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Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?

Michael J. Heckenberger,1* Afukaka Kuikuro,4 Urissapá Tabata Kuikuro,4 J. Christian Russell,2 Morgan Schmidt,3 Carlos Fausto,5 Bruna Franchetto5

Archaeology and indigenous history of Native Amazonian peoples in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil reveal unexpectedly complex regional settlement patterns and large-scale transformations of local landscapes over the past millennium. Mapping and excavation of archaeological structures document pronounced human-induced alteration of the forest cover, particularly in relation to large, dense late-prehistoric settlements (circa 1200 to 1600 A.D.). The findings contribute to debates on human carrying capacity, population size and settlement patterns, anthropogenic impacts on the environment, and the importance of indigenous knowledge, as well as contributing to the pride of place of the native peoples in this part of the Amazon.

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 Department of Geography, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
4 Associaçaão Indígena Kuikuro do Alto Xingu, Parque Indígena do Xingu, Mato Grosso, Brazil.
5 Department of Anthropology, Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro 20940–040, Brazil.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Was the Amazon a natural forest in 1492, sparsely populated and essentially pristine, as has been traditionally thought? Or, instead, were parts of it densely settled and better viewed as cultural forests, including large agricultural areas, open parklands, and working forests associated with large, regional polities (13). Despite growing popularity for the latter view (46), entrenched debates regarding pre-Columbian cultural and ecological variation in the region remain unresolved due to a lack of well-documented case studies (7, 8). Here, we present clear evidence of large, regional social formations [circa (c.) 1250 to 1600 A.D.] and their substantial influence on the landscape, where they have altered much of the local forest cover. Specifically, archaeological research in the Upper Xingu (Mato Grosso, Brazil), including detailed mapping and excavations of extensive earthen features (such as moats, roads, and bridges) in and around ancient settlements, reveals unexpectedly complex regional settlement patterns that created areas of acute forest alteration.

The Upper Xingu is unique in the southern peripheries of the Amazon as the largest contiguous tract of tropical forest still under indigenous resource management [Parque Indígena do Xingu (PIX)]. It remains little affected by 20th century mechanized development (Fig. 1). The Upper Xingu is a long-standing case study of indigenous Amazonian agriculture and ecology (9, 10) and one of the few places where contemporary observations about indigenous agriculture, land use, and settlement pattern can be systematically linked with archaeological and oral historical evidence (11). Long-term in situ cultural development of Xinguano peoples over more than 1000 years (12) is clearly documented by continuity in (i) utilitarian ceramics used to process and cook staple foods (13); (ii) settlement placement (at forest/wetland transitions) and local land use, marked by substantial forest and wetland alterations; and (iii) settlement form, notably circular plazas with radial roads (14) (movie S1).

 Fig. 1. Upper Xingu region image [Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper, path 225, rows 68 to 69; 12 August 1999; image is a composite false-color infrared with bands assigned as 5-4-3 (red-green-blue) to provide the appearance of natural vegetation] with the approximate boundaries of the PIX and the Kuikuro study area (inset of Upper Xingu, Brazil). The ecological transition between the closed forests of southern Amazonia and the more open savanna/gallery forest of the Brazilian Planalto Central is shown (lower right). [View Larger Version of this Image (88K GIF file)]

In the Kuikuro study area (Fig. 2) (15), 19 major pre-Columbian settlements have been identified, generally separated by 3 to 5 km and linked by a system of broad, straight roads (16). Recognition and mapping of major earthworks at these sites reveal their articulation in a remarkably elaborate regional plan (14). The earthworks include (i) excavated ditches in and around ancient settlements (up to 2.5 km long and 5 m deep); (ii) linear mounds or "curbs" positioned at the margins of major roads and circular plazas (averaging about 0.5 to 1.0 m in height); and (iii) a variety of wetland features, such as bridges, artificial river obstructions and ponds, raised causeways, canals, and other structures, many of which are still in use today. Similar constructed features (such as settlements, roads, weirs, and ponds) are known from culturally related peoples (principally Arawak speakers) across the southern Amazonian periphery (1719) [supporting online material (SOM) text].

 Fig. 2. Kuikuro study area showing the distribution of major ditched plaza centers (stars in circles), major plaza centers (open circles), and small plaza and non-plaza villages (black dots). [View Larger Version of this Image (71K GIF file)]

The integrated settlement configuration was in place by c. 1250 to 1400 A.D., based on radiocarbon dates from stratified deposits at X6, X11, and X13 (Table 1) (14, 20). Major curbed roads (10 to 50 m wide) articulate with plazas, ditches, and partition space within villages and across the broader landscape, notably linking settlements into "galactic" clusters across the region (21). The Ipatse cluster includes four major residential settlements (X6, X17, X18, and X22), linked to a fifth unfortified "hub" site (X13), with only limited residential occupation (Fig. 3A). Another cluster of sites, centered on X11, shows a similar pattern of a large (50 ha) fortified settlement connected to other smaller but still elaborate settlements. In the case of the Kuhikugu (X11) cluster, the largest residential center is the hub (Fig. 3B). The primary nodes of each cluster are also linked by roads to smaller plaza settlements (fig. S1). On the basis of artifact and dark-earth distributions, it has been estimated that large sites, such as X6 and X11, had 15 to 25 ha of residential space, medium sites (X17, X18, X22) had 5 to 10 ha, and small sites had 2 to 5 ha (14). Thus, the actual residential area of a cluster like X6 or X11 was at least 40 to 80 ha in an area of about 400 km2, with an estimated population of between 2500 and 5000 persons (or about 6 to 12.5 persons per km2 in the study area).

 Fig. 3. Satellite image [Landsat 4 Thematic Mapper, path 225, row 69; 21 June 1992; bands were assigned as 5(red)-4(green)-3(blue)] with global positioning system–mapped Ipatse cluster sites X6 and X13 (A, insets) linked by the "north-south road" and transit-mapped X11 (B, inset). Ditches are colored in red; road and plaza curbs are black. Fieldwork in 2003 demonstrates that roads extend fully from X13 to X18, and continue on to X19, X20, and beyond along the north-south road, as well as across high ground to X17 and X22 (fig. S1); X11 roads also connect it to the four satellites. MTFX, Mato Grosso (the state), Formadores do Xingu (the archaeological region). The number refers to the site number. [View Larger Version of this Image (75K GIF file)]

Table 1. Radiocarbon dates from Nokugu (X6) and other sites in the Kuikuro study area, southern PIX. Beta 176135 to Beta 176144 are reported here for the first time. Calibrated age ranges for samples dated in 2003 (numbered 176135 and up) were reported by Beta-Analytic laboratory; previous (1994) dates were calibrated using CALIB 4.0 (29). ET, excavation trench of 1.0 by 10.0 m or more; EU, excavation unit of 1.0 m2; S, southern side of plaza or site; N, northern side; Ditch 1, outermost; Ditch 2, middle; Ditch 3, innermost ditch in all sites.

Lab no.   Site/unit   Conventional radiocarbon   2{Sigma}-calibrated age range   Provenance  

Historical Xinguano (1700 A.D.—present)  

Beta 176142   X6/ET2   20 ± 50   modern*   Ditch 3 (S), upper ditch infill  
Beta 72260   X6/ET1   180 ± 60   1520-1940 A.D.   Ditch 2 (S), upper ditch infill  
Terminal "galactic" period (1400-1700 A.D.)  

Beta 176137   X6/ET10   340 ± 60   1460-1640 A.D.   Ditch 2 (N), upper ditch infill  
Beta 81301   X6/ET1   360 ± 70   1420-1640 A.D.   Ditch 2 (S), mid-ditch infill  
Beta 176135   X6/ET3   440 ± 60   1420-1480 A.D.   Small plaza, subcurb intact  
Beta 72262   X11/EU1   440 ± 70   1400-1650 A.D.   North road, intact/curb interface  
Beta 176140   X6/ET3   530 ± 60   1400-1430 A.D.   Small plaza, subcurb intact  
Initial "galactic" period (1250-1400 A.D.)  

Beta 176139{dagger}   X6/ET2   590 ± 60   1300-1420 A.D.   Ditch 3 (N), basal fill  
Beta 177724{dagger}   X6/ET2   670 ± 60   1260-1410 A.D.   Ditch 3 (N), basal fill  
Beta 88362   X13/EU1   690 ± 60   1260-1300 A.D.   Central plaza, subcurb intact  
Beta 78979   X6/ET1   700 ± 70   1230-1410 A.D.   Ditch 2 (S), sub-berm intact  
Beta 176136   X6/ET4   710 ± 50   1270-1300 A.D.   Ditch 1 (S), basal fill  
Late developmental (900-1250 A.D.)  

Beta 72263   X11/EU1   900 ± 60   1000-1250 A.D.   North road, subcurb, basal intact  
Beta 88363   X13/EU1   910 ± 80   1040-1250 A.D.   Central plaza, subcurb base intact  
Beta 72261   X6/ET1   1000 ± 70   950-1210 A.D.   Ditch 2 (S), sub-berm, base intact  
Beta 176141   X6/ET5 1   030 ± 60   980-1030 A.D.   Central plaza, subcurb base intact  
Initial Xinguano (pre-900 A.D.)  

Beta 176143{dagger}   X6/ET2   1370 ± 60   640-690 A.D.   Mid-ditch 3 (N), mid-ditch  
Beta 176138{dagger}  


2110 ± 40  

190-60 B.C.  

Ditch (N), basal fill  

* Two additional modern dates, Beta 98978 and Beta 176144, are considered invalid. The former was redated with a sample slightly higher in profile (Beta 81301).

{dagger} Beta 176139 is inversed with 176143 and was redated by 177724. Beta 176138 also comes from stratified but mixed context of ditch infill, and both likely represent earlier materials that are mixed in ditch construction.

Areas within each galactic cluster can be characterized as saturated anthropogenic landscapes, because virtually the entire area in and between major settlements, although not entirely cultural in origin, was carefully engineered and managed. Indeed, the road networks, oriented by the same system of cardinality that characterizes plaza spatial organization, partitioned the landscape into a gridlike or latticelike organization of nodes (plazas) and connecting thoroughfares, although patches and corridors of secondary and perhaps managed forests were likely common, as they are today. Mapped archaeological features correspond to patches of acutely modified secondary growth, distinctive from surrounding forest and easy to recognize in satellite images. These patches or islands are identified in the indigenous knowledge systems, including diverse species whose distributions are generally restricted to anthrosols (dark earth)—called egepe by the Kuikuro—associated with ancient settlements (2224) (SOM text). Some areas related to major pre-Columbian settlements, like X6, X11, and X13, have not returned to high forest after about 400 years of abandonment, although other areas (such as roads, hamlets, gardens, fields, and parklands) show a highly patchy forest regrowth typical of postabandonment (after 1600 to 1750) succession.

Recognition of the massive forest alterations associated with pre-Columbian occupations requires an understanding of local biodiversity in the context of the complex cultural history of the area. The composition of forest and wetland habitats reflects long-term cumulative changes, given that the settlement areas were occupied more or less continuously over many generations, as well as the large-scale alteration and management of local environments by dense late-prehistoric occupations (c. 1250 to 1650 A.D.). Present soil and biotic distributions, often isomorphic with the distribution of archaeological features, notably plazas, residential areas, roads, and road-side hamlets, are in large part the result of pre-Columbian land-management strategies. After c. 1600 to 1700, catastrophic depopulation (25) led to the abandonment of these works and many settlements, resulting in extensive reforestation in many areas. The scale of the prehistoric settlements, including exterior constructions, such as roads, hamlets, wetland structures, and cultivation areas, suggests that agricultural and parkland landscapes, rather than high forest, characterized the broad landscapes around ancient villages, as is true in contemporary villages. Metal technology, however, has increased the speed at which forests can be converted into mosaic parklands of dispersed manioc gardens, sapé grass fields, piqui groves, and secondary forests (26) (Fig. 4).

 Fig. 4. Aerial photographs (U.S. Air Force/Força Aérea Brasileira 1967; 1: 60,000) of Lake Ipatse (A) and Lake Kuhikugu (B) showing land-cover change during 6-year period (1961 to 1967) after abandonment (Kuhikugu) and reoccupation (Ipatse). Comparison with Fig. 3 (1992) of same areas shows an ~30-year period. Graphic testimony of post-1492 decline in village size is shown by comparing the size of X11 with the four sequential Kuikuro villages (c. 1870s to 1961) in and north of the ancient site and by comparing X6 with the active village in 1967 and 1992. [View Larger Version of this Image (77K GIF file)]

The Upper Xingu is a unique Amazonian example of a tropical forest way of life that supported large, densely settled, and integrated regional populations over the past 1000 years. Local ecology reflects the dynamic interaction between the natural environment, the influence of fairly large, settled human populations, and the legacy of Euro-American colonialism over the past ~500 years. Evidence of large, well-engineered public works (such as plazas, roads, moats, and bridges) in and between pre-Columbian settlements suggests a highly elaborate built environment, rivaling that of many contemporary complex societies of the Americas and elsewhere (SOM text). To suggest that Xinguano lands were intensively managed and developed, c. 1492, however, does not imply that indigenous land-use strategies, based on patchy development within long rotational cycles, are comparable to modern nonindigenous clear-cutting strategies (27, 28). Xinguano cultivation and land management, indeed, provides a viable alternative. The present research emphasizes the critical importance of collaborative research strategies, including archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork, remote-sensed data analysis and geographic information systems, and most important, indigenous participation, to understand the complex interplay of ecological, historical, and political conditions in Amazonia before and after 1492.

References and Notes

1. W. Balee, Econ. Bot. 7, 1 (1989).
2. W. Denevan, Ann. Assoc. Am. Geog. 82, 369 (1992).[ISI]
3. D. Lathrap, The Upper Amazon (Praeger, London, 1970).
4. C. Mann, Science 287, 786 (2000).[Free Full Text]
5. C. Mann, Atlantic Monthly 2001, 41 (March 2002).
6. This theory has been widely disseminated in popular media [e.g., "Fertile secret: How did ancient Amazonians turn sand into rich soil? Garbage," American Broadcasting Corporation, 19 September 2002, available online on; and "The secret of El Dorado," British Broadcasting Corporation, 19 December 2002, available online on
7. A. C. Roosevelt, Am. Anthropol. Assoc. Pap. 9 (1999), pp. 13–33.
8. M. J. Heckenberger, J. B. Petersen, E. G. Neves, Lat. Am. Antiq. 10, 353 (1999).[ISI]
9. R. Carneiro, Subsistence and Social Structure (Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1957).
10. R. Carneiro, in Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians, R. Hames, W. Vickers. Eds. (Academic Press, New York, 1983), pp. 65–111.
11. M. Heckenberger, Antiquity 72, 633 (1998).[ISI]
12. Initial Xinguano occupations date sometime between 200 B.C. and 800 A.D., but the exact date is uncertain because the two earliest radiocarbon dates are from mixed deposits, and in one case (Beta-Analytic Laboratory number 176143) the dates are demonstrably out of sequence.
13. Manioc, fish, and piqui fruit constitute 90% or more of the diet (9).
14. Materials and methods are available as supporting material on Science Online.
15. The Kuikuro study area is about the same as the Kuikuro (Carib Xinguano) traditional territory. It is about 1000 km2 and is located in an area of traditional Xinguano occupations that is 25,000 to 35,000 km2.
16. Several additional large sites are known in the study area, on the basis of indigenous knowledge of dark-earth locations, and numerous smaller occupation sites are also known, including small road-side hamlets along the major roads.
17. A. Metraux, BAE, Bulletin 143 (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1948), vol. 3, pp. 349–360.
18. C. Erickson, Nature 408, 190 (2000).[CrossRef][ISI][Medline]
19. M. Heckenberger, in Comparative Arawak Histories: Rethinking Culture Area and Language Group, J. Hill, F. Santos-Granero, Eds. (Univ. of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2001), pp. 99–122.
20. Here, "galactic" describes the regional site clusters organized around a center or hub (X11 and X13), with several major residential sites connected to it.
21. S. Tambiah, Ritual, Performance, and Thought (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985).
22. Dark earth forms in compost areas, although widespread burning produces minor but extensive soil alterations.
23. W. I. Woods, J. McCann, Yearb. Conf. Lat. Am. Geogr. 25, 7 (1999).
24. J. B. Petersen, E. G. Neves, M. J. Heckenberger, in The Unknown Amazon, C. McEwan, E. Neves, C. Barreto, Eds. (British Museum Press, London, 2001), pp. 86–105.
25. M. Heckenberger, in Os Povos Indígenas do Alto Xingu: História e Cultura, B. Franchetto, M. Heckenberger, Eds., [Editora Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Rio de Janeiro, 2001], pp. 77–110.
26. W. Denevan, J. Steward Anthropol. Assoc. 20, 153 (1992).
27. W. Denevan, Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2001).
28. N. Smith, A. Serraão, P. Alvim, I. Falesi, Amazonia: Resiliencyand Dynamism of a Land and Its People (United Nations Press, Tokyo, 1995).
29. M. Stuiver, G. W. Pearson., Radiocarbon 35, 1 (1993).[ISI]
30. Ethnoarchaeological research in the Upper Xingu by M.J.H., conducted in collaboration with the Museu Nacional (UFRJ), the Museu Goeldi, and the Kuikuro community, has been ongoing since 1991; 2001 to 2003 fieldwork was supported by NSF grant Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences no. 0004487 (2001 to 2003). We thank A. Melges, J. Petersen, and W. Hillman for their support.

Supporting Online Material

Materials and Methods

SOM Text

Fig. S1


Movie S1

25 April 2003; accepted 25 July 2003
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Volume 301, Number 5640, Issue of 19 Sep 2003, pp. 1710-1714.
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