A jungle with a human touch: The Amazonian rainforest

Nothing would seem more randomly lush and exuberant to the naked eye than the Amazonian rainforest. Yet a comprehensive study involving forty researchers has revealed natural selection patterns in the makeup of the richest and largest rainforest in the world. The work was published in Science.

 The cross-disciplinary work relied on data gathered over eighty years. It combines environmental, anthropological and archeological information. Two sources were key, reports The Atlantic. One is the Amazon Tree Diversity Network, a long-running index of the animal and plant species that live in the rainforest. The other source is a database of the archeological sites excavated around the Amazon.

What the team found out is nothing short of fascinating. Human communities began shaping the Amazonian rainforest about 8,000 years ago. Around the time early societies in the Levant were beginning to cultivate wheat and barley, the Amazonian peoples, speakers of the Arawakan and Tupí languages, were taming jungles and trees.

The sheer scale of the forestry agriculture undertaking is amazing. The Amazonian peoples bequeathed to the present world —including their future conquerors—a universe of enormous economic significance, including rubber and cocoa trees. Out of 4,962 tree species in the Amazon, the researchers identified 85 domesticated tree species. But those had “an outsized influence on the composition of the forest itself”, writes Annalee Newitz for Ars Technica. “Overall, about 20 percent of all species in the Amazon forest today are the result of ancient domestication. In areas where large ancient civilizations existed, the numbers of domestics are closer to 30 percent,” the paper authors write in Science.

This discovery invites reflections from several perspectives, worth longer and deeper lines from more versed voices. What stays with us is a sense of awe and humbling by the magnificent legacy those disappeared civilizations left us. And it tempts us to believe that there was indeed a time when nature and human labor coexisted more sustainably. The first agricultural societies were, indeed, those that sowed the seeds of modern civilization, the very one that is now compromising the environment. Is a sustainable economy feasible in the modern world, and with the current demographics?

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