Authors:John Carson (University of Reading)
Francis Mayle (University of Reading)
Paper short abstract:
Research from the historical ecological community has suggested that pre-Columbian land use created significant areas of anthropogenic forest in Amazonia. We present a critique of the potential and challenges of detecting such impact using historical ecological and palaeoecological approaches.
Paper long abstract:
It is now evident, from a growing body of archaeological research, that large, sedentary societies occupied parts of the Amazon Basin in pre-Columbian times (pre-1492 AD). These native groups employed land-use practices, such as agroforestry and soil improvement, which would likely have altered the plant communities around them. Some archaeologists and historical ecologists suggest that the legacy of this impact can still be seen today in Amazonian plant communities, across large areas of forest. If this hypothesis is correct, they argue, then the preservation of these anthropogenic forests will require a conservation strategy that incorporates traditional land use practices. However, some ecologists disagree, arguing that pre-Columbian impacts were not so spatially widespread, and that natural successional processes over the centuries since native population decline would erase any legacy of human management. Differentiating between what might be natural vs. anthropogenic plant communities, and identifying instances of significant human impact in the past, is a difficult endeavour. Here, we discuss these challenges, and present ongoing work that uses plant inventory data from forest plots in the south and western Amazon to test the efficacy of historical ecological methods in detecting anthropogenic forests. We also review the potential and difficulties involved in detecting historical land use using palaeoecological methods. Finally, we suggest an integrative approach, incorporating multiple lines of evidence, as the most effective way forward.
Indigenous populations-vegetation-climate relationship in the past: what can this teach us about sustainable vegetation use in the present?