Vegetational Fluctuation and Prehistoric Cultural Adaptation in Amazonia: Some Tentative
Author(s): Betty J. Meggers
Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 8, No. 3, Human Biogeography (Feb., 1977), pp. 287-303
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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WorldArchaeology Volume8 No. 3
Vegetational fluctuation and prehistoric
cultural adaptation in Amazonia: some
Betty J. Meggers
The great rain forest that extends from eastern Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia
across southern Venezuela to the Atlantic and over most of the Amazon river network in
Brazil has fascinated Europeans and their descendants since its discovery. Initially
explorers and settlers were lured by the prospect that untapped riches lay concealed
beneath the magnificent vegetation, and this quest continues despite centuries of
disillusionment. More recently, biologists have been intrigued by the problem of recon-
ciling the great diversity of plant and animal life with the absence of natural barriers
to interbreeding and dispersal. Archaeological and linguistic evidence also exhibit greater
heterogeneity than seems warranted, given the multitude of waterways facilitating
communication throughout the lowlands.
A solution to the biological paradox was proposed by Haffer (I969), who postulated
that several times during the Quaternarythe forest was reduced to 'refugia' or enclaves
separated by savanna or parkland. Formerly interacting populations of forest fauna were
isolated long enough to differentiate into races, sub-species or full species. Each time the
vegetation coalesced, the flora and fauna of the refugia were brought into contact and
competition. There were some extinctions, but the more common outcome was adapta-
tion to different niches, permitting coexistence of increasing numbers of taxa. For
non-forest plants and animals, the opposite occurred: they were able to invade Amazonia
as corridors opened in the rain forest and were isolated, altered or exterminated when
their habitat was diminished or destroyed.
This refugia model, developed by Haffer from analysis of the present distributions of
forest birds, has been successful in accounting for the geographical patterning of other
organisms. When the sizes and locations of the hypothesized forest remnants are com-
pared, they differ less than might be expected given the indirect, incomplete and varied
nature of the evidence. Dating is tentative, but Carbon-14 results obtained so farindicate
that the two most recent periods of fragmentation impinge upon or postdate man's arrival
in South America. It is unlikely that environmental changes of the magnitude inferred
by the biologists would have affected human beings and examination of the linguistic,
archaeologicaland ethnographic datareveals several features suggestive of environmental
stress. A summary of the biological model will serve as a basis for interpreting the
288 Betty J. Meggers
Forest refuges reconstructed from animal and plant distributions
Forest birds Haffer (1969: fig. 5) combined inferences derived from modern patterns
of avian distribution, variations in rainfall and data on paleoclimate to reconstruct nine
locations where forest appearedto have persisted during arid intervals in the Quaternary.
Subsequently, more detailed analysis of two families, toucans (Ramphastidae) and
jacamars (Galbulidae), led him to add five small regions in Venezuela and eastern Brazil,
and to adjust the size or shape of some of those previously proposed (fig. 4; Haffer 1974).
He also postulated survival of gallery forest along major waterways. Shrinkage of the
Figure4 The presentextentof the tropicalrainforest(Amazonia),comparedwith the locations
of the refugiapostulatedfrommoderndistributionsof birds(cross-hatch)andlizards(outline).
The arrowsindicateroutes of intrusionof non-forestfaunafrom open habitatsto the south
duringthe periodof reductionof the forest.(AfterHaffer1969:fig. 5; 1974:fig. 13:; Vanzolini
1970: map 7; Meggers 1971: fig. 6.)
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 289
forest not only affected the composition of species in this biome; it also provided oppor-
tunities for non-forest fauna to expand into and across the lowlands from the south.
Relict populations in isolated patches of savanna, especially in the interior of the Guianas
and between some of the southern tributaries of the Amazon, testify to the former
continuity of open vegetation and provide a basis for postulating routes of dispersal
(fig. 4; Haffner i969: 134).
These refugia are generalizations of repeated ebbs and flows during the Quaternary.
Haffer (I969: I35; I974: 17I) observes that birds with rapid reproductive rates may
require no more than 20,000 to 30,000 years, and perhaps only a few thousand years, to
achieve speciation. At the opposite extreme, slow-breeding species may require several
hundred thousand years. With regard to Amazonia, he concludes that 'some of the more
strongly differentiated species probably originated in early Pleistocene refuges, while
most other species and semi-species may date back to the late Pleistocene or, in the case
of the latter, to the post-Pleistocene only' (I969: 135-6).
Forest Lizards While Haffer was developing a model of climatic fluctuation and vege-
tational change from patterns of bird distribution, Vanzolini (I970) was arriving at
similar conclusions from analysis of the ranges and degrees of differentiation exhibited
by two genera of forest lizards: Coleodactylusand Anolis. His refugia are fewer and
smaller than those proposed by Haffer; they are also peripheral to the lowlands and more
closely correlated with relief (fig. 4; Vanzolini 43 and Map 7). The biogeographical
evidence led him to infer two or three periods of forest fragmentation. The most recent,
during which Anolis chrysolepisdiverted into four well defined sub-species, is estimated
to have occurred some 2,700 years ago (I970: 42).
Vanzoloni considers that this model 'explains perfectly why patterns of differentiation
in the center of the basin are generally complicated and confused. This area reflects the
fusion of numerous stocks differentiated on the periphery and brought into contact
during a period of ecological complexity, such as the reconstitution of the forest' (I970:
44; also I973).
Woodyplants When Prance (I973) analyzed the distribution of genera and species of
four families of woody plants that occur over most of northern lowland South America,
he found them compatible with the model of past climatic change. The inability of many
primary trees to survive in habitats that have been significantly reduced in size, or to
recolonize areas that have been extensively disturbed, led him to conclude, however,
that the refugia must have been larger and more numerous than those postulated by the
zoologists. He proposed sixteen enclaves, which include most of those inferred by Haffer
(1974) plus a large expanse east of the junction between the Negro and the Amazon
(fig. 2, area 13) and smaller ones in western Amazonia between the Solim6es and the
Jurua (fig. 5, areas 11-12; Prance 1973: fig. 24).
Other botanists have expressed similar reservations about the ability of rain-forest
vegetation to survive in refugia as small as those suggested by Haffer and Vanzolini, or
to expand as rapidly as would be necessary for coalescence within the span of time
available (e.g. G6mez-Pompa, et al. I972; Langenheim, et al. I973: 33).
290 Betty J. Meggers
Heliconiusbutterflies Butterflies of the genus Heliconius are remarkablefor their ability
to mimic the colors and patterns of other Lepidoptera, with the result that a species may
be composed of several races that differ markedly in appearance. The most satisfactory
explanation for such striking phenotypical diversification is the isolation of populations
of Heliconius, followed by natural selection that 'encouraged' survival of individuals
most similar to the commonest distasteful species confined to the same refuge (Brown
et al. 1974; Brown and Benson 1974: 226).
The refugia reconstructed from the present ranges of the species and races of Heliconius
and other butterflies are more comparable to those proposed by Prance than to the
extreme reductions hypothesized by the other zoologists, but are even more numerous
Figure5 Forestrefugia,reconstructedfromthe presentdistributionsof fourfamiliesof woody
plants(hachure)andseveralracesandspeciesof butterflies(outline).(AfterPrance1973:fig. 24;
Brown,Sheppardand Turner I974: fig. 3.)
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 29I
(fig. 5; Brown et al. 1974: fig. 3). Although the entomologists do not suggest a time scale,
the fact that they areoften dealing with races ratherthan species or even sub-species may
imply a relatively short period of isolation.
Direct evidence for Quaternary climatic change
Geologyandpalynology Although information is scattered, it is sufficient to demonstrate
that alternations between forest and savanna occurred repeatedly over much of the
lowlands during the Quaternary. Lateritic horizons and paleopavements have been
observed in the following regions: Belem-Maraj6, Santarem (two strata), lower Rio
Tocantins, Roraima,Amapa (two strata), Cuiaba and Brasilia.The geomorphology of the
Rio Caronivalley in easternVenezuela and of valleys in eastern Peru testifies to recurring
dry episodes (Vanzolini 1970: 41; Haffer 1974: I37). Pollen profiles from forested
portions of coastal Guyana and Surinam, southwestern Guyana, the Colombian llanos
and Rondonia in southwestern Brazil reveal that savanna prevailed during one or more
periods of increased aridity (Van der Hammen I972; Haffer 1974; I37-8, 140-I). By
contrast, the Maranhao highlands of northeastern Brazil, the Mato Grosso de Goias on
the eastern margin of Amazonia and the Tumuc-Humac range dividing Brazil from the
Guianas appear to have remained permanently forested (Vanzolini 1970: 42-3). As yet,
these data are insufficient to define the boundaries of the refugia or to identify the
Chronology A few Carbon-14 dates provide a general time framework for the two most
recent disruptions of the forest. In southern Brazil, the last period began between
about 3,500 and 3,280 years ago and ended about 2,680 years ago. In eastern Colombia,
the corresponding ages are 3,095 and 1,99o years ago (Vanzolini 1970: 42). On the basis
of geomorphical evidence from several parts of Brazil, this episode has been bracketed
between about 4000 and 2500 B.P. (Haffer 1974: I42). Consideration of sea-level change
and geological data suggests a slightly earlier inception and longer duration, between
5,ooo and 2,300 years ago (Miiller I973: I89). These differences in age estimates reflect
the paucity of evidence, unequal precision of methods of dating, local variations in rates
of change, discrepancies in the portions of the cycle being dated and other variables.
The chronological boundaries of the preceding period are even more uncertain. Study
of ocean sediments originating in the Guyana and Brazilian shields suggests that arid
conditions prevailed about 11,000 years ago (Vanzolini 1970: 42). Palynological data
from the eastern cordillera of the Colombian Andes indicate that 'the interval between
ca. 21 000 and ca. 13 000 B.P. was considerably drier than... the periods just before or
after that interval' (Van der Hammen 1972: 64I). Evidence that the climate was more
moist gooo9000to Io,ooo years ago than at present provides a terminal date for this episode
(Haffer I974: I40-I).
292 Betty J. Meggers
The biological model
Comparison of the refugia postulated from the present distributions of several types of
organisms reveals that they fall into two general categories. One is composed of small
and widely separated remnants (fig. 4); the other of larger, more numerous and less
isolated areas (fig. 5). Even when the incompleteness of the data, differences in rates of
evolution, hazards of inferring past distributions from existing ones and other potential
sources of distortion are taken into consideration, the discrepancies seem sufficiently
great to imply that different episodes of forest fragmentation may be represented. This
interpretation is compatible with the nature of the biological evidence: the small and
peripheral areas proposed by Haffner and Vanzolini are based on the analysis of higher
categories of taxa, which suggest greater antiquity of separation than the sub-species and
races studied by the entomologists.
Allocation of the two types of refugia reconstructions to different episodes also seems
warranted by the existing dates. The earlier period seems to have been about five times
longer than the later one (about Io,ooo versus about 2,000 years' duration) and ten
thousand years of lowered rainfall would have permitted (or caused) more extreme
alteration in the vegetation than is likely to have been achieved in 2,ooo years. Thus,
the smaller enclaves can be tentatively equated with the earlier, longer episode and the
larger ones with the more recent, briefer disruption.
In employing this dichotomy as a working hypothesis, it is essential to keep in mind
that the refugia reconstructions presumably depict climax situations. The retreat and
advance of the forest is likely to have been gradual, but we do not know how much time
it consumed. Was the rate constant or variable?Was it faster in some parts of Amazonia
than in others? When was the climax reached and how long did it endure? These are
among the uncertainties that affect an attempt to correlate cultural distributions with
the refugia model.
Application of the refugia model to cultural distributions
Anthropologists possess three categories of data potentially useful for reconstructing
the past: linguistic, archaeological and ethnographic. Their inherent limitations as
indicators of prehistoric events are enhanced in Amazonia by the small amount of
systematic investigation. Large parts of the lowlands are unknown archaeologically;
numerous languages are represented by only a few words; many indigenous groups are
acculturated or extinct. Furthermore, the fact that language and culture are independent
variables prevents automatic transfer of reconstructions based on either type of data to
the other. In spite of these handicaps, some of the characteristics observed by bio-
geographers can be discerned, among them localized heterogeneity, disjunct distributions
and widespread dispersals. Examples of these phenomena provide a basis for judging
the relevance of the refugia model to the reconstruction of Amazonian prehistory.
Linguistic distributions At first glance, linguistic maps of northern lowland South
America appear hopelessly confused (fig. 6). The two best known are by Mason (1950)
Vegetationalfluctuation and prehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 293
and Loukotka (I967). They differ in detail, but exhibit several general similarities. First,
both classifications include numerous small relict families, which tend to be concentrated
around the margins of Amazonia. Second, some families have disjunct or discontinuous
distributions, implying interference with formerly continuous ranges. Third, each of the
three major families (Arawakan, Tupi-Guaranian, and Cariban) contains at least one
language that is spoken over an extensive area.These kinds of phenomena areinterpreted
by biogeographers as indicating past disruptions of the habitat and it is reasonable to
attribute their linguistic occurrence to the same cause.
I PUINAVEAN - MACU
Figure6 Locationsof the principallanguagesof lowlandSouthAmerica,basedonthe classifica-
tion by Mason.Noteworthyarethe concentrationof isolatedlanguagesor relictfamilieson the
peripheryof Amazonia,the disjunctdistributionsof languagesbelongingto fourminorfamilies
(Caingang,Panoan, Tucanoan, Puinavean-Maci), and the widespreaddispersalof the three
largestfamilies(Arawakan,Tupi-Guaranian,Cariban).(AfterMason I950: map.)
294 Betty J. Meggers
A more general classification that combines all South American languages into four
ancestral stocks has been proposed by Greenberg (I960). Two are insignificant in
Amazonia, but the other two display some intriguing patterns of distribution. When
the locations of groups assigned to Ge-Pano-Carib are compared with the refugia maps,
they suggest that dispersal occurred during the earlier episode of forest reduction. In
fact, the routes postulated by Haffer for the intrusion of non-forest fauna into and across
Amazonia from open habitats to the south lead toward, or pass through, most of the
areasoccupied by speakers of languages belonging to this stock (fig. 7). If this correlation
is valid, it implies that reconstitution of the forest around ten thousand years ago injected
an ecological wedge into central Amazonia that isolated groups to the north from those
Figure7 Distributionof the primarylinguistic stocks, reconstructedby Greenberg(1960) for
northernSouth America.The correlationbetween the areasassignedto Ge-Pano-Cariband
the routesof faunaldispersalproposedby Hafferis extremelyclose. (AfterStewardand Faron
1959: 23; Mason I950: map; Haffer I969: fig. 5.)
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 295
AI I' 'TUPI-GUARANI
V EM PURUBORA
Figure8 Correlationbetweenthe archaeologicalphases assignedto the Tupiguaranitradition
(circles)andthe distributionof speakersof coastalTupi-Guaranianatthe timeof firstreporting.
Glottochronologicaland Carbon-14 estimates place the arrival of this population on the
Braziliancoast about i,200 years ago. Concentrationof representativesof six of the Tupian
familiesin southwesternAmazoniamakesit the probablehomeland.(AfterMeggersandEvans
to the south long enough to permit differentiation of Ge-Pano-Carib into subfamilies
Evaluation of the role of the refugia in subsequent linguistic diversification is facilitated
by detailed information on Tupian and Arawakan, which belong to the Equatorial
division of Greenberg's Andean-Equatorial stock. Rodrigues (1955, i958a: 234) has
assigned to Tupian all languages that share at least I2 percent of their standardvocabula-
ries. He recognizes seven families, the largest (Tupi-Guarani) composed of six sub-
families, twenty languages and numerous dialects. At the opposite extreme are fivefamilies,twentylanguagesandnumerousdialects.At the oppsositeextremearefive
296 Betty J. Meggers
families containing no subfamilies and only one to five languages. The presence of
representatives of six of the seven families in southwestern Amazonia suggests this region
was the center of origin and dispersal (fig. 8). Glottochronological estimates place the
separation of Tupian from other members of the Equatorial division about five thousand
years ago, the origin of the widespread Tupi-Guarani family about 2,500 years ago, and
differentiation of the latter into subfamilies about 1,2oo years ago (fig. 9; Rodrigues
The emergence of Proto-Arawakan has been estimated by Noble (1965: 107) to have
occurred between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago in southeastern Peru. This agrees with
Rodrigues' reconstruction of the time and place of origin of Tupian and indirectly
supports Greenberg's assignment of these languages to a common ancestor in the Equa-
torial division. Differentiation of Proto-Maipuran into six subgroups appearsto have been
MACRO-CHl8CHAN - -
_4 4 .
GE- PANO-CARIB -
ANDEAN- EQUATORIAL -
-' - EQUATORIAL
Figure 9 Correlationbetween periods of majordiversificationin South Americanlanguages
estimatedby glottochronology,and the durationsof the two most recent episodes of forest
fragmentation,datedby Carbon-14.Familiesin the Equatorialdivisionof Andean-Equatorial
seem to have divergeda little beforethe onset of the last aridperiod; Tupian and the Proto-
Maipuranbranchof Arawakan,as it was drawingto a close. Arawakanseparatedinto seven
segments about the climax of the episode. (After Greenberg I960; Noble 1965; Rodrigues
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 297
generally contemporary with the divergence of Tupian into seven families, since both
classifications define these categories by the possession of about thirty-six percent
cognates. Noble (I965: io8, IIo), however, recognizes an earlier episode of Arawakan
divergence, when Taino (spoken in the GreaterAntilles at the time of European contact),
Proto-Uruan (spoken in the Titicaca area of highland Peru-Bolivia), and four other
Arawakan groups separated form Proto-Maipuran. Glottochronology places this event
about 3,300 years ago (ibid: III).
Assuming that their origin has been reconstructed correctly, it is of interest to see
whether the differentiations and dispersals of Arawakan and Tupian can be attributed
to the most recent episode of forest fragmentation, tentatively dated by Carbon-I4
between about 4,000 and 2,000 years ago. At first glance, the correlation appears poor
(fig. 9). Arawakan and Tupian separated about a millennium before its inception;
Arawakanbegan differentiating prior to the middle of the period; Proto-Maipuran and
Tupian were diverging half a millennium before it ended. These dates are all tenuous,
however, and some authorities place the onset of fragmentation around 5,000 years ago
and reconstitution of the forest about 2,500 to 2,300 years ago. Better agreement with
the glottochronological estimates is not necessarily an indication of greater accuracy
however, because the rate of linguistic change may be in error. Furthermore, local
conditions probably accelerated or decelerated the climatic and vegetational transitions,
which in turn increased or reduced the adaptive pressures of human populations. The
uncorrected nature of the Carbon-14 results is another potential source of error when
comparisons are made with dates obtained by different methods. Given these and other
uncertainties, the correlation between periods of major linguistic and environmental
change is good enough to warrant the suspicion that they are related.
Archaeologicaldistributions Prior to European contact most Amazonian tools, weapons
and other kinds of objects were made from perishable materials. The possibility is
consequently slight of encountering sites belonging to the period prior to the introduction
of pottery making about 3,000 years ago. The Zoned Hachure tradition of Amazonia is
known mainly from the island of Marajo,where it has a terminal age of about 2,900 years.
The diagnostic decorative technique, broad-line incision, was employed to create geo-
metric patterns or to outline zones filled with fine cross-hachure. The presence of similar
ornamentation on earlier pottery from Ecuador and Colombia suggests an intrusion
from the northwest (Meggers I975: 156-7). Pottery of the Barrancoidtradition, which was
being made in the delta of the Orinoco about 2,800 years ago, is also decorated by
incision, but motifs and vessel shapes are different. The antecedents of this tradition
appear to be on the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Sanoja I976).
The inceptions of the Zoned Hachure and Barrancoid ceramic traditions fall within
the most recent period of forest fragmentation. This, added to their affiliations with
northern Andean complexes, suggests that settlement of Amazonia by groups adapted
to more open habitats was facilitated by the presence of 'corridors' of parkland. This
hypothesis also accounts for the lag of about a millennium between adoption of pottery
making throughout the Andean area and its spread into the lowlands.
One widely disseminated language that can be traced archaeologically is the coastal
branch of Tupi-Guarani (fig. 8). Historical information and association with objects of
298 Betty J. Meggers
European origin indicate that pottery decorated principally by polychrome painting and
corrugationis associated with speakersof Tupi-Guarani. Extensive archaeologicalsurvey
has permitted establishment of numerous localized relative sequences, identification of
about a hundred Tupi-Guarani archaeological phases, and verification via Carbon-I4
dating of a dispersal from south to north (Meggers and Evans 1973: 54-56). Dates from
several sites in southern Brazil place the arrivalof this ceramic tradition about 1300 years
ago, which agrees with the glottochronological estimate of about 1200 years ago for the
differentiation of Tupi-Guaranian. Although the region between the Brazilian coast and
the base of the Andes is too little known as yet to follow the trail toward the west, the
fact that both painting and corrugation occur several centuries earlierin the Andean area
supports the linguistic evidence for intrusion from this direction. Where and when the
language and the ceramic tradition joined remain to be established.
Ethnographicdistributions No obvious correlation exists between the refugia and any
of the culture areas that have been defined in Amazonia (e.g. Murdock 195I: fig. I;
Steward 1948: map 8; Galvao 1967: map 4). An indication that this lack of agreement
reflects emphasis on traits susceptible to adaptive pressures is provided by the combina-
tion of cultural homogeneity and linguistic diversity along the upper Rio Uaupes in
northwestern Amazonia (Sorensen I967: 670; Galvao I967: i8I). The existence of more
than twenty-five distinct languages representing several families implies cultural conver-
gence by groups with heterogeneous ancestry. The possibility that patterns more in
keeping with linguistic and archaeological evidence for past mobility can be obtained
from analysis of other kinds of ethnographic traits is provided by the distributions of
pole snares and simple nooses for trapping game. Confinement of the former to the
northern and southern periphery suggests they were displaced in the interviewing low-
lands by users of simple nooses (Ryden 1950: fig. 25; see also Meggers I975: 155-6).
Although there is no direct means of estimating antiquity, it seems reasonable to equate
the introduction of simple nooses with the coalescence of the forest some ten thousand
The refugiamodel offersa new perspective for interpretingother puzzling ethnographic
patterns. Within the Amazon Basin, Steward distinguished six varieties of Tropical
Forest culture and five disjunct enclaves occupied by groups that made little or no use of
domesticated plants (fig. io). The best explanation he could propose was that the latter
regions were 'difficult of access in pre-Columbian times no less than in modern times to
essentially riparian peoples'; inventions and discoveries associated with agricultural
subsistence 'flowed along the coast and up the main waterways, stopping where streams
were less navigable andleaving the hinterlandtribes on a moreprimitive level' (1948: 883).
He also commented that 'more advanced technologies were absent to a surprising degree,
even among the tribes who adjoined or formed enclaves within the Tropical Forest
peoples and would seem to have had considerable opportunity for borrowing' (I949: 691).
The fact that a negative correlation seems to exist between regions occupied by hunter-
gatherers and the postulated locations of the most recent refugia (fig. 5) suggests a
different hypothesis; namely, when the forest was replaced by savanna, the inhabitants
abandoned agriculture (if they had begun to practice it) for an economy based on wild
foods, which they retained when the forest returned. From this perspective, their failure
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 299
Figureo1 Subdivisionsof the TropicalForestculturearearecognizedby Steward(numbered),
agriculturalists(stipple). The negative correlationbetween the locationsof hunter-gatherers
and the postulatedrefugia(cf. fig. 5) may be significant.(After StewardI948: map 8.)
to adopt 'more advanced technologies' indicates achievement of an efficient adaptation
to the environment.
Areas dominated by incipient agriculture tend to overlap with refugia. Did greater
environmental stability encourage the development and persistence of their subsistence
orientation? The distribution of slash-and-burn agriculturalists has no apparent relation
to previous vegetational patterns. Does this imply that the Tropical Forest type of
culture spread over the lowlands during the two millennia since the last coalescence of the
forest? The combination of widespread distribution of the diagnostic traits - cultivation
300 Betty J. Meggers
of tropical root crops, effective watercraft,hammocks and manufacture of pottery (Lowie
I948: i)- with regional or tribal diversity in dress, ornaments, featherwork and other
cultural elements (Steward I948: 885-6) becomes understandable if the Tropical Forest
life style is a recent development. The archaeological evidence that pottery making is a
relatively late introduction also supports this hypothesis.
The recognition that Amazonia has suffered successive episodes of fragmentation of the
forest during and since the Pleistocene provides biologists with a mechanism for explain-
ing the extensive speciation, disjunct distributions of taxa, and other biogeographical
features that could not be accounted for in the absence of natural barriers to inter-
breeding and dispersal. The same kinds of patterns are discernible in linguistic, archaeo-
logical and ethnographic data, implying that human beings were similarly affected by
the ebb and flow of the forest. Although geological, palynological, biogeographical and
cultural types of evidence are all limited and often tenuous, the correspondences in
patterning and chronology are too close to be coincidental.
Comparison of the manner in which the refugia model has been applied to biological
and cultural phenomena reveals an interesting difference. Perhaps because the overriding
problem for biologists has been explaining the diversity of the tropical forest biome, they
have emphasized the role of refugia in isolating populations and inhibiting dispersal.
Linguistic and archaeological data suggest, however, that Homo sapiens often became
more mobile as the forest disappeared. Culture may be a significant variable here, since
it provides human beings with the capacity to store and transport food while searching
for more productive habitats, and to switch readily from one type of diet to another. The
existence of ethnohistorical reports that coastalTupian speakerswere migrating in search
of an earthly paradise at the time of European contact raises the possibility that some
earlier dispersals may also have been purposeful and of long duration. Other groups
probably adapted to changing conditions or followed the plants and animals upon which
they depended for subsistence. While human beings were strongly affected by fluctuations
in their environment, the 'choice' between surviving in a forest remnant or becoming
extinct was mitigated by the possession of culture.
The occurrence of several episodes of reduction and coalescence of the lowland
tropical forest during and since the Pleistocene provides a new and exciting context for
analyzing prehistoric cultural development. In addition to offering an explanation for
several puzzling features of the linguistic and archaeological data, this model calls
attention to the potential significance of less obtrusive phenomena. For example, do the
differences in degree of emphasis on wild foods that characterize Tropical Forest agri-
culturalists reflect differences in the length of time since they adopted domesticated
plants? What impact did the oscillating environment have on the process of domestica-
tion? On population density? On migration into and out of Amazonia? Two things are
(I) given the differential shortcomings of linguistic, archaeological and ethnographic
evidence, finding the answers to these questions will require collaboration between
specialists in all three disciplines.
Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 301
(2) given the immensity of Amazonia, tribal and regional studies are unlikely to provide
a sufficiently broad perspective. As Vanzolini once observed: 'The phenomena of
differentiation can only be understood in their totality' (1970: 44).
I.viii. 1976 Departmentof Anthropology
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Vegetationalfluctuation andprehistoriccultural adaptation in Amazonia 303
Vegetational fluctuation and prehistoric cultural adaptation in Amazonia:
some tentative correlations
Biogeographicalstudies have generatedthe hypothesis that the remarkablylarge number of
plant and animalspecies inhabitingAmazoniaare a consequenceof severalepisodes of forest
fragmentation and coalescence, in which periods of isolation that permitted biological
differentiationalternatedwith periods of renewed interaction.Geological and palynological
evidencesupportthis reconstruction,but dataareinsufficientto permitdefinitionof the dimen-
sions andlocationsof the refugia,or to separateone episodefromanother.Dating is tentative,
but the two most recent episodes appearto fall within the span of humanoccupationof the
continent.Examinationof linguistic,archaeologicaland ethnographicdatarevealswidespread
dispersals,disjunctdistributionsand otherpatternsof the kinds observedby biogeographers.
GlottochronologicalandCarbon-14datescorrelatewell enoughwith estimatesforthe durations
of the forest refugiato suggest that the biogeographicalmodel is useful for interpretingpre-