Review: Lost Cities of the Amazon National Geographic Channel November 20 9 pm

In the film Medicine Man, Sean Connery growls, ‘if you had the cure for the greatest plague of the 20th century, what would you do!’ – the Amazon has the world’s bio-pharmaceutical drug store. In this documentary, we’re presented with a new view – Amazon as fertilizer depot rather than pharmacy. We learn about ‘terra preta de indio’‘, an amazingly fecund man-made soil that is found throughout the Amazon basin, and could, if we could but figure it out, enable us to expand agricultural output the world over, without using chemicals!

It was at this point that my wife turned to me and said, ‘you mean, archaeology might be useful?’.

After I threw the pillow at her, it occurred to me that she was right – if this terra preta is as amazing as it sounds, then we really need to be devoting resources to try to understand it, to replicate it. Be an archaeologist: feed the world!

This documentary was easily my favourite – so far – of the National Geographic Expedition week. The archaeologists who feature are Eduardo Neves and Michael J. Heckenberger. The Amazon basin, long thought to be unable to support large numbers of humans, turns out to have been the incubator for a particularly complex society whose settlements ‘were more like Los Angeles than New York’. That is, they spread out node-and-network style throughout the basin, with arrow-straight roads connecting them. They had found a way of living in the thin soils of the Amazon, of managing the forest like the old world did farming.

The modern discovery of these settlements is contrasted with Edwardian adventurer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. In the best tradition of bloody-minded British exploration, he disappeared in the Mato Grosso region in 1925, trying to find ‘the Lost City of Z‘. (In a lovely coda to Fawcett’s expedition, oral history amongst the tribes in the region remembers Fawcett, as a generous man and friend to the tribes. Fawcett probably never dreamed he would enter the myth-history of the peoples along his way!)

We also learn of the Conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who saw cities and towns on his disastrous expedition along the Amazon river. Orellana was never believed, mostly because subsequent explorers saw no evidence of settlements where Orellana said they were. The thinking these days is that Orellana was not a liar, just a disease-ridden European: plague and death floated in Orellana’s wake, probably destroying the cultures along the way.

This documentary captivated me. The archaeology is unexpected, but untangles an historical mess, while at the same time, it changes our views on what is possible in the Amazon. To hell with the Romans! I want to go to South America…

(One quibble though: having watched a number of these documentaries in succession now, I’m getting tired of the post-commerical 3 minute recap of the previous pre-commerical material… which then gets recapped after the next commercial, and so on, and so on… in any given hour long documentary, you lose something like 15 minutes to commercial. If after every commercial you spend another 3 minutes recapping the previous bit… it just gets monotonous. And I’m watching these things without commercials, so the recap is even more annoying. I guess that’s what comes of the modern 30 second attention span.)

For more on what is an exciting frontier in archaeology, check out this paper from Heckenberger:

Science 29 August 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5893, pp. 1214 – 1217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1159769

Article Link



Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon

Michael J. Heckenberger,1* J. Christian Russell,2 Carlos Fausto,3 Joshua R. Toney,4 Morgan J. Schmidt,5 Edithe Pereira,6 Bruna Franchetto,7 Afukaka Kuikuro8 The archaeology of pre-Columbian polities in the Amazon River basin forces a reconsideration of early urbanism and long-term change in tropical forest landscapes. We describe settlement and land-use patterns of complex societies on the eve of European contact (after 1492) in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon. These societies were organized in articulated clusters, representing small independent polities, within a regional peer polity. These patterns constitute a “galactic” form of prehistoric urbanism, sharing features with small-scale urban polities in other areas. Understanding long-term change in coupled human-environment systems relating to these societies has implications for conservation and sustainable development, notably to control ecological degradation and maintain regional biodiversity.

1 Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
2 Land-Use and Environmental Change Institute, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
3 Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro 20940–040, Brazil.
4 Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
5 Department of Geography, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
6 Coordenação de Ciências Humanas, Museu Paranese Emílio Goeldi, Belém 66077–830, Brazil.
7 Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro 20940–040, Brazil.
8 Associação Indígena Kuikuro do Alto Xingu, Parque Indígena do Xingu (PIX), Mato Grosso, Brazil.