Ancient Amazonians lived sustainably – and this matters for conservation today
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Our colleague, the archaeologist Santiago Rivas, recently made a remarkable discovery. On a small plateau above the outskirts of Iquitos, a town in the northern Peruvian Amazon, he found a layer in the soil which contained small pieces of ceramic pottery, that were around 1,800-years-old. Digging deeper, he found another layer of soil, this time containing pottery that was about 2,500 years old.This is the archaeological site at Quistococha which has been occupied for at least the past 3,000 years. The pottery fragments are beautifully decorated, sometimes with subtle geometric scratch marks or boldly painted with bright red patterns. Not all of the fragments are small: erosion revealed the rim of a large cooking pot that would have been 40cm across when it was intact. Large pots were supported on an open fire by “elephant feet”: small clay pot rests also found in the archaeological layers. As a place for people to live, Quistococha would have had many advantages. It is located on a terrace above a fertile floodplain of the Amazon which is ideal for growing maize, while the surrounding palm swamp provides fruits and fibres. Just below the terrace, fresh water flows out of a spring. Researchers know that indigenous communities have had profound and complex relationships with Amazonian forest landscapes for thousands of years. However, it is still far from clear just how much deforestation took place before European colonisation in the 16th century. Quistococha is an ideal place to search for answers – and we recently published a research article based on our work there. The site has an unusually good record of past environmental change thanks to a nearby floodplain lake and swamp. These preserve the remains of plants that grew there, and the charcoal from fires lit by people – both in the prehistoric period as well as during the expansion of Iquitos over the past two centuries. This combination allowed us to explore the relationship between ancient people and the extent of the surrounding forest. Charcoal in the sediment core from the nearby lake – an indicator of fire use – was abundant from about 2,500 years ago until the 1800s: people were, therefore, continuously present at that time. However fossil pollen from smaller trees that make up “secondary forest” growing on deforested land only became abundant over the past 150 years, when the nearby city expanded. Prior to that, for thousands of years, indigenous communities apparently had little impact on forest cover.
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