Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Amazonian Harvest

Posted by Gerald on June 29, 2008

I’ve just finshed a a very interesting article about agriculture in the Amazon (“Amazonian Harvest” by Mara Hvistendahl, Archaeology, July/August 2008.  You can see some of it here.)  Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated by what archaeologists have been finding in the Amazon rain forest.  Starting in the 1950s a group of anthropologists and archaeologists started to challenge a prevailing idea that the Amazon was an impossible area for dense human settlement without slash-and-burn agriculture and the resulting deforestation.  There are extensive earthworks and pottery remnants as well as documentary evidence going back to the 17th century that indicates there was once extensive settlement in the region.  Research has started to suggest that the people there found ways to manage water and the forest that allowed for a dense population without the destruction that became common with the Spanish strategy of “Cut it, fell it, burn it, and farm it.”

This article discusses some work in the Bolivian Amazon as well as the way it is being used to promote the idea of a more sustainable model of agriculture for the region.  This is part of a tradition of “action archaeology” meant to use discoveries of the past to create positive change.  This idea dates back to the 1950s as well where it was first used in areas of the Near East.  Archaeologists discovered methods dating from the Byzantine Empire that had been used to farm areas that were considered unfarmable desert at that time.  Agricultural experts and local farmers were able to adapt the historical methods to grow food and commercial crops in the region.  Local farmers and activists are promoting a similar model in the Amazon.

As a student of history, I’m as intrigued by the question of why as I am by the question of how these people farmed the way they did.  One thing that jumped out at me while reading this was that slash-and-burn methods weren’t used in this part of the Americas until the Spanish came with iron and steel.  The introduction of iron also transformed African agriculture.  Some theories suggest that several cereal crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa couldn’t be grown until iron hoes and knives were available.  What interests me in the Amazonian case is the idea that perhaps the very lack of “advanced” metallurgy might have been the thing that led local people to develop superior farming methods for that environment.  My theory would be that these methods were then lost when the region was formally subdued and organized under the mission system.  This led – as always – to a huge demographic disaster.  As the Amazonian Indians were dying off from newly introduced diseases, they were also forced to adopt European farming methods.  The result was the loss of the earlier methods and a legacy of unsustainable agriculture that were part and parcel of the story of imperialism in the region.  All of the stuff in this paragraph is just my take, but I think it makes sense.

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3 Responses to “Amazonian Harvest”

  1. bridgett said

    A lot of the new environmental histories of empire are focused on the racial, cultural, and social meanings that food production methods signified for invader and host. I would probably lean towards “have to burn it down because we are not Indians and we don’t use Indian methods…because if we acknowledge Indian methods are superior, we are not superior, but we know that we are superior…” While you’re surely right that the massive die-off in the first post-contact century would have forced productive reorganization on a huge scale anyhow, the particular route that took is certainly the work of empire. There’s also the shifting ideas about racial identity to be reckoned with — if a Spaniard ate Indian food, lived in Indian structures, learned Indian languages and symbolic systems, wore Indian clothes….well, duh, they were going to turn into an Indian and not be a Spaniard any longer. So the perverse crazy drive to plant Spanish crops in Spanish ways using Spanish tools so that Spaniards could eat what Spaniards ate in Spain…well, it’s all driven by what was the state-of-the-art scientific knowledge of human biology at the time which argued that race was not inherent or immutable. And we all know science is never wrong, right?

    If you have the time, I think you’d really like to read Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire. It’s one of those books about soil acidity and cows (as Glenn might say), but it got me down at eye-level into colonial English expansion on the mainland. I’m an unrepentant materialist and I really like books that get my boots muddy.

  2. Gerald said

    No question. I was trying to argue that the outcome here is a product of imperialism rather than “technolgical superiority” and that the “superior technology” helped promote an inferior set of practices rooted in imperial ideology by making those practices possible. I see the loss of population as helping to destroy the cultural memory of these earlier practices, leaving the survivor with nothing but what was forced upon them by their rulers.

    I was reading about the Roman’s sense of identity and their relationship with the “barbarians” (and it is worth noting that they used the same terminology for Germanic tribesmen and for the Sasanian Persian state – “you’re a Roman or you suck!”.) They were certain that they were a higher order of humanity due to – wait for it – thier ability to control their physical appetites through reason (cue footage from “Caligula” here). There aren’t a lot of absolutes in history, but the need of a sense of superiority on the part of empire-builders has to be one (like “We’re on a mission from God” or “We’re the freest country on Earth.”)

    Thanks for the book reference. I’ll check it out. I’m also finding I’m more of a materialist (and behaviorist) than I once thought. Certainly my courses are becoming more focused on cows and soil acidity. My new World Civilizations survey is going to be heavily wighted toward environmental and economic themes. However, I’m also hoping to innoculate my students against the simplistic environmental determinism of certain recent best-sellers (*cough* Jared Diamond *cough*).

  3. Gerald said

    Man, those automatic emoticons are annoying!

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