The Amazon River Basin is the largest rainforest in the world. It represents a major reservoir of biodiversity and has an essential role in global climate and carbon cycle regulations.
Humans have been part of this landscape for at least 13,000 years. How they used the land, and the nature of their long-term environmental legacy, are among the most debated topics in New World archaeology, paleoecology and conservation.
According to the long-accepted paradigm the Amazon rainforest is one of the last untouched wildernesses on Earth, where small hunter-gatherer tribes lived in harmony with their ancient forests, having negligible impact upon them. The poor Amazonian soils with their extremely low agricultural productivity, and the scarcity of big terrestrial game as a protein source, were assumed to be major limiting factors for cultural development. However, mounting archaeological evidence has recently suggested significant demographic and economic growth and the existence of complex Amazonian societies who had an extensive impact on their environment before the Columbian Encounter.
PAST is an ERC-funded multidisciplinary research project that aims to resolve this debate by exploring and quantifying the nature and extent of pre-Columbian land use and its long-term impact in lowland Amazonia.
Applying a combination of archaeobotany, botany, palaeoecology, remote sensing -including the novel application of LIDAR survey – and soil science we investigate the influence of late pre-Columbian (AD 1000-1492) people on Amazonian ecosystems, and the impact of the 1492 Columbian Encounter (CE) and its modern legacy. We do this through a comparative study of four different regions of Amazonia: (1) the Santarem Amazonian Dark Earth sites in the Lower Amazon, (2) the interfluvial areas of the Purus-Madeira Rivers in the Central Amazon, (3) the Acre geoglyphs of SW Amazonia and (4) the ring-ditches of the Baures forested areas of the Bolivian Amazon. Through this study, the project aims to move beyond the four sites to give a comprehensive picture of the human impact on Amazonian landscapes in the late Holocene. Thus, the PAST project has the potential to reshape the classical concept of the role of traditional societies in the development of Amazonian landscapes. It will provide valuable information for formulating future conservation and management strategies.