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Covering well over 2 million square miles, the humid tropical forests of the Amazon and Orinoco basins remain relatively unstudied from the standpoint of scientific archaeology. Complete cultural sequences are few and widely scattered. Perhaps because of the paucity of data, Amazonian prehistory has been the subject of much debate. The region has been seen as an immense and uniform tract of tropical forest cleaved by mighty rivers but otherwise only occasionally broken by the small clearings of native agricultural fields. It has been characterized as a stable and unchanging environment—the largest remaining vestige of a forest primeval, a virginal land largely untouched by human endeavor until the coming of Europeans. In the eyes of some nineteenth-century naturalists, it was portrayed as an incredibly rich land with unlimited agricultural potential and teeming with fish and game. Under the gaze of twentieth-century anthropologists, this charitable view has been challenged. From a Paradise Lost, Amazonia has been recast as a counterfeit paradise, one beset by environmental limiting factors such as poor soils that constrain agriculture or by scant and dispersed faunal resources that limit protein intake. These polar verdicts, whether leaning toward the paradisiacal or toward the bleak view of a reluctantly giving nature, are imported caricatures and, as such, are unlikely to be correct.

As the custodian of the long stretches of time during which Amazonian societies diversified and evolved, archaeology has a privileged role in evaluating the mercurial vogues that have been brought to bear on the nature of Amazonia as a stage for cultural development. Although archaeological work in the lowland tropics is scant in comparison with most other parts of the world, it constitutes a large and growing body of evidence that forces this overview to be selective and to focus on three central issues: (1) the existence and nature of a pre-ceramic and perhaps pre-agricultural or foraging way of life; (2) the development of pottery and agriculture; and (3) the emergence of complex societies.


A current debate centers on the feasibility of subsisting in the tropical forest through hunting and gathering (foraging) alone. Some see the tropical forest as a poor environment for foragers. Game tends to be dispersed, nocturnal, or arboreal, and wild flora is often deficient in energy-yielding carbohydrate. In support of this argument, it is pointed out that most recent foraging populations in the tropical forest have regularized exchange relations with nearby farmers. It does not follow, however, that because recent foragers have links with farmers, an independent foraging way of life was impossible in the past.

Archaeological discoveries indicate that there were pre-agricultural foragers in greater Amazonia. On the middle Orinoco, an area where tropical forest and savanna interface, a long pre-ceramic sequence beginning by at least 7000 bce has been identified. Early artifacts include pitted stones (presumably for the cracking of palm nuts), ground stone axes, scrapers made of local quartz, and stemmed points made from non-local chert. Certainly these stone artifacts are but the durable part of a more complex material culture based on perishable wood and other organic materials. Twelve hundred miles to the south, on the upper Madeira, the beginnings of a long archaeological sequence have been dated to the tenth millennium bce in deposits buried deep beneath later pottery-bearing occupations. On the lower Amazon, near Santarém, stone tools at the base of a stratified rock shelter date as early as 9000 bce. On the basis of this evidence, it would seem that the time depth of Amazonian culture history is fully in line with that known for other parts of the Americas, namely a terminal Pleistocene occupation by Paleo-Indians that reached from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. Although the nature of these pioneering adaptations to diverse habitats spanning two continents remains poorly understood, archaeological fact clearly indicates that Amazonia was hardly a noman's land avoided by early foragers.


To outsiders, the archaeologist's apparent infatuation with pottery may seem mysterious; however, there are good reasons for this obsession. Pottery is a relatively non biodegradable, and therefore abundant, residue of human behavior. As plastic art, it solidifies decorative and formal information that can reveal much about the past. From a technological perspective, pottery represents a breakthrough that facilitated the boiling of foods. Boiling, in turn, is an effective means of detoxifying many plant foods and opens up the new culinary possibilities of stews, porridges, and, perhaps above all, beer. Beer, brewed from manioc, maize, or other plants, is an ancient staple and social lubricant in much of Amazonia.

With respect to pottery, Amazonia is precocious. Seven thousand-year-old ceramics have been reported from the Taperinha shell midden at Santarém. If confirmed by further research, the Taperinha finds represent the oldest pottery yet identified in the Americas. At the mouth of the Amazon, pottery of the Mina style is dated to the fourth millennium bce. In northwestern South America, in environments that some have viewed as Amazonian extensions, several cases of fourth millennium bce ceramics are well documented. In terms of pottery, lowland South America, including the Amazon, has a decided jump on the rest of the Americas. These Amazonian data also bring into question the long-held notion that pottery and agriculture necessarily go together. In some areas of Amazonia such as the upper Madeira, agriculture would appear to have preceded pottery, whereas the Santarém evidence suggests the opposite. Or perhaps our notions of what constitutes "agriculture," based as they are on temperate-latitude models, need to be rethought to be applicable to the tropical forest, where the arboriculture of useful palms and other species is a widespread and presumably ancient practice. The peach palm (Guiliema gasipaes) is a case in point. It produces a biannual harvest of nutritious fruit, an edible heart, and an extremely hard wood widely used in house construction and for clubs and bows. The peach palm qualifies as a cultigen. Supposed wild specimens are probably feral, and a cluster of useful palms, anywhere in Amazonia, often marks the former presence of meddlesome humans.

In terms of the more familiar cultigens that fueled the American Neolithic, Amazonia would also seem to play a pivotal role. Maize is attested for the Ecuadorian and Colombian Amazon by the fourth millennium bce, and a suite of cultivated plants including achira, soursop, canavalia beans, and manioc had a variable presence along the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts by 2000 bce. On botanical grounds, many of these plants are likely to have a prior history of cultivation in the humid lowlands east of the Andes. Although sparse, these data suggest that Amazonia was a participant in the emergence of early agriculture.


Far-flung similarities in pottery styles indicate that Amazonia constituted a vast network of interacting societies at least by the first millennium bce. This network was based on canoe travel along riverine highways that connected local farming and fishing economies on the fertile floodplains of major waterways. In the first millennium of our era, complex societal configurations that anthropologists call chiefdoms emerged throughout Amazonia. Recent research indicates that Marajoara culture at the mouth of the Amazon, long renowned for its fancy polychrome ceramics, mortuary elaboration, and monumental earthworks, was indeed an autochthonous development with local roots extending back to the first centuries of our era. It can no longer be viewed as an import from the Andes that, over time, withered away under the rigors of an inhospitable environment.

Marajoara is not unique in the scale of its earthen monuments. At the fringes of Amazonia, where gallery forests penetrate seasonally flooded savannas, extensive networks of raised agricultural fields, causeways, and house mounds were erected by pre-Colombian populations. Ethnohistorically these sophisticated systems of hydraulic engineering were associated with complex chiefdoms such as the Mojos; archaeological work indicates that their construction began in the first millennium ce in both Bolivian and Venezuelan lowlands. In the upper Amazon abutting the Ecuadorian Andes, the site of Sangay provides another impressive case of prehistoric construction. This site contains dozens of earthen mounds, some arranged in geoglyphic patterns. Midden is deep over an area about 0.5 square miles. Although the radiocarbon dates span several millennia, most of the ceramic debris at Sangay appear to date after 500 bce.

In the 1540s, the expedition led by Francisco de Orellana reported extensive and expansive polities stretching along the Napo and Amazon. Settlements were large; subsistence entailed intensive agriculture and the tending of river turtles in artificial corrals; and chiefs were able to mobilize sizable forces to defend their territories. The archaeological record testifies that these polities were the culmination of a long in-place development, one rather abruptly truncated under the assault of European colonial expansion and introduced diseases.

See alsoArchaeology; Indigenous Peoples.


Basic introductions are Donald Lathrap, The Upper Amazon (1970) and Betty Meggers, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (1971). Overviews of more recent work include J. Scott Raymond, "A View from the Tropical Forest," in Peruvian Prehistory, edited by Richard Keatinge (1988); and Anna C. Roosevelt, "Resource Management in Amazonia Before the Conquest: Beyond Ethnographic Projection," in Resource Management in Amazonia, edited by D. Posey and W. Balée (1989). On the foraging debate, see the special issue "Human Foragers in Tropical Rain Forests," Human Ecology 19, no. 2 (1991). Also consult William Barse, "Preceramic Occupations in the Orinoco River Valley," Science, 250 (1990): 1388-1390; Eurico Miller et al., Archeology in the Hydroelectric Projects of Eletronorte (1992). The issue of early ceramics is covered in John W. Hoopes, "Ford Revisited: A Critical Review of the Chronology and Relationships of the Earliest Ceramic Complexes in the New World, 6000–1500 B.C.," in Journal of World Prehistory 8, no. 1 (1994): 1-49. On the historiography of complex societies in prehistoric Amazonia, see Thomas Myers, "Agricultural Limitations on the Amazon in Theory and Practice," in World Archaeology 24, no. 1 (1992): 82-97. For Marajoara, check Anna C. Roosevelt, Moundbuilders of the Amazon (1991); and the review by Betty Meggers in Journal of Field Archaeology 19, no. 3 (1992): 399-404. An accessible introduction to Sangay is Pedro Porras, "Investigations at the Sangay Mound Complex, Eastern Ecuador," in National Geographic Research 5, no. 3 (1989): 374-381.

Additional Bibliography

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Knopf, 2005.

                                      Warren DeBoer