For more than a quarter-century, scientists and the general public have updated their view of the Americas before European contact. The plains and the Eastern forests were not a wilderness, but a patchwork of gardens, they’ve found. The continents were not vast uninhabited expanses but a bustling network of towns and cities. Indigenous people, we’ve learned, altered the ecology of the Americas as surely as the European invaders did.
Now, an expansive new study, published Thursday in Science and bearing the names of more than 40 co-authors, suggests that the human fingerprint can even be seen across one of the most biodiverse yet unexplored regions in the world, the Amazon rainforest.
For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.
“People arrived in the Amazon at least 10,000 years ago, and they started to use the species that were there. And more than 8,000 years ago, they selected some individuals with specific phenotypes that are useful for humans,” says Carolina Levis, a scholar at Wageningen University who helped lead the study. “They really cultivated and planted these species in their home gardens, in the forests they were managing,” she said.