For some scholars of human history in Amazonia, the geoglyphs in the Brazilian state of Acre and other archaeological sites suggest that the forests of the western Amazon, previously considered uninhabitable for sophisticated societies partly because of the quality of their soils, may not have been as “Edenic” as some environmentalists contend.
Instead of being pristine forests, barely inhabited by people, parts of the Amazon may have been home for centuries to large populations numbering well into the thousands and living in dozens of towns connected by road networks, explains the American writer Charles C. Mann. In fact, according to Mr. Mann, the British explorer Percy Fawcett vanished on his 1925 quest to find the lost “City of Z” in the Xingu, one area with such urban settlements.
In addition to parts of the Amazon being “much more thickly populated than previously thought,” Mr. Mann, the author of “1491,” a groundbreaking book about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, said, “these people purposefully modified their environment in long-lasting ways.”
“If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it,” said William Woods, a geographer at the University of Kansas who is part of a team studying the Acre geoglyphs.
“I know that this will not sit well with ardent environmentalists,” Mr. Woods said, “but what else can one say?”
There are two descriptive models which have to be interpreted in different normative frames. First, there is the model whereby before the arrival of the Europeans the New World was lightly populated by indigenous groups which had a minimal impact upon the environment. This is the description. Before the 1960s this was viewed by the mainstream culture as a rationale for the justified conquest of the New World by Europeans, who put the land to productive economic usage, whereas before it had been fallow and under-untilized. After the 1960s many, especially in the environmental movement, inverted the moral valence of the description. Instead of being primitive savages, the native peoples were at balance with the environment. Rather than an outmoded way of life to be superseded, they were a potential model for the future.
The second descriptive model is the one that Charles C. Mann outlines in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. It posits that in fact the New World was much more heavily populated and its environment more impacted by humanity than we had thought previously. Rather, it suggests that the introduction of Old World diseases resulted in massive population crashes, subsequent to which there was a “re-wilding” of much of the Americas. Mann focuses more on the period before the arrival of Europeans, but if you read the scholarship on the arrival of Paleo-Indians there is a fair amount of evidence that even their appearance resulted in a massive change in the suite of fauna which characterized the New World (e.g., the gray wolf and American bison are also Holocene newcomers, just like man).
Some have argued tat Mann has taken a maximalist position (in fact, some readers have lied and stated that Mann argued that the Amazon was as populated as Bangladesh!). But even granting that Mann may be sampling from the more revisionist tail of the scholarship, I think it is creditable that we need to move away from the extreme position of the first descriptive model. There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that New World civilizations had not attained the same level of sophistication and complexity as Old World civilizations (see Guns, Germs, and Steel for some of the reasons why). But it is also likely that the Aztecs and Incas were not sui generis aberrations, but rather one point along the spectrum of social complexity which characterized the New World.
This is a subtle point though, because the new model also has normative ramifications. I state above that New World civilizations were not as complex or developed as Old World ones, and that is not a position that many are comfortable with. Rather, they may want to assert that the New World societies were just as complex and sophisticated as the Old World civilizations, that fundamentally all civilizations have equal value and similar character. Therefore, these partisans are particularly enthusiastic about the model which Charles C. Mann popularizes in 1491, as it reverses the narrative of noble simple savages, projecting the indigenous as highly cultured, and only brought down by the biological weapons which Europeans brought.
Where does that put those who wish to construct a plausible model of reality, rather than a mythic history for purposes of ideology? It is lazy to simply pick the position in the middle, but in this case that’s probably the most prudent unless you want to dive into the primary literature yourself. I don’t accept the old model anymore for a variety of reasons, not just having to do with the natural history of the New World. But, I can’t personally assess in detail the magnitude of the numbers that some of the scholars Mann relies upon to revise upward population estimates. So I take the revision with a grain of salt and some caution.
I would conclude that there is one reason I can think of why the Amazon basin might have been more suitable for human habitation that some other wet tropical zones in the Old World: the relative lack of disease. Many wet lowland zones which would otherwise be suitable farmland are lightly populated due to malaria, but this was not an issue in the New World before 1492.