Gene Expression

Amazon was not always “pristine”

‘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!

Comments

  1. #1 Spike
    August 28, 2008

    Good poitn. We are neither above nor below, but right smack dab in the middle of the whole thing with all the other animals and the plants and microbes and everything.

    I haerd a brief snippet of a program that claimed that some Central American civilizations were simply abandoned by their inhabitants with the preumption that it was decided that “living off the land” was better than living in the cities and with the necessary infrasturcture. It was meant to be an object lesson for today’s urbanized civilizations, I guess.

    Plague seems like a more likely reason to abandon the cities, however, which is still an object lesson for today.

  2. #2 bgc
    August 29, 2008

    Good stuff. I didn’t know this, but I won’t forget it.

  3. #3 jim
    August 29, 2008

    It’s hard to imagine the horror of living through that decades long rolling series of plagues from hell that destroyed the Amerindians. Everyone would be dropping like flies and nobody had any idea why. Nothing they had experienced previously, as individuals or as a societal collective, could have prepared them for such a disaster.

  4. #4 razib
    August 29, 2008

    It’s hard to imagine the horror of living through that decades long rolling series of plagues from hell that destroyed the Amerindians.

    one issue that is important to remember is that disease as such didn’t necessarily kill the people; if 80% of individuals in a tribe are no longer able bodied who is going to plant, hunt, gather and harvest? so many people just starve.

  5. #5 Sandgroper
    August 29, 2008

    It is both interesting and disappointing to see how the attempts to resolve the part that H saps played in the various megafaunal extinctions has become politicised, at least in Australia, and I assume elsewhere. It makes it very hard to keep addressing the question in order to resolve it in a wholly objective discussion. That’s hardly confined just to that issue, though.

    Similarly, this report and the prelim data which I read about with great interest at the time bring into sharp focus the fact that H saps cannot be separated out from Nature at some specific point, with Nature imagined as something entirely natural and pristine before the impact of *whatever*. The image of ‘natural people’living in harmony with pristine Nature before the arrival of *whatever* at a certain specific point is a very distorted one.

    At what point did Homo start to have an impact on the surrounding environment that was elevated beyond some ‘natural’level? When did Homo cease to be purely ‘natural’ and living outside of Nature? It becomes a pretty meaningless question.

    It might be fun to take a poll of readers’ opinions on that – at what point did Homo cease to live in a purely natural state? Anecdotally, people’s ideas about that vary wildly, but most of them seem to fit with the production and consumption of beer being considered an entirely natural phenomenon.

  6. #6 Levi
    August 29, 2008

    I believe a similar point was made in Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven LeBlanc and Katherine E. Register (although it may’ve been another book on war in prehistory).

    They made the claim that this idea of the Native American living in peace with the land and his fellow man was partially an artifact of the massive depopulation caused by European pathogens. If a majority of the people in a region are dead, resource scarcity is not as big of an issue (although there may be increased anxiety due to the unknown cause of the death thus possibly increased warfare).

    After I read this claim I was struck by how much sense it made and how stupid I felt for not making that connection on my own.

  7. #7 Marc
    August 29, 2008

    It’s hard to imagine the horror of living through that decades long rolling series of plagues from hell that destroyed the Amerindians.

    What boggles the mind (or mine, at least) is the inevitability of it. Sooner or later, someone from the Old World was going to come across the New World, and these diseases were going to spread among millions with no resistance to them. It’s hard to imagine a scenario for human history where this didn’t happen.

    Which brings up a question I’ve always had. Any theories as to why Viking contact with American Indians in Greenland and parts of North America didn’t spread these same diseases? I would speculate either close contact wasn’t sustained long enough to permit Old World diseases to gain a foothold in the New World, or that diseases were transferred, but the population density in that part of the New World was low enough that a few tribes died off and the diseases didn’t spread beyond that. Or maybe the Norse didn’t carry any of these diseases with them?

    None of these strike me as really satisfying. Are there better theories or explanations out there?

  8. #8 razib
    August 29, 2008

    None of these strike me as really satisfying. Are there better theories or explanations out there?

    i think those are the most probable ones. i suspect the key is that permanent settlement never really took off, so there wasn’t an incubating colony.

  9. #9 Sock Puppet of the Great Satan
    August 29, 2008

    “Which brings up a question I’ve always had. Any theories as to why Viking contact with American Indians in Greenland and parts of North America didn’t spread these same diseases?”

    Colder environment probably affected disease spread, plus population size of the Viking settlements probably was too small for disease to be endemic. That was the situation with smallpox in the Colonial era – students from the colonies wouldn’t have had smallpox as kids, and so there was a high death rate of students from the colonies when they went to Oxford and Cambridge. Was one of the chief impetuses to Harvard being founded.

  10. #10 natural cynic
    August 29, 2008

    According to Jared Diamond Collapse, a major reason the Viking settlement in Vinland and eventually the Greenland settlements failed was because of a lack of population and inability to get along with native groups. The L’Anse aux Meadows settlement was an offshoot of the Greenland colonies that were only numbered a few thousand at their peak. It was probably only a few dozen and their contacts with the locals were mostly in warfare. They were almost certainly overwhelmed by unfriendlies. The same thing happened with the Greenland colonies – they were very unfriendly to the Inuit and had no trade contacts, so no chance to transmit diseases and therefore no adoption of Inuit methods of survival. Then the colder climate hit and only a handful of stragglers made it to Iceland.

    Incidentally, the Vikings at the time had newly adopted Christianity, which almost automatically gave them a lower opinion of the heathens they encountered.

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