New research led by Florida Institute of Technology shows that the impacts of indigenous people prior to European contact impacted riverside forests, but that such impacts were largely limited to an area within a day's walk from a river.
The findings by the international team of archaeobotanists, paleoecologists and ecologists will be published online in the paper "Anthropogenic influence on Amazonian forests in prehistory: An ecological perspective" on Oct. 28 in the Journal of Biogeography.
The new research, conducted using plant fossils, estimates of mammal density, remote sensing and human population modeling, reinforces that Amazonian forests may be very vulnerable to disturbance by logging , mining and other large enterprises. The study refutes an emerging theory from some archaeologists and anthropologists that Amazonian rain forests are the result of ancient managed landscapes - a notion that undermines the ecological view of these forests as fragile ecosystems.
"Nobody doubts the importance of human actions along the major waterways," said Mark Bush, professor of biological sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology and the lead author of the paper. "But whether humans had a greater impact on the ecosystem than any other large mammal has yet to be established in much of western Amazonia."
Dolores Piperno, curator of archaeobotany and South American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History and co-author of the study, said the recent emphasis on Amazonia as a manufactured and domesticated landscape overstates the facts.
"At nearly the size of the continental United States, Amazonia is a vast landscape with considerable biotic and abiotic heterogeneity. Extrapolations being made from relatively few archaeological sites mainly located along water courses as to the overall effect of prehistoric human occupation must be tempered in the face of available and yet-to-be-accumulated empirical data."