"Untouched" Amazone hosted large cities - a model for the future?

The myth of the “untouched” Amazone is popular. But areas that look pristine today have been the home of large urban areas, anthropologist Michael Heckenberger has found out already five years ago.

In a new paper that was published today in Science he writes that these settlements might be a model for the future.

In a press release Heckenberger says:

If we look at your average medieval town or your average Greek polis, most are about the scale of those we find in this part of the Amazon. Only the ones we find are much more complicated in terms of their planning.
These are not cities, but this is urbanism, built around towns. The findings are important because they contradict long-held stereotypes about early Western versus early New World settlements that rest on the idea that “if you find it in Europe, it’s a city. If you find it somewhere else, it has to be something else.

They have quite remarkable planning and self-organization, more so than many classical examples of what people would call urbanism.

This new knowledge could change how conservationists approach preserving the remains of forest so heavily cleared it is the world’s largest soybean producing area. “This throws a wrench in all the models suggesting we are looking at primordial biodiversity,” Heckenberger says.

This early urban settlement can be a model for future solutions. Heckenberger and his colleagues conclude:

Long ago, Howard proposed a model for lower-density urban development, a “garden city,” designed to promote sustainable urban growth. The model proposed networks of small and well-planned towns, a “green belt” of agricultural and forest land, and a subtle gradient between urban and rural areas.

The pre-Columbian polities of the Upper Xingu developed such a system, uniquely adapted to the forested environments of the southern Amazon. The Upper Xingu is one of the largest contiguous tracts of transitional forest in the southern Amazon [the so-called “arc of deforestation"], our findings emphasize that understanding long-term change in human-natural systems has critical implications for questions of biodiversity, ecological resilience, and sustainability.

Local semi-intensive land use provides “home-grown” strategies of resource management that merit consideration in current models and applications of imported technologies, including restoration of tropical forest areas. This is particularly important in indigenous areas, which constitute over 20% of the Brazilian Amazon and “are currently the most important barrier to deforestation".

Finally, the recognition of complex social formations, such as those of the Upper Xingu, emphasizes the need to recognize the histories, cultural rights, and concerns of indigenous peoples—the original architects and contemporary stewards of these anthropogenic landscapes—in discussions of Amazonian futures.

>> press release: ‘Pristine’ Amazonian region hosted large, urban civilization, study finds (University of Florida News)

Heckenberger has put online several papers. On the frontpage of his homepage we read “Come visit our site after August 30, 2008 for latest research results”


Tropical Stonehenge found in the rainforest? Why so surprised over the “finding” that the early inhabitants in the rainforest were “sophisticated” people?

The Double Standards of the “Uncontacted Tribes” Circus

Anthropologists condemn the use of terms of “stone age” and “primitive”

Dissertation: Survival in the Rainforest

1 comment

Comment from: Greg Downey [Visitor]  
Greg Downey

Lorenz, thanks for posting links to the original article – this is great stuff! I will certainly be using it when I teach on urbanization and domestication of food sources later this semester. I’ve been looking for some updates on this research, which I first stumbled across a few years ago. It appears that the research has come along quite a way since I’ve last read it.

2008-08-30 @ 08:35

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