Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What is Amazonia?

This is not a trivial question.  Researchers writing about Amazonia very rarely provide a  definition. This ambiguity has important research implications, as often when discussing Amazonia those involved have different ideas of what is being discussed…  For example, In Meggers’ paper which I reviewed in my previous post, she disagrees with another archaeologist’s definition of Amazonia. Erikson, in his article entitled “Amazonia: the historical ecology of a domesticated landscape”, refers to Amazonia as “the entire region drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries”(Erickson 2008: 158). So, how would you define Amazonia? You could say, like Erickson , that it coincides with the basin of the Amazon River, but then you would be including a big portion of the Andes. But glaciers located 6000 m.s.l. don’t match  our idea of a lush Amazonia, do they? Another option could be to consider Amazonia only that part of the Amazon Basin that is covered by rainforest. Well, this looks better, but you would exclude important areas like the savannahs. Moreover, the size of the rainforest changes over time: the boundaries of the rainforest we see today are different from those it had 15000 years ago, and, with the expansion of industrial agriculture, forested areas have been shrinking significantly in the last 20-30 years. It is very unpractical to have to change the limits of what we call Amazonia each time the boundaries of the rainforest move. Meggers (2011) states that: “Amazonia is defined by geographers and ecologists as the portion of tropical lowland South America below 1,500 meters, where the average difference in annual temperature does not exceed 5ºF, rain falls on 130 or more days of the year, and relative humidity normally exceeds 80%. Typical vegetation consists of rainforest, with small enclaves of savannah where soil conditions inhibit plant growth.” However, she doesn’t say who are these “geographers and ecologists” and does not provide any references for this.
While looking for a good paper that defines Amazonia I found out that the European Commission, in collaboration with the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, created in 2005 a task force of experts with the objective of defining the geographical boundaries of Amazonia. Scientists from different disciplines, such as climatology, hydrology, botany, zoology, ecology and biogeography, came together in a two day workshop to reach a consensus (Eva et al. 2005).
The criteria used to draw the map of Amazonia (Fig. 1) were Hydrography, Ecology and Biogeography.
You can download the study here

Figure 1 -
UNIT = Amazon and Tocantins river basins [“Amazon Basin” or “Hydrographical Amazonia”]
Ia = Lowland rainforest biota of the Amazon and Tocantins River basins [“Lowland Amazon
Basin rainforest” or “Amazonia sensu stricto”]
Ib = Andes (non-lowland biota of the Andean Amazon Basin, > 700 m asl)
Ic = Planalto (non-lowland biota of the southern Amazon Basin)
UNIT II = Amazon lowland rainforest types outside Unit I
IIa = Guiana
IIb = Gurupí
Ia + IIa + IIb = Entire Amazon lowland rainforest biome [“Hylaea” or “Amazonia sensu lato”]
I + II = Amazon and Tocantins river basins + Amazon lowland rainforest biome outside the basin
[“Amazonia sensu latissimo”]

As you see in Fig. 1, they have defined Amazonia sensu stricto (the “real” Amazonia) as the area enclosed by the polygon Ia; and Amazonia sensu lato as the area enclosed by the polygons Ia+IIa+IIb (it is not the “real” Amazonia but you can call it Amazonia because it all looks alike). It would be great if, from now on and to avoid misunderstandings, archaeologists, geographers and paleoecologists that work in Amazonia could use this definition.  Eva et al. have provided us  with valuable operative tools that we can all use. Unfortunately, the European Commission forgot to make their file of the Amazonian boundaries available for download! I have been looking for it everywhere, but haven’t found anything. I asked for it through the EC web page, but I got no answer. A bit disappointing, considered that we paid for it!
Anyway, as I wanted to have a file that can be used in ArcGis, I resolved to digitalize the map of Amazonia myself. I also decided to distribute it. But, for now, you have to contact me via e-mail because I don't know yet how to upload it :-). I will put a link as soon as I figure out how to do it. I hope there is no copyright infringement in this… well, if there is, they will say something …


Erickson, C. L. 2008. Amazonia: the historical ecology of a domesticated landscape. In Handbook of South American archaeology, eds. H. Silverman and W. H. Isbell, 157-183. Berlin: Springer.
Meggers, B. J. 2011. Handbook of South American Archaeology Reviewed by Betty J. Meggers. Revista de Antropología Chilena 43 (1):147-157.

Eva, Hugh D., Huber, Otto, Achard, Frédéric, Balslev, Henrik, Beck, Stephan G., Behling, Hermann, Belward, Alan S., Beuchle, René,, Cleef, Antoine M., Colchester, M., Duivenvoorden, Joost F., Hoogmoed, Marinus Steven, Junk, Wolfgang Johannes, Kabat, P., Kruijt, Bart, Malhi, Yadvinder, Müller, Jan Marco, Pereira, José M. C., Peres, Carlos, Prance, Ghillean, Roberts, John, & Salo, Jukka (2005). A proposal for defining the geographical boundaries of Amazonia Office for Official Publications of the European Communities : EUR 21808-EN

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review of Betty J. Meggers‘ review of the Handbook of South American Archaeology

Betty J. Meggers has been working in Amazonian archaeology for more than 50 years. She has recently published a review of the Handbook of South American Archaeology, which is of great relevance to all of us working on the paleoecology of Amazonia during the Holocene. You can download her paper here.
The paper discusses 3 fundamental aspects of the South American archaeology: i) how contemporary Amazonian archaeologists’ interpretation of the archaeological record has been biased by the abandonment of the classical archaeological methods of pottery analysis; ii) the origin of new world pottery and iii) the relationship between environmental conditions and cultural development in Amazonia.
Classical archaeologists spent months on end drawing and analysing thousands of pieces of pottery. In the first part of her paper, Meggers explains why this meticulous work is a fundamental step in scientific archaeology: “Pottery can be decorated using an essentially unlimited number of techniques and motifs without affecting the utility of the vessel, making independent duplication of identical decoration unlikely”. Therefore, the analysis of pottery’s details and decorations allows us to distinguish diffusion (cultural aspects which are transmitted form one cultural group to another) form independent invention, where a cultural trait arises spontaneously in a given population. According to Meggers, some of the authors of the Handbook omit this important task, undermining the strength of their interpretation of archaeological records
Pottery analysis is the criteria that Meggers uses to discuss, in the second part of her paper, the origin of new world pottery. Many archaeologists that have contributed to the Handbook believe that pottery was independently invented in Amazonia. In Meggers’ view, the similitudes between Japanese Jomon pottery and the Valdivia pottery (which is the oldest pottery in America, dating 6000 BP) are too many to be the result of some form of “cultural convergence”. Moreover, she highlights that the period of Valdivia pottery coincides with a catastrophic volcanic eruption in Japan, which could have pushed groups of Japanese fishermen towards the American coasts. Hence, these Japanese fishermen would have influenced the pottery of early Americans. .
In the Handbook, Amazonia is depicted as a “manufactured landscape” or “anthropogenic cornucopia”. In the third part of her paper, Meggers assesses whether or not such descriptions of Amazonia are supported by the archaeological evidence. She shows that the evidence is actually very weak: the idea of widespread human occupation of pre-Columbian Amazonia is not supported by pollen, phytolith and charcoal analysis, which indicate that vast areas of Amazonia have never faced human disturbance; no systematic archaeological excavation has ever been performed that supports the assumption that large permanent settlements were common in Amazonia; many of the earthworks often cited in support of the “manufactured landscape” idea are concentrated in the Llanos de Moxos, which are ecologically quite different from the tropical rainforest that covers most of the Amazon basin; there is no evidence suggesting that ADE was created for intensive agriculture or to exclude that slash and burn agriculture was a common practice among pre-Columbian people.
Despite the fact that the bibliography of Meggers’ paper is not as large as it could have been, it can still serve as a good introduction to the archaeology of Amazonia for anyone who wants to get into the heart of the current debates.

Betty J. Meggers (2011). Handbook of South American Archaeology reviewed by Betty J. Meggers Revista de Antropología Chilena, 43 (1), 147-157