The pristine Amazon – a zone of contention

By Razib Khan | September 12, 2010 12:53 pm

Mexico.Pue.Cholula.Pyramid.01Last week there was an article in The Washington Post that caught my eye, Scientists find evidence discrediting theory Amazon was virtually unlivable. The headline flattens a complex and roiling debate within academia. A generation ago the forests of the Amazon basin were seen as a pristine climax ecosystem. In the 1990s and 2000s that view started shifting, with the maximalist revisionisms recounted in Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. The general thesis is that the much of the Amazon was a managed ecosystem run for the benefit of a large population, but that the social systems collapsed under the weight of European diseases introduced after 1492. Naturally there are still some holdouts from the older paradigm who are deeply skeptical of the emerging consensus. From the article:

The number of scientists who disagree has diminished, but influential critics remain, none more so than Betty J. Meggers, director of Latin American archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution. She said the new theories are based more on wishful thinking than science.

“I’m sorry to say that archaeologists like to produce sensational refutation of previous theories,” said Meggers, whose 1971 book, “Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise,” holds that the region is unfit for large-scale habitation. “You know, this is how you get your promotions.”

800px-Alto_orinoco5 (1)The main body of the piece is devoted to the revisionists who are probably transforming themselves into the new orthodox paradigm, and I can’t help but wonder if the reference to the date that Betty J. Meggers published her book is a sly allusion to Max Planck’s quip that “science advances one funeral at a time.” Meggers is correct insofar as scientific stardom comes through positive findings and paradigm shifts, and in interpretative fields such as archaeology the need to conform to particular ideological expectations can be strong. The archaeologists funded by Heinrich Himmler naturally glorified the material remains of ancient German societies (though Hitler was reputedly less than impressed with piles of pots). Similarly, one assumes that the very low estimates of Native American populations which were common before the 1980s in the United States had to do partly with the contention that North America was nearly empty when the Europeans arrived. Even if the influence was not conscious, it seems likely that it would have shaped interpretation, not to mention allocation of research funds. Who would give money to dig in regions where the assumption is that only hunter-gatherers had been resident before Europeans arrived on the scene? Today the shoe is on the other foot, and there is often a tendency to want to emphasize the achievements of non-Western peoples, and their equivalent complexity and civilizational attainment.

I think we need to see how things shake out over the next decade or so. My own general take here is conditioned by existence of the Maya civilization. If they had not left stone remains in the form of pyramids, written texts, and, if the late stages of their advanced culture had not been known to the Spaniards who conquered Mesoamerica, we might express skepticism at the idea that the Central American jungle could have produced any sort of high civilization at all. But civilizations have different propensities toward utilization of building materials which can stand the test of time. The Chinese have traditionally used materials which don’t preserve well, so that our knowledge of Chinese antiquity is more exclusively literary than is the case in the West, where great public buildings attest to the world of the ancients.

Note: if you’re interested in the archaeological debate, a good paper to start with: Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

MORE ABOUT: Amazon, Archaeology
  • Pingback: Tweets that mention The pristine Amazon – a zone of contention | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine --

  • John Emerson

    The Garamantes in the Sahara are a somewhat similar case. I don’t know much about them and don’t know how accurate the Wiki below is, but they definitely seem to challenge our understanding of the Sahara.

  • bioIgnoramus

    “I’m sorry to say that archaeologists like to produce sensational refutation of previous theories,” ….“You know, this is how you get your promotions.”

    She’s given the game away!

  • Pingback: Reading now: « an active mind()

  • benj

    ““I’m sorry to say that archaeologists like to produce sensational refutation of previous theories,” ….“You know, this is how you get your promotions.”
    She’s given the game away!”

    You could not give a better description of the way the “biblical archeology” works. First you had the “maximalists” being the orthodoxy, today the minimalists are ruling after producing “sensational refutations” and now there is a new tendency of findings going in the maximalist line again because this is what is sensational in the media eyes today.

  • Sandgroper

    Well, she would say that,wouldn’t she?

    For 6 years in Hong Kong we lived across a stream course from a heavily wooded hillside – I had an absolutely beautiful view of this lovely hillside from my study, and I looked at it daily, studied it through high powered binoculars and the telephoto lens of my camera, and took many high resolution photographs of it, which I could blow up big on my computer. I also occasionally took a walk up there, but it was more a scramble than a walk, because the terrain was steep and the vegetation was near-impenetrable, and thick with venomous snakes.

    To the untrained eye, it looked just like a jungle-clad hillside, unless the observer happened to notice that the greens of the vegetation were highly variegated, unlike tropical jungle, which tends to be pretty monochrome. Hong Kong just about qualifies as tropical, it sits bang on the Tropic of Cancer, so it has a maritime climate which is tropical in summer and temperate in winter (which means summer is hot, long and wet, and winter is dry and pretty unbearably cold by my standards, but mild by north American standards).

    But I happened to know (because I needed to know due to my profession) that at the end of World War II and the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, that hillside had been completey deforested to get wood for fuel and was stripped totally bare, and also that 25 years previous to me and my family going to live there, the banks of that stream course were thickly populated by illegal squatters, who had built a shanty town there, and they had cleared and cultivated that hillside. They planted all manner of fruit and nut trees, and they had even terraced part of the hillside to grow hill rice – through my binoculars and telephoto lens I could pick out the rice which still grew every year, self-sown, even though the squatters had been cleared and re-housed 20 years before. I can provide photos to anyone who is interested.

    The trees were mature – my favourite tree, which I took many photos of, was a massive walnut tree, but I spotted many other varieties of trees that had obviously been planted by the squatters. I could even pick out the terraces of self-sown rice which regenerated themselves every year, although the industrious squatters were long gone.

    The other notable thing was that when the squatters were cleared (i.e. forcibly evicted and their shanties demolished) they left their dogs behind, which went feral and bred wild dog packs, which used to come down at night and menace the old Chinese ladies who used to take out our garbage. I ended up fighting a successful guerrila war against these wild dog packs with a high powered slingshot (those fuckers never knew where I was, but I rained hell down upon them) – well, those old ladies were important to me, they took out our garbage, they worshipped my half-Chinese daughter, who they thought was breath-takingly beautiful, like a mini-goddess, and they were good people . I needed to protect them, and I did. Besides, there were a lot of little kids living where we lived, and wild dog packs were a major hazard to them which needed to be addressed. Sorry, I digress, as usual.

    What is my point? It’s this – the unimproved soils in Hong Kong are poor, they derive from tropical weathering of igneous rocks (in this case granite) and don’t support much without some fertilizer, but they are pretty free draining, and with the addition of some human shit, and with the tropical summers, they will grow stuff amazingly fast – I’m talking about large mature fruit and nut trees having grown in the space of less than 20 years. Han Chinese peasants are excellently good at growing food-producing crops and trees, and I have no reason to believe that the Amazonian natives were any different.

    So I think Meggers is off-base and trying to defend her own 39 year old book, which may be a load of outdated and uninformed crap, and green groups have a heavily vested interest in supporting her position. ‘Poor’ tropical soils can easily be improved, and mature vegetation will grow in them amazingly fast, even in their unimproved state – large trees will grow in the space of 25 years, as opposed to hundreds of years in my native Western Australia.

  • dave chamberlin

    Lewis Black the comedian said of creationists, “we have the fossils,we win.” To Betty Meggers who stubbornly still claims Amazonia couldn’t support large scale habitation we can now say, we have ariel photos showing massive man made earth works in many locations in Amazonia, we win.

    You can never prove a negative, and when they are disproven, it is game over. Tenure positions are won by staying within the mainstream, so this notion that refutation of previous theories is encouraged is bullshit.

  • Razib Khan

    To Betty Meggers who stubbornly still claims Amazonia couldn’t support large scale habitation we can now say, we have ariel photos showing massive man made earth works in many locations in Amazonia, we win.

    i think that’s the clincher as to this debate. this is a geological question, and so prone to less interpretative massaging.

  • Pingback: Linkage is Good for You: You’re Not Going to Read This Headline So Why Should I Make an Effort Edition (NSFW)()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar