14 March 2012

Amazon Land Carvings

I've argued before on this blog that the dichotomy between nature and culture is unfounded, that in fact the whole earth is an archaeological site and looking for somewhere 'pristine' is an exercise in human self-delusion (or even self-hatred). The evidence continues to mount, per the Grey Lady:
The deforestation that has stripped the Amazon since the 1970s has also exposed a long-hidden secret lurking underneath thick rain forest: flawlessly designed geometric shapes spanning hundreds of yards in diameter.
Alceu Ranzi, a Brazilian scholar who helped discover the squares, octagons, circles, rectangles and ovals that make up the land carvings, said these geoglyphs found on deforested land were as significant as the famous Nazca lines, the enigmatic animal symbols visible from the air in southern Peru.
“What impressed me the most about these geoglyphs was their geometric precision, and how they emerged from forest we had all been taught was untouched except by a few nomadic tribes,” said Mr. Ranzi, a paleontologist who first saw the geoglyphs in the 1970s and, years later, surveyed them by plane.
For some scholars of human history in Amazonia, the geoglyphs in the Brazilian state of Acre and other archaeological sites suggest that the forests of the western Amazon, previously considered uninhabitable for sophisticated societies partly because of the quality of their soils, may not have been as “Edenic” as some environmentalists contend.

Geoglyph in the Amazon (Diego Gurgel-Projeto Geoglifos/Divulgação [via Globo Amazônia])

Instead of being pristine forests, barely inhabited by people, parts of the Amazon may have been home for centuries to large populations numbering well into the thousands and living in dozens of towns connected by road networks, explains the American writer Charles C. Mann. In fact, according to Mr. Mann, the British explorer Percy Fawcett vanished on his 1925 quest to find the lost “City of Z” in the Xingu, one area with such urban settlements.
As a result of long stretches of such human habitation, South America’s colossal forests may have been a lot smaller at times, with big areas resembling relatively empty savannas.
Such revelations do not fit comfortably into today’s politically charged debate over razing parts of the forests, with some environmentalists opposed to allowing any large-scale agriculture, like cattle ranching and soybean cultivation, to advance further into Amazonia.
Scientists here say they, too, oppose wholesale burning of the forests, even if research suggests that the Amazon supported intensive agriculture in the past. Indeed, they say other swaths of the tropics, notably in Africa, could potentially benefit from strategies once used in the Amazon to overcome soil constraints.
“If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it,” said William Woods, a geographer at the University of Kansas who is part of a team studying the Acre geoglyphs.
“I know that this will not sit well with ardent environmentalists,” Mr. Woods said, “but what else can one say?”
One can say that it's not a choice between humans and the environment, or culture and nature: instead, our paradigm has to be people AND forest, humanity AND nature, rather than separating the two. It's not so much a moral issue as a practical and technological one. We can learn from how ancient Amazonians managed their terrible soils to support large populations. In fact, we need this knowledge given galloping climate change, dessication, and soil degradation.

This is also a good moment to point out the continuing power of origin myths in Western culture: see how this article infers that the "original state" of the Amazon is somehow the "correct" one that should be recreated. If the forest is not "pristine", it loses its moral authority, and thus its value (never mind that the real value of these forests is in biodiversity and ecosystem services). Instead, the "managed, highly productive landscape" becomes the point of origin that we might "recreate" at some point. These findings will piss off environmentalists because they lean on the argument from temporal priority: preserve the Amazon because it is original and timeless. This mode of thinking, however deeply ingrained, is useless. We long to find a remnant Eden, but it never existed and never will. Time doesn't have a beginning or an end, and neither does the story of humanity. There is only what we're doing now, which we need to justify not in terms of origin myths, but by how it enhances the life of people living today.1 The sooner we can expunge this neurosis from our culture, the better.

To see more geoglyphs, click through to Globo Amazonia's Google Maps interface, or download their Google Earth kml file.

(1) Before someone tears my head off about being an anthropocentrist, I should point out that I think maximizing human utility and maximizing environmental utility are exactly the same thing: people are happier, healthier, and safer when they have complex ecological settings and a relatively stable climate. Human creativity is just one aspect of life's great fight against entropy. Biodiversity is good for you.

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