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Comments on prehistoric agriculture in amazonia

  1. 1. Comments on Prehistoric Agriculture in Amazonia William M. Denevan William M. Denevan is professor emeritus of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. We know very little about pre-European agricultural techniques in Amazonia. This is unfortunate, given that state- ments regarding prehistoric demography and settlement pat- terns, including size, location, and duration, are based in part on assumptions about food productivity. There is only scat- tered physical evidence, and information from ethnohistory and 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 such groups have clearly undergone considerable acculturation, it has 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). This perspective, however, is coming under increasing attack. Few groups anywhere have been isolated from the world econ- omy and technology, directly or indirectly, not only today but since 1492. Archaeologist Anna Roosevelt has stated that in Amazonia "theories about pre-Conquest subsistence cannot be tested with ethnographic data" and that "present-day Indians' re- source management modes may not be representative of prehistoric ones" (Roosevelt 1989:31). Beckerman (1987:88) points out that in Amazonia "the systems we see operating today are for the most part tiny remnants of what was once a much 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 Indians are located in the terra firme high forests of the interfluves, where resource conditions (soils, game, and fish) are relatively poor, whereas numerous prehistoric Indians, now mostly extinct, 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 direct evidence for it. We know that forests were cleared, but this does not necessarily indicate shifting cultivation. I have ar- gued in an article in 1992 that stone axes were so inefficient for clearing forest that long-fallow shifting cultivation, so common today, would not have been feasible. Too much time and energy were required, especially for large hardwood trees. Initial clearings would have been made where trees were small, as along streams and at tree falls; at forest patches dominated by palms, bamboo, or lianas; and at sites of former human activity (villages, camps, trails, fields). Once initiated, a small clearing could be gradually enlarged to a considerable size. Once established, a field would likely have been used for many years, given the labor required for clearing a new field with stone axes. Thus most terrafirme agriculture, I argue, was permanent or semi-permanent until metal axes were intro- duced making frequent shifting of fields practical. Soil fertility was maintained by ash from in-field burning, organic addi- tives, integration with tree crops, and the creation of fertile anthropogenic soils. Even without soil improvement, manioc production can continue for many years on poor soil, weed and pest invasion being more of a problem than soil fertility. Forms of Prehistoric Cultivation We can designate three general types of prehistoric fields on the basis of habitat. The first is floodplain cultivation. Clearly, annual crops were obtained from playas, islands, and natural 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 five to ten years cover the entire floodplain destroying most or all crops. Consequently a safety valve was necessary, and this probably was the adjacent bluffe, the well-drained edges of terra firme, and especially bluffs that impinged against navi- gable channels so that easy access was provided to the main river channel (Lathrap 1970:44; Meggers 1991:199; Denevan 19%). Thus there apparently was a complementary system in which villagers farmed both the good soil/high risk flood- plains (vdrzea) and the poor soil/low risk bluff fringe (terra firme). The second field type is the raised field. Remnants of these ridges, platforms, and mounds are located in seasonally flooded savannas in northern Bolivia (Denevan 1966; Erickson 1995), the Orinoco Llanos in Venezuela (Zucchi and Denevan 1979), and the coasts of Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and northern Amapa, Brazil (Rostain 1991). They may well have existed on Marajo Island and elsewhere, but if so they have since been destroyed or buried under sediment. The raised fields we discovered in the Llanos de Mojos in Bolivia in 1961 were the first indication of intensive prehistoric Culture & Agriculture 54 Vol. 20, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
  2. 2. agriculture in Amazonia outside the major floodplains. These fields are as much as 25 m wide, 350 m long, and number in the tens of thousands. They were probably cultivated con- tinuously, or nearly so, given practices with similar fields in Mexico and in the Old World tropics today. Fertility could have been maintained by additives of rich organic muck that accumulated in the ditches between the fields. The third general form of prehistoric agriculture is terra firme 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 more common, and these were integrated with and rotated with permanent 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 trees in the sixteenth-century accounts. The most intensive terra firme agriculture, however, was probably on anthropogenic black earths, terra preta do indio, and I want to give particular attention to them. Terra Preta These soils have long been known, but they remain poorly studied and seldom have been mapped (Woods 1995: 159-160). However, their locations are well known to local people who farm them because of their high fertility. The black color of the soil is apparently due to ash from repeated in-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 for surrounding 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 are 80, 90, 200, and 350 ha in extent, though averaging 20 ha (Smith 1980:560,1999:26). Anna Roosevelt (1987:157) believes there are 500 ha (5 km2 ) of terra preta underlying the city of Santarem. Some sites are several kilometers long, thus sup- porting sixteenth-century reports of large riverine villages extending for several leagues (Denevan 1996:659). Meggers (1995:27-28), on the other hand, argues that only patches of these large sites were occupied at any one time. Furthermore, only portions of terra preta sites are actually middens from past villages (Woods and McCann 1999). On interior terrafirme, small terra pretas are described by Smith (1980:563) along the Trans-Amazon Highway as being only 1 to 2 ha or less, suggesting single or several houses that remained in place long enough to create terra preta. Katzer (1944:35-38) reported 50,000 ha of mostly small terra preta sites between the Rio Tapajos and the Rio Curua-Una. This pattern seems supportive of the Tropical Forest Model of small terra firme forest communities and low population densities in con- trast to large riverine villages (Raymond 1994:177). In recent years, however, several studies have demonstrated that terra preta sites on terrafirme can be enormous. In 1996, geographer/ethnobotanist Joseph McCann and geographer/soils archaeologist William Woods examined terra pretas in the vicinity of Santarem and between the Rio Tapajos and the Rio Arapiuns, where some sites are very large (over 120 ha at Oitavo Bee south of Santarem; Woods and McCann 1999; McCann and Woods, n.d.). Smith (1980) and others have suggested that terra pretas are primarily prehistoric middens containing 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 large sectors of black or brown soils without ceramics.1 McCann and Woods believe that the non-midden terra pretas were formed by long-term agricultural activity including in-field burning, mulching, and composting. Phosphorus and calcium levels are lower than for the midden terra pretas, but organic matter content is high. The non-midden terra pretas consequently are still more fertile than the surrounding natural soils. Once established, both types of terra preta would have been sought out for cultivation, as they still are today. McCann and Woods see no natural explanation for terra preta soils.2 They occur on a wide variety of slopes and sub- soils; they are both clayey and sandy; they are surrounded by the typical terra firme red and yellow tropical soils.3 When abandoned for long periods they still retain their fertility. In fact, there is some evidence that they are not only self perpet- uating but actually expand because of intense microbiological activity. "We suggest that some combination of long-term mulching and frequent burning produces the heightened or- ganic content and dark color of the [non- midden terra preta] expanses. Though perhaps temporarily reducing near-surface soil biota,firemore importantly contributes charcoal and ash, which increase soil pH and thereby suppress Al activity toxic to soil biota" (Woods and McCann 1999). "This increased micro-biological activity over time is the key to terra preta formation and persistence" (Woods, pers. comm.). The creation of a brown soil from intensive, long-lasting agricultural 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 may be much more extensive than midden terra preta. The Dutch soil scientist, W.G. Sombroek (1966:175), mentions a brown or less dark soil, which he calls terra mulata, in the Belterra area east of the Rio Tapajos, without artifacts, occurring in bands around black terra preta. He believes that "It seems likely that this soil has obtained its specific properties from long-lasting cultivation." His map shows terra preta along a bluff backed by a much larger area of terra mulata. At Araracuara on the Rio Caqueta in the Colombian Amazon, brown anthropic soil formed where "cultivation was done in the mature or second- ary forest in a semi-intensive way, probably located away Culture & Agriculture 55 Vol. 20, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
  3. 3. from the living area, and always done in the same place to improve the soil" (Andrade 1986:54, in Mora et al. 199177).4 The Araracuara project is a long-term study by Colombian archaeologists and ecologists (Mora et al. 1991). The project has investigated terra preta sites on a high bluff. Settlement at one of these sites, Abeja (6 ha.), was nearly continuous for 800 years (1565-775 B.P.) Pollen indicates large quantities of fruit trees, along with maize, manioc, and other crops. The soil scientists involved believe that permanent cultivation was made possible by the transport to fields of alluvial silt from the river and incorporation of organic matter consisting of do- mestic waste, dead leaves, wood, weeds, and algae—a major labor investment. Another study of upland terra preta sites is the 1996 disser- tation by archaeologist Michael Heckenberger in the Upper Xingu Basin. As in other parts of southwestern Amazonia, in- cluding Mojos in Bolivia, many prehistoric and historical sites are encircled by defensive moats, several moats in some in- stances. He found 19 sites in forests near streams, with terra preta soils. One, Nokugu, is 40 ha (15 ha of terra preta), and another, Kuhikugu, is 50 ha (mostly dark brown terra preta). (Recent Kuikuru villages near both ancient villages are only a few hectares in size.) Besides the ditches there are mounds and causeways. At Nokugu, there is cultural and occupational continuity from A.D. 950 to after 1500, with a large plaza fixed in place the entire time, and a possible late population of 2,500 given the apparent occupation of the full area (except for the plaza) within two moats. Why the second, outer moat? Heckenberger believes that the only reason for digging a second moat was because population growth filled the area within the inner moat. This is part of his argument for the full site being occupied atone time, rather than being periodically reoccupied by small villages. These large villages were pro- bably supported by relatively intensive agriculture, including use 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 of houses surrounded by agriculture, as evidenced by non-mid- den brown soils. But even if a terra preta site of 100 ha was only 20 percent occupied at one time by houses and associ- ated activity areas, 20 ha is still a very large village compared to the much smaller villages of today. In any event, it is becoming apparent that large areas of terra preta are not middens, but rather are zones of cultivation that: (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 the agricultural zone. The fertile terra pretas created, both black and brown, themselves became the foci of cultivation and hence settlement, a self-perpetuating process. Such a site could have begun as a single household at a natural tree-fall farm plot, gradually being enlarged with stone axes, the ulti- mate village size possibly having nothing to do with natural soils but rather with particular local or regional social events and relationships. Today in the uplands new terra preta is seldom created by either Indians or settlers.5 (One example would be in long- lasting house gardens.) Considerable time is required for terra preta formation, decades or more, whether from middens or from semi-intensive cultivation practices. Now Indian villages are usually moved too frequently and cultivation is of too brief duration for terra preta to form. Possible Cropping Systems on Terra Firme I 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 social friction, but it is made possible by the steel axe which makes clearing new plots a relatively easy process—a matter of a few weeks 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 is now the norm because it is easier than coping with the ag- gressive weeds associated with permanent cultivation. (The same is true on limestone and volcanic soils in Yucatan and Central 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 the nature of prehistoric upland agriculture? We do not know and may never know. However, there are several possibilities: (1) House gardens: permanent plots of mixed annuals and perennials around houses, with careful weed control and soil management using household refuse for fertilizer. Lathrap (1977), in his classic article "Our Father the Cayman, Our Mother the Gourd," maintained that the earliest agriculture in Amazonia was in such house gardens. He believed that the first gardens were along or near rivers; however, they were undoubtedly 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 village shifting. (2) Intensive swiddens: located on sites where tree clearing was relatively easy, such as naturally disturbed places with young 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 Waika Culture & Agriculture 56 Vol. 20, Nos. 2J3 Summer/Fall 1998
  4. 4. (Yanomamo) of the Upper Orinoco, which are cultivated for up to six years. Such fields contrast with the monocultural swidden dominated by a single species, usually manioc, which is the common form of tropical-forest Indian field today. Most current monocultural fields are long fallow and are only used for only one to three years. Beckerman (1983:4- 6) gives several reasons for the monocultural field, but he does not consider the role of the steel axe in making short-lived swiddens feasible. Intensive swiddens (short fallow or semi-permanent) were possible, given known indigenous practices today. Weeds could have been controlled by shading and hand weeding; pests could have been reduced by crop diversifica- tion; soils could have been artificially maintained to varying degrees by short fallowing, mulching/composting, in-field burning, and other internal and external organic inputs (Hecht and Posey 1989:180-186); and fertile soils could have been unintentionally created by settlement and cultivation ac- tivity in theformof terra preta. Labor inputs often would have been 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. This assumes that time and energy are critical factors, and they usually 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 as bamboo. 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 could have obtained additional production from small outlying patches. The Kayapo villagers today plant both domesticates and semi-domesticates in natural clearings created by tree falls, 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: "we came to a place where a huge tree had fallen, taking several smaller trees with it. Among the tangle of fallen limbs, tobacco plants were growing" (Price 1989:127). (4) Agroforestry: forest manipulation via intentional and unintentional planting and management of perennial crops along trails, campsites, fallow swiddens, and other activity areas (Posey 1985; Denevan and Padoch 1988). These "food forests" contained domesticates, semi-domesticates, and spon- taneous tree growth, much of which was managed for useful species. Suggestions of this can be seen in the Kayapo "forest fields" 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 was detrimental to such forest management. Clearing and weed- ing by hand better allows for decisions as to what plants are to survive and which are to be destroyed, whereas slashing by machete tends to be less selective. He believes that polycul- tural milpas were an integrated component of anthropogenic forests. However, while agroforestry systems do not require frequent clearing, they are "shade" systems which suppress weeds; thus they are not conducive to production of staple annual 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 numerous transitional forms and combinations, varying with habitat, mobility, time, and demography. These activities, plus forag- ing, contributed to the creation of anthropogenic forests, or semi-managed forests, with a larger than natural number of useful plants present. The Amazon forest was not pristine in 1492, nor is it today. Probably all of these forms of agriculture and agroforestry were present in the terra firme in a mosaic of variable population densities that may have included sectors of sparse semi-nomadic foragers; small but permanently set- tled households and extended families; and in some selected places large and permanent fields and associated villages, such as on Amazon bluffs, in the Upper Xingu Basin, and in the 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 coming back repeatedly and frequently to the same site and/or by the shifting of houses and fields within the same site, the inter- fluve terra preta black and brown soils could have been created. Conclusion The evidence is still preliminary, but it appears that on terra firme relatively intensive prehistoric agriculture pro- duced a long-lasting, self-perpetuating, fertile, anthropogenic soil (terra preta), which made possible continuing cultivation that in some places supported relatively large and fairly per- manent villages. How widespread large and small terra preta sites are we do not yet know. Regardless, the implications for both past and present tropical agriculture are startling6 '7 Upland Amazonian soils are considered by many to be mostly 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 itself created fertile soils. What a paradox! Culture & Agriculture 57 Vol. 20, Nos. 2J3 Summer/Vail 1998
  5. 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 17 percent 2 Falesi (1974:210-214) discusses possible natural origins of terra preta. 3 Soil color and other characteristics of terra preta vary considerably. Undoubtedly different kinds of terra preta originated under different human circumstances and on different original soils (Sombroek 1966: 252-253). 4 However, Eden et al. (1984:137), who also worked on the soils during the early stages of the Araracuara Project, stated that: "there is no reason to assume that the soils themselves were originally the direct result of agricultural activity." Thus there is a difference of opinion with Andrade. ^abst (1993:142) in his study of villages of five contemporary terra firme Indian groups in the eastern Amazon found little evidence of active terra preta formation in sectors of refuse accumulation and no intentional effort to create terra preta. 6 Woods 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 not be necessary to maintain a reasonable fertility." Thus, "agricultural sys- tems more in-tensive than shifting cultivation seem possible" (Woods, pers. comm.). 7 Sombroek (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. References Alcorn,Janis B. 1984 Huastec Mayan Ethnobotany. Austin: University of Texas Press. Andrade, Angela 1986 Investigacion arqueologica de los antrosoles de Araracuara. Fundacion de Investigaciones Arqueologicas Nacionales. Bogota: Banco de la Republica. Beckerman, Stephen 1983 Does the Swidden Ape the Jungle? Human Ecology 11: 1-12. 1987 Swidden in Amazonia and the Amazon Rim. In Comparative Farming Systems. B.L. Turner and Steven B. Brush, eds. Pp. 55-94. New York: Guilford Press. Colchester, Marcus 1984 Rethinking Stone Age Economics: Some Speculations Concerning the Pre-Columbian Yanoama Economy. Human Ecology 12:291-314. Denevan, William M. 1966 The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia. Ibero Americana 48. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1992 Stone vs Metal Axes: The Ambiguity of Shifting Cultivation in Prehistoric Amazonia. Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 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 York Botanical Garden. Eden, Michael J., Warwick Bray, Leonor Herrera, and Colin McEwan 1984 Terra Preta Soils and their Archaeological Context in the Caqueta Basin of Southeast Colombia. American Antiquity 49:125-140. Erickson, Clark L. 1995 Archaeological Methods for the Study of Ancient Landscapes of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon. In Archae- ology in the Lowland American Tropics: Current Analytical Methods and Applications. Peter W. Stahl, ed. Pp. 66-95. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Falesi, Italo Claudio 1974 Soils of the Brazilian Amazon. In Man in the Amazon, Charles Wagley, ed. Pp. 201-229. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida. Gordon, Burton L. 1982 A Panama Forest and Shore: Natural History and Amerindian Culture in Bocas del Toro. Pacific Grove: Boxwood Press. Gross, Daniel R. 1983 Village Movement in Relation to Resources in Amazonia. /?i Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians. Raymond B. Hames and William T. Vickers, eds. Pp. 429^149. New York Academic Press. Harris, David R. 1971 The Ecology of Swidden Cultivation in the Upper Orinoco Rain Forest, Venezuela. Geographical Review 61:475-495. Hecht, Susanna B. and Darrell A. Posey 1989 Preliminary Results on Soil Management Techniques of the Kayapo 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: Sociopolitical Change in the Upper Xingu of Southeastern Amazonia, A.D. 1400-2000. Ph.D. dissertation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh. 1998 Manioc Agriculture and Sedentism in Amazonia: The Upper Xingu Example. Antiquity 72:633-648. Hill, Kim and Hillard Kaplan 1989. Population and Dry-Season Subsistence Strategies of the Re- cently Contacted Yora of Peru. National Geographic Research 5:317-334. Culture & Agriculture 58 Vol. ID, Nos. 2/3 Summer/Fall 1998
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