The Amazon rainforest lost its virginity millenia ago

Recently, drones have become very helpful in forest practices. This time, drones not only helped scientists to discover a new ‘Stonhenge’ in the Amazonian rainforest, but helped also to understand the forestry practices of prehistoric settlers in this area. Ecologists can be a bit shocked, as this discovery reverses assumptions that the rainforest ecosystem has been untouched by humans for millenia.


Helpful drones

After flying drones over the Amazonian rainforest, a group of scientitists from Brazil, United Kingdom and Canada found over 450 ancient earthworks resembling those at Stonhenge in England. The earthworks, called by archaeologists as ‘geoglyphs’ probably are over 2000 years old, and they probably would not be discovered if not the ongoing deforestation process in Brazil.

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Before, these ditched enclosures, located in Acre state in the western Brazilian Amazon, have been concealed for centuries by trees.

According to scientists, rhe monuments look like early phases at Stonehenge. Phto credit: Salman Kahn and Jose Iriarte.

The leader of the research, Dr Jennifer Watling a post-doctoral researcher at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography (University of São Paulo) said:

“It is likely that the geoglyphs were used for similar functions to the Neolithic causewayed enclosures, i.e. public gathering, ritual sitesIt is interesting to note that the format of the geoglyphs, with an outer ditch and inner wall enclosure, are what classicly describe henge sites. The earliest phases at Stonhenge consisted of a similarly layed-out enclosure.”

According to researchers, geoglyphs found in Brazil, although 2500 younger than Stonehenge, are very similar in terms of construction, and may represent a similar period in social development.

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Interestingly, scientists claim that the enclosures most likely do not represent the border of villages, but rather ritual gathering places. The main argument behind this theory is related to only few artefacts discovered during excavation work done by archaelogists on the sites.

Stonehenge, England. Photo credit: Crystalink

Virgin Amazonian rainforest?

This research showed that Amazonian rainforests, once thought to be pristine wildernesses, are increasingly known to have been inhabited by large populations before European contact. The discovery in Brazil of hundreds of geometric earthworks by modern deforestation seems to imply that
this region was also deforested to a large extent in the past, challenging the apparent vulnerability of Amazonian forests to human land use. Researchers found that earthworks were built within man-made forests that had been previously managed for millennia.

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The findings prove for the first time that prehistoric settlers in Brazil cleared large wooded areas to create huge enclosures meaning that the ‘virgin’ rainforest celebrated by ecologists is actually relatively new.

Dr Jennifer Watling added:

“The fact that these sites lay hidden for centuries beneath mature rainforest really challenges the idea that Amazonian forests are ‘pristine ecosystems. Our evidence that Amazonian forests have been managed by indigenous peoples long before European contact should not be cited as justification for the destructive, unsustainable land-use practiced today. It should instead serve to highlight the ingenuity of past subsistence regimes that did not lead to forest degradation, and the importance of indigenous knowledge for finding more sustainable land-use alternatives”. 


Source: Watling, J., Iriarte, J., Mayle, F. E., Schaan, D., Pessenda, L. C. R., Loader, N. J., Ranzi, A. (2017).  Impact of pre-Columbian “geoglyph” builders on Amazonian forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(8), 1868–1873. 

Main photo credit: SALMAN KAHN AND JOSÉ IRIARTE

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