Research Resource – Land Use in the Pre-Columbian Amazon

When I first began brainstorming ideas for what type of content I would include in my blog, the idea of sharing my research was one of the first to make its way onto paper. I do a lot of varied research for one reason or the other, whether for writing, my own enjoyment, or a school assignment. As both a writer and a student I have often wished for a place that would steer me in the right direction; not covering all there was to know about a subject, but a signpost for how to get there.

That’s what I’m going to try to do with my Research Resource posts. As I am in the process of gathering materials to find out what the typical diet of ancient inhabitants of Siberia, or searching for information on the archetypal Superman, I’ll share some of the information I come across and what resources proved useful.

I will preface this, and probably many similar posts hereafter, with a disclaimer. I am a student, not a professional scholar. I will inevitably make mistakes no matter how much I fact-check. Thank you in advance for your patience.

Terra Preta and Perennial Farming

One cannot discuss the management of the Amazonian resources without examining the importance of dark earth, otherwise known as terra preta or terra preta do indio. The mixture consists of charcoal, ceramic shards, and nutrients from bones, shells, manure, or other organic material; resulting in a soil which is extremely productive, especially when compared to the poor soil in the surrounding Amazon basin. Some patches of terra preta, dated using the shards of ceramic mixed into the soil, were formed as early as the seventh century AD. Scholars argue over whether dark earth was produced purposefully by native tribes, or whether the rich soil is the product of century-old trash heaps. The distribution of dark earth throughout Amazonia has yet to be determined, and estimates range from a few thousand square miles to well over two hundred thousand square miles.

Scholars are still studying the agricultural methods of the indigenous Amazonian tribes. One of the earliest popular theories, slash-and-burn, would have required groups to move cultivation sites with each successive season, clearing land by chopping down trees and burning away the underbrush. Modern experiments with stone tools show that slash-and-burn was an impractical method of farming which would have wasted hundreds of hours of work until the arrival of European steel axes made clearing the forest much easier. While slash-and-burn does not appear to be practical, scholars criticize perennial farming because the plowing of soil would not have provided enough nutrients, while exposing the land to harmful erosive elements. However, with the inclusion of dark earth, nutrients would have become plentiful and the pottery shards would limit erosion.

Amazonian natives also diverted waterways, encouraged the growth of wild orchards, and used selective hunting to manage animal populations. In many ways, these tribes shaped the Pre-Columbian Amazon.

Aside from its value in academic fields, knowledge of resource management can impact the worldbuilding of a novel. How a city or nation gets food, disposes of wastes, and manages resources can impact the type of society which could exist. Of course in fantasy and science fiction magic or advanced technology can bend the laws of agriculture and civic planning, but an understanding of these areas can help a writer to develop a richer world for their stories.


These are some of the best sources I used while writing my full essay on land use in the Pre-Columbian Amazon. I hope you find them as interesting as I did!

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann (2005) – Charles Mann provides a good overall for indigenous land use in both North and South America before the arrival of Columbus. An interesting read all the way through, though specific information about the Amazon is primarily in the final chapters.

Cultural Forests of the Amazon: A Historical Ecology of People and Their Landscapes, William Balée (2013) – William Balée was one of the earliest historians to look at the ecology of the Amazon and how the indigenous people interacted with their landscape. This book includes much of the information in his earlier publications, as well as more recent materials. Where Mann gives breadth to the idea of shaping landscapes to particular needs, Balée gives depth as to how Pre-Columbian efforts have shaped the Amazon.

“Pre-Columbian Raised-Field Agriculture and Land Use in the Bolivian Amazon” (in The Holocene 24, no. 2), Whitney, et al. (2014) – A fascinating study of the Amazonian savanna Llanos de Mojos and the sixth-century site El Cerro. As the title indicates, it focuses on the use of raised-field agriculture and explains the study with terms easy enough for a layman to understand.

“Towards an Environmental History of the Amazon: From Prehistory to the Nineteenth Century” (in Latin American Research Review 36, no. 2 ), David Cleary (2001) – Another good overall review of the Amazon’s ecological past, Cleary also shows how the European Encounter changed the area.

3 thoughts on “Research Resource – Land Use in the Pre-Columbian Amazon

  1. You might also be interested in reading “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey: The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard. This is the river that begins at the Amazon but makes its hazardous way south through a large portion of South America. “Together with his son Kermit and Brazil’s most famous explorer, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon, Roosevelt accomplished a feat so great that many at the time refused to believe it. In the process, he changed the map of the Western Hemisphere forever.” It is up soon on my reading list, and you may borrow my copy if you like.


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