“The abundance of scientific literature on the Amazon reflects the physical geography of the region: it is amazing, highly unusual, and exceedingly disjointed. Any who dare study it carefully will, at the end of that attempt, get but a small way past the threshold of a wonderful world.” This is the diagnosis made almost 110 years ago by Euclides da Cunha (À Margem da História [The Amazon: Land without History], 1909). Remarkable new advances in our knowledge of how Amazonia was occupied before the arrival of Europeans are based on contributions from a range of fields, including archaeology, geology, biology, ecology, anthropology, and others, but there is still a lot of ground for the research to cover.
The cover story of this issue describes how the results of these studies are challenging long-held ideas about the region and its history. Before the arrival of Columbus, Amazonia was populated by complex societies of several million inhabitants that built roads and lived in villages fortified with ditches and palisades. The discovery of a number of geometrical geoglyphs—designs formed of stones on the ground—indicates areas that were used for social and ceremonial practices.
One surprising aspect of this pre-Columbian occupation is the discovery that generations of indigenous people lived off the rainforest, meaning that vast areas are not as untouched as previously believed. These peoples domesticated more than 80 plant species—including rice and açaí—and researchers found that Brazil nut and rubber trees, as well as other crops, were concentrated around archaeological sites.
Ongoing research includes one essential dimension: language. The two dominant language families in the region were Arawak and Tupi-Guarani. Although they were not used over contiguous areas, studies of loanwords and grammatical similarities between the languages has found evidence of interaction, while the differences between them shows how different groups created their own spaces within a larger interactive system. The next phase of these investigations will be awaited with much interest.
Due to its wide reach, the cover story relates to several other articles in this month’s issue. Biologist Cristiana Simão Seixas, from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), one of the coordinators of a document published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which is associated with the UN, talks about the loss of biodiversity in the Americas and its impacts on the quality of human life in an interview on page 40. The first results of research based on a new database of mammals, birds, amphibians, and butterflies from the Atlantic Forest are starting to be published; although there have been few extinctions, the fragmentation of this biome into relatively small segments (of up to 1 km2) has been particularly damaging to large mammal species. The bicentennial of Brazil’s National Museum, the oldest scientific institution in the country, is covered in the retrospect section. Its collection of more than 20 million artifacts (yes, 20 million), dedicated primarily to anthropology, botany, entomology, geology, and paleontology, has been the basis of many important studies published in these fields, including by the institution’s own research team. Here’s to the next 200 years.Republish