project is a long-term study by Colombianarchaeologists and ecologists (Mora et al. 1991). The projecthas investigated terra preta sites on a high bluff. Settlement atone of these sites, Abeja (6 ha.), was nearly continuous for 800years (1565-775 B.P.) Pollen indicates large quantities of fruittrees, along with maize, manioc, and other crops. The soilscientists involved believe that permanent cultivation wasmade possible by the transport to fields of alluvial silt from theriver and incorporation of organic matter consisting of do-mestic waste, dead leaves, wood, weeds, and algae—a majorlabor investment.Another study of upland terra preta sites is the 1996 disser-tation by archaeologist Michael Heckenberger in the UpperXingu Basin. As in other parts of southwestern Amazonia, in-cluding Mojos in Bolivia, many prehistoric and historical sitesare encircled by defensive moats, several moats in some in-stances. He found 19 sites in forests near streams, with terrapreta soils. One, Nokugu, is 40 ha (15 ha of terra preta), andanother, Kuhikugu, is 50 ha (mostly dark brown terra preta).(Recent Kuikuru villages near both ancient villages are onlya few hectares in size.) Besides the ditches there are moundsand causeways. At Nokugu, there is cultural and occupationalcontinuity from A.D. 950 to after 1500, with a large plaza fixedin place the entire time, and a possible late population of 2,500given the apparent occupation of the full area (except for theplaza) within two moats. Why the second, outer moat?Heckenberger believes that the only reason for digging asecond moat was because population growth filled the areawithin the inner moat. This is part of his argument for the fullsite being occupied atone time, rather than being periodicallyreoccupied by small villages. These large villages were pro-bably supported by relatively intensive agriculture, includinguse of terra preta soils (Heckenberger 1996:40, 47, 54, 98-100;1998:643).Without question, then, there were large prehistoric occu-pation sites in Amazonia, as evidenced by terra preta middens.Some may represent periodic reoccupations of different sec-tors, others not. Others apparently were dispersed clusters ofhouses surrounded by agriculture, as evidenced by non-mid-den brown soils. But even if a terra preta site of 100 ha wasonly 20 percent occupied at one time by houses and associ-ated activity areas, 20 ha is still a very large village comparedto the much smaller villages of today.In any event, it is becoming apparent that large areas ofterra preta are not middens, but rather are zones of cultivationthat: (1) were often intensive; (2) could have sustained rela-tively large villages; and (3) were maintained over long per-iods and thus were associated with either permanent settle-ments of whatever size, and/or villages that shifted within theagricultural zone. The fertile terra pretas created, both blackand brown, themselves became the foci of cultivation andhence settlement, a self-perpetuating process. Such a sitecould have begun as a single household at a natural tree-fallfarm plot, gradually being enlarged with stone axes, the ulti-mate village size possibly having nothing to do with naturalsoils but rather with particular local or regional social eventsand relationships.Today in the uplands new terra preta is seldom created byeither Indians or settlers.5(One example would be in long-lasting house gardens.) Considerable time is required for terrapreta formation, decades or more, whether from middens orfrom semi-intensive cultivation practices. Now Indian villagesare usually moved too frequently and cultivation is of toobrief duration for terra preta to form.Possible Cropping Systems on Terra FirmeI am suggesting that the short-cropping, long-fallow shift-ing cultivation so widespread today was uncommon in pre-historic Amazonia because of the inefficiency of the stone axe,especially in the mature hardwood forests of the terra firme.Indian shifting cultivation now has a short cropping period,reflecting poor soil, pest invasion, game depletion, and socialfriction, but it is made possible by the steel axe which makesclearing new plots a relatively easy process—a matter of a fewweeks to create a field large enough (0.5-2.0 ha) to feed a fam-ily. Even on the fertile terra preta soils, shifting cultivation isnow the norm because it is easier than coping with the ag-gressive weeds associated with permanent cultivation. (Thesame is true on limestone and volcanic soils in Yucatan andCentral America.)Indian shifting cultivation as we know it today is the pro-duct of the steel axe, and a]so the machete. What then was thenature of prehistoric upland agriculture? We do not knowand may never know. However, there are several possibilities:(1) House gardens: permanent plots of mixed annuals andperennials around houses, with careful weed control and soilmanagement using household refuse for fertilizer. Lathrap(1977), in his classic article "Our Father the Cayman, OurMother the Gourd," maintained that the earliest agriculture inAmazonia was in such house gardens. He believed that thefirst gardens were along or near rivers; however, they wereundoubtedly also an important form of prehistoric crop pro-duction hi the interfluve forests since they do not require fre-quent clearing. Today Indian house gardens are poorly devel-oped in most forest villages given the frequency of villageshifting.(2) Intensive swiddens: located on sites where tree clearingwas relatively easy, such as naturally disturbed places withyoung secondary growth of softwoods. A present-day exam-ple of such swiddens would be the highly diverse (polycul-tural) conucos described by Harris (1971) for the WaikaCulture & Agriculture 56 Vol. 20, Nos. 2J3 Summer/Fall 1998
  • 4. (Yanomamo) of the Upper Orinoco, which are cultivated forup to six years. Such fields contrast with the monoculturalswidden dominated by a single species, usually manioc,which is the common form of tropical-forest Indian fieldtoday. Most current monocultural fields are long fallow andare only used for only one to three years. Beckerman (1983:4-6) gives several reasons for the monocultural field, but he doesnot consider the role of the steel axe in making short-livedswiddens feasible.Intensive swiddens (short fallow or semi-permanent)were possible, given known indigenous practices today.Weeds could have been controlled by shading and handweeding; pests could have been reduced by crop diversifica-tion; soils could have been artificially maintained to varyingdegrees by short fallowing, mulching/composting, in-fieldburning, and other internal and external organic inputs(Hecht and Posey 1989:180-186); and fertile soils could havebeen unintentionally created by settlement and cultivation ac-tivity in theformof terra preta. Labor inputs often would havebeen high, but probably not as high as that required by long-fallow shifting cultivation, with frequent field shifts, necessita-ting frequent and difficult tree clearing with stone axes. Thisassumes that time and energy are critical factors, and theyusually are (Hill and Kaplan 1989:331).(3) Patch cultivation: the planting of small natural clear-ings, such as tree falls, or easily cleared vegetation such asbamboo. This could have been done by bands of nomadic for-agers who returned periodically to small plantings. House-holds could also have been permanently settled at small clear-ings, as suggested by terra preta sites of 1 ha or less. In addi-tion, people in large villages with surrounding fields couldhave obtained additional production from small outlyingpatches. The Kayapo villagers today plant both domesticatesand semi-domesticates in natural clearings created by treefalls, as well as along trails and at camp sites (Posey 1984:117,122). Another report of tree-fall planting is for the semi-nomadic Nambiquara in the Guapore Valley in 1968: "wecame to a place where a huge tree had fallen, taking severalsmaller trees with it. Among the tangle of fallen limbs, tobaccoplants were growing" (Price 1989:127).(4) Agroforestry: forest manipulation via intentional andunintentional planting and management of perennial cropsalong trails, campsites, fallow swiddens, and other activityareas (Posey 1985; Denevan and Padoch 1988). These "foodforests" contained domesticates, semi-domesticates, and spon-taneous tree growth, much of which was managed for usefulspecies. Suggestions of this can be seen in the Kayapo "forestfields" and the Bora "forest orchards," as well as in the anthro-pogenicforestsof the Huastec in Mexico (Alcorn 1984) and the"tree gardens" in Bocas del Toro, Panama (Gordon 1982:52-98).Gordon points out that the introduction of the machete wasdetrimental to such forest management. Clearing and weed-ing by hand better allows for decisions as to what plants areto survive and which are to be destroyed, whereas slashing bymachete tends to be less selective. He believes that polycul-tural milpas were an integrated component of anthropogenicforests. However, while agroforestry systems do not requirefrequent clearing, they are "shade" systems which suppressweeds; thus they are not conducive to production of stapleannual crops. Hence population densities would have re-mained low, unless associated with primary fields.These four models of terra firme agriculture with a stone-axe technology in reality were likely manifested by numeroustransitional forms and combinations, varying with habitat,mobility, time, and demography. These activities, plus forag-ing, contributed to the creation of anthropogenic forests, orsemi-managed forests, with a larger than natural number ofuseful plants present. The Amazon forest was not pristine in1492, nor is it today. Probably all of these forms of agricultureand agroforestry were present in the terra firme in a mosaic ofvariable population densities that may have included sectorsof sparse semi-nomadic foragers; small but permanently set-tled households and extended families; and in some selectedplaces large and permanent fields and associated villages,such as on Amazon bluffs, in the Upper Xingu Basin, and inthe Rio Arapiuns Basin, where there are large terra preta sites.Thesefieldsand villages could have originated in small clear-ings which were enlarged over a long period of time by grad-ually eliminating the trees at the periphery. By people comingback repeatedly and frequently to the same site and/or by theshifting of houses and fields within the same site, the inter-fluve terra preta black and brown soils could have beencreated.ConclusionThe evidence is still preliminary, but it appears that onterra firme relatively intensive prehistoric agriculture pro-duced a long-lasting, self-perpetuating, fertile, anthropogenicsoil (terra preta), which made possible continuing cultivationthat in some places supported relatively large and fairly per-manent villages. How widespread large and small terra pretasites are we do not yet know. Regardless, the implications forboth past and present tropical agriculture are startling67Upland Amazonian soils are considered by many to bemostly too infertile to support permanent cultivation(Meggers 1996:18-23; Gross 1983:445-446; Lamb 1987:434-440). However, Sombroek, Andrade, and Woods/McCann be-lieve that permanent or semi-permanent agriculture itselfcreated fertile soils. What a paradox!Culture & Agriculture 57 Vol. 20, Nos. 2J3 Summer/Vail 1998
  • 5. Notes*In one sampling of 18 soil tests in four terra preta sites, Woods (pers.comm.) found only three midden types of terra preta, which is about 17percent2Falesi (1974:210-214) discusses possible natural origins of terra preta.3Soil color and other characteristics of terra preta vary considerably.Undoubtedly different kinds of terra preta originated under differenthuman circumstances and on different original soils (Sombroek 1966:252-253).4However, Eden et al. (1984:137), who also worked on the soils duringthe early stages of the Araracuara Project, stated that: "there is no reasonto assume that the soils themselves were originally the direct result ofagricultural activity." Thus there is a difference of opinion with Andrade.^abst (1993:142) in his study of villages of five contemporary terra firmeIndian groups in the eastern Amazon found little evidence of active terrapreta formation in sectors of refuse accumulation and no intentionaleffort to create terra preta.6Woods and McCann (1999) say that: "Once infused with the self-perpetuating life force of an active soil biota and an adequate nutrient re-tention capacity, under proper management additional inputs may notbe necessary to maintain a reasonable fertility." Thus, "agricultural sys-tems more in-tensive than shifting cultivation seem possible" (Woods,pers. comm.).7Sombroek (1966:261) did not get excited over the implications for de-velopment suggested by terra preta produced by cultivation. He says that:"Theoretically, it would be possible to attain gradually a level of soil or-ganic matter which is comparable to that of the Terra Preta soil;" how-ever, he goes on to say that "whether it will be economically justifiable,is questionable." The possibility remains to be demonstrated, obviously.ReferencesAlcorn,Janis B.1984 Huastec Mayan Ethnobotany. Austin: University of TexasPress.Andrade, Angela1986 Investigacion arqueologica de los antrosoles de Araracuara.Fundacion de Investigaciones Arqueologicas Nacionales.Bogota: Banco de la Republica.Beckerman, Stephen1983 Does the Swidden Ape the Jungle? Human Ecology 11: 1-12.1987 Swidden in Amazonia and the Amazon Rim. In ComparativeFarming Systems. B.L. Turner and Steven B. Brush, eds. Pp.55-94. New York: Guilford Press.Colchester, Marcus1984 Rethinking Stone Age Economics: Some SpeculationsConcerning the Pre-Columbian Yanoama Economy. HumanEcology 12:291-314.Denevan, William M.1966 The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos ofBolivia. Ibero Americana 48. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress.1992 Stone vs Metal Axes: The Ambiguity of Shifting Cultivation inPrehistoric Amazonia. Journal of the Steward AnthropologicalSociety 20:153-165.1996 A Bluff Model of Riverine Settlement in Prehistoric Amazonia.Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86:654-681.Denevan, William M. and Christine Padoch, eds.1988 Swidden-Fallow Agroforestry in the Peruvian Amazon. Ad-vances in Economic Botany, Vol. 5. New York New YorkBotanical Garden.Eden, Michael J., Warwick Bray, Leonor Herrera, and Colin McEwan1984 Terra Preta Soils and their Archaeological Context in theCaqueta Basin of Southeast Colombia. American Antiquity49:125-140.Erickson, Clark L.1995 Archaeological Methods for the Study of Ancient Landscapesof the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon. In Archae-ology in the Lowland American Tropics: Current AnalyticalMethods and Applications. Peter W. Stahl, ed. Pp. 66-95.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Falesi, Italo Claudio1974 Soils of the Brazilian Amazon. In Man in the Amazon, CharlesWagley, ed. Pp. 201-229. Gainesville: University Presses ofFlorida.Gordon, Burton L.1982 A Panama Forest and Shore: Natural History and AmerindianCulture in Bocas del Toro. Pacific Grove: Boxwood Press.Gross, Daniel R.1983 Village Movement in Relation to Resources in Amazonia. /?iAdaptive Responses of Native Amazonians. Raymond B.Hames and William T. Vickers, eds. Pp. 429^149. New YorkAcademic Press.Harris, David R.1971 The Ecology of Swidden Cultivation in the Upper OrinocoRain Forest, Venezuela. Geographical Review 61:475-495.Hecht, Susanna B. and Darrell A. Posey1989 Preliminary Results on Soil Management Techniques of theKayapo Indians. Advances in Economic Botany 7:174—188.New York New York Botanical Garden.Heckenberger, Michael J.1996 War and Peace in the Shadow of Empire: SociopoliticalChange in the Upper Xingu of Southeastern Amazonia, A.D.1400-2000. Ph.D. dissertation. Pittsburgh: University ofPittsburgh.1998 Manioc Agriculture and Sedentism in Amazonia: The UpperXingu Example. Antiquity 72:633-648.Hill, Kim and Hillard Kaplan1989. Population and Dry-Season Subsistence Strategies of the Re-cently Contacted Yora of Peru. National Geographic Research5:317-334.Culture & Agriculture 58 Vol. ID, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
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