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Amazonia 1492: Pristine forest or cultural parkland?

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Fascinating archaeological research on pre-Colombian civilisations in the lowland Amazon has demonstrated that these peoples had remarkably complex and sophisticated societies. However, this same research has been used to provide support for two further conclusions that I seek to question here. First, the notion that much of the Amazon was at some point “domesticated” by humans, and that the legacy of human impacts is manifest in the structure and functioning of the entire ecosystem. And second, that strategies for sustainable development of the Amazon region today can be guided, in significant ways, by what we have learnt from the ways in which early Amazon societies exploited natural resources. I will attempt to argue that scientific debates, especially about a subject as important as the fate of the Amazon, are frequently hijacked and distracted by exaggerated claims and scenarios, polarised arguments and unhelpful rhetoric – which to some extent has been the case here. It is unquestionable that highly sophisticated societies once inhabited parts of the Amazon. But this observation does not undermine the fact that the forest that exists today has been subject to highly variable levels of human impact. And that many of these impacts are of a magnitude and type incomparable to the activities of pre-Colombian peoples – and as such require proportionate and often novel responses if we are to achieve a more sustainable future for the Amazon region.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Science Seminars series.

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