When we look at aerial footages of the Amazon Rainforest, we see thick canopy of green foliage, creating the impression that the rainforest is a natural paradise with an endless supply of food.
Appearance indeed can be deceptive. And like all things, the surface is often deceiving. The Amazon Forest is a very good example of these proverbial sayings.
In 1971, the American Anthropologist, Betty J. Meggers wrote in her work Amazonia ‘‘Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, that apparent lushness is largely an illusion”. What Betty wanted to draw our attention to is the fact that the Amazon Forest in its raw form was very limited in its capacity to supporting human existence.
For decades, scientists have thought that the high acidity of the river basin soil in the Amazon made for incredibly poor growing conditions. The yellowish-tan soil barely holds nutrients. The jungle greenery just manages to suck what is available before the rain washes them away. Therefore, when it comes to growing large amounts of food to sustain populations, it was a significant problem. That is why it was traditionally thought that the ancient tribes of Amazonia were forced to remain small.
However, another American Anthropologist, Anna Roosevelt claimed in 1991 that over 1,000 years, an estimated 100,000 people lived in the Brazilian Amazon at any given time. But how is it possible that such a dense population could survive given the ecological limits of agriculture? Her answer was simple, earth construction.
According to the Plaid Zebra, anthropologists now believe that the Amazon civilizations could have had as many as 100,000 people at any given time. And the populations were supported using a super-soil that allowed humans to bio-design their own environment.
Scientists say the super-soil also known as ”Dark Earth” or “Terra Preta”, was a rich black fertile soil made from charcoal, pottery, human excrement, dirt and other unknown waste which supported large-scale farming. This allowed the ancient Amazon populations to thrive as they were able to feed themselves.
The “Dark Earth” is a specific concoction of micro-organisms that regenerates itself over time. Micro-organisms absorb and retain nutrients that would have otherwise been washed away by the rain, trapping carbon that would have otherwise escaped into the atmosphere.
Recently, the “Dark Earth” has been found in patches as large as 300 acres around river basins in the Amazon Forest. A soil geographer, William Woods of the Southern Illinois University says “Dark Earth” covers a surface area in the Amazon equivalent to the size of France.
The Anthropologist, William Balée also argues that at least 12% of the Amazon was directly or indirectly created by humans using “Dark Earth.”
This discovery in the Amazon confirms what Charles C. Mann wrote about native populations in the New World before contact with Europeans. Contrary to the popular Western narrative of isolated hunter-gatherer of natives, the New World was a highly advanced civilization that manipulated their environment on a large scale.
Charles C. Mann had said ”Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. The Indians were in the process of terraforming the Amazon when Columbus showed up and ruined everything”.
Some environmentalists have even proposed that the “Dark Earth” technique is still relevant today. Currently in the Amazon, farmers use a slash and burn technique to keep business running. When soil fails, some farmers burn their land to restore nutrients. Others too move on and cut a new plot of land. The collective result is massive deforestation, biodiversity loss and the release of huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
And observers say the “Dark Earth” technique could be the answer to the unsustainable slash and burn techniques currently used by farmers in the Amazon and elsewhere.
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