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Ancient peoples shaped the Amazon rainforest

Posted on 02-03-2017 by Redactie

The Amazon consists of an estimated 16,000 tree species! Hans ter Steege, researcher at Naturalis, conducts research on these trees. Which trees exist where? How many species are there? And in what numbers?

An international team of ecologists and social scientists, led by Carolina Levis, from Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) and Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, has shown in a new study that tree species domesticated and distributed throughout the Amazon basin by indigenous peoples before 1492 continue to play an important role in modern-day forests. These new findings strongly refute the idea that Amazonian forests have been largely untouched by humans.

The finding promises to heat up a long-simmering debate among scientists about how thousands of years of human occupation in the Amazon basin have influenced modern-day patterns of Amazonian biodiversity, and challenges the view many of us ecologists had and still have of this huge area,

says Hans ter Steege.

The immense size of Amazonian forests has historically hampered archaeological research and given the impression of an untouched landscape, but a large number of new archaeological sites have been discovered in recent years. The team made the discovery by overlaying data from more than 1000 forest surveys of the Amazon Tree Diversity Network on a map of more than 3000 archaeological sites across the Amazon. By comparing forest composition at varying distances from archaeological sites, their analysis generated the first Amazon-wide picture of how pre-Colombian peoples influenced Amazonian biodiversity.

The study focused on 85 tree species known to have been domesticated by Amazonian peoples for food, shelter, or other uses over the last several thousand years. The researchers found that throughout the Amazon basin these species were five times more likely to be common in tree surveys than non-domesticated species. Domesticated species were also found to be more common and more diverse in forests closer to archaeological sites. These 85 domesticated trees include well-known commercial species, such as cacao, açaí, and Brazil nut. It was found that a quarter of Amazonia’s domesticated species are widely distributed in the basin and dominate large expanses of forest. These results clearly indicate that the Amazonian flora is in part a surviving heritage of its past inhabitants.

This research was published on the 3th of March in Science.


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