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The Sciences

Amazon was not always "pristine"

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAugust 29, 2008 3:11 AM


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'Pristine' Amazonian Region Hosted Large, Urban Civilization:

The paper also argues that the size and scale of the settlements in the southern Amazon in North Central Brazil means that what many scientists have considered virgin tropical forests are in fact heavily influenced by historic human activity. Not only that, but the settlements - consisting of networks of walled towns and smaller villages, each organized around a central plaza - suggest future solutions for supporting the indigenous population in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso and other regions of the Amazon, the paper says.

Preliminary interpretations of these data were reported several years ago in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann's argument is simple: demographic collapse in the face of Eurasian pathogens wiped away 90% of the inhabitants of the New World within about one century of "First Contact." And thus ensued a process of the "re-wilding" of vast swaths of the New World. So the woodlands of the North Central United States which the white settlers cut down as they moved west of the Appalachians, or the virgin forests of the Willamette Valley which the pioneers encountered, were relatively recent ecosystems which arose in the vacuum of the collapse of local native populations due to epidemics introduced originally by Spaniards and other Europeans. An important point to remember here is that these epidemics preceded the white settlement in many areas by decades or centuries, so the European experience of the native populations was only in the wake of the massive social chaos unleashed by plague. Imagine if the Chinese encountered Europe first during the Black Death; but on orders of magnitude greater scale (the Black Death killed a large minority of Europeans, Eurasian pathogens likely exterminated whole peoples in the New World). Secondarily, the possibility that many regions of the Amazon were de-humanized recently should remind us that

H. sapiens are part of nature.

The heuristic whereby humanity is perceived to be above, beyond and distinct from the natural world may be useful in some contexts, but in the broad historical sense we are just another animal. I am one who suspects that H. sapiens were responsible for many megafaunal extinctions as a necessary if not sufficient cause, but after these initial contacts obviously the local ecology entered into a dynamic symbiosis with human populations. It is false to say that Mother Nature is wiser than humanity, because we are subsets of Mother Nature!

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