New study finds that the Amazon region is a cultural artifact. The authors suggest it may provide a road map for conservation.

The research contributes to an evolving understanding of how the impact of ancient peoples in the world’s largest and most biodiverse forest had, giving more evidence to suggest why greater understanding with more commitment to protecting the Amazon.

“We can use this as an opportunity to reduce the impacts of deforestation,” lead author Carolina Levis, a PhD student in ecology at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research and Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, told The Atlantic. “Now we have huge plantations of soybeans that are destroying the Amazon – while in the forest we have lots of plants that can be used while maintaining the forest as it is.”

In 2013, this group of researchers identified a group of tree species that dominated the Amazon. Half of all trees in Amazonian forests come from just 227 species, they reported, according to Science Magazine. Since so many of those species are known to be used by local people, such as the Yanomami of northern Brazil, for food, fuel, and construction.

They produced a list of 85 species that showed signs of domestication, like larger fruit, and found that they were five times more likely to be dominant in mature forests. That dominance only became more pronounced when the researchers started looking at places of past occupation.

Across more than 3,000 archaeological sites where ancient peoples are known to have settled, domesticated species such as the Brazil nut, cacao, rubber, and cashew were particularly common.

“I was actually a bit stunned,” ecologist and study author Hans ter Steege of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, told Science Magazine. “The effect of Pre-Columbian people is much more pronounced than many of us believed.”

“It’s quite well known that ancient people and modern people both settle in similar areas,” Crystal McMichael, a palaeoecologist at the University of Amsterdam, told Nature. With that in mind, more modern groups may have made significant impacts in the diversity of culture which presently inhabits this vast area and with growing concerns over deforestation, more education needs to be given to constructors over the apparent mistakes being made.

Mark Bush, a biogeographer at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., agreed that some of the cultivation could have been more recent – or even accidental. In Central America, he told Nature, Brosimum trees are commonly found at Mayan sites, and people thought for a long time the Maya had planted them. In fact, the Brosimum trees recolonized Mayan sites, when the Maya were no longer there.

Whatever the vintage of these trees, looking at tree concentrations may help archaeologists rediscover places where people once lived, the authors hope.

And that possibility may encourage people to think about conserving the Amazon as a historical entity as well as its purely environmental composition.

“People want to preserve pristine forests for conservation and to preserve life,” Levis told Nature. “But if this is true, if people enriched the forests by domesticating palms, that is also a cultural artefact.”

 

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