2500 Year Old Amazon Soil Technology

New archeological research along the Amazon River reveals the extent to which humans modified the landscape with sophisticated agricultural techniques. Such a large area is transformed as to make it invisible to the casual observer. According to scientific study using aerial LiDAR, over 1500 kilometers (900 mi) along the shores of this impressive river contain amended soil known in Portuguese as terra preta, black earth. (En español más adelante)

Terra Preta Zones and Anthropized Forests. Image: Video Capture of Hidden in the Amazon

The Portuguese are not responsible for the change from nutrient-poor yellow to rich black earth, neither are the current inhabitants. These improvements were made 2000 years before European Francisco de Orellana first saw the extensive civilization living on the banks of the Amazon River in 1542.

Terra preta was a permaculture practice of the pre-Columbian society using charcoal, bone fragments, pottery, compost and humanure to enrich the land over generations. The result was a human-created growing medium; anthropogenic soil that retains its permanently modified fertile state to this day. Digging in locations of former habitation exposes the dark color, which is an enormous contrast from the common yellow soil of the Amazon rain forest with its low fertility.

Original Areas of Habitation. Image: Video capture of PBS Hidden in the Amazon

There is no way to dismiss the sophistication of this practice that allowed the society to plant groves of fruit trees and feed a population of eight to ten million people. Yet, denial of this fact has dominated the story for the past 500 years. The Portuguese explorer Orellana remarked on the civilization he found in the Amazon. One hundred years later, no one was left there. People dismissed his reports of a large, developed culture. The indigenous people had been decimated by European diseases, and the survivors scattered. The permaculture technology was lost, but the amendment to fertility remains.

Soil scientists are excited to analyze the ingredients the First People used to make their fruit tree orchards and gardens grow along the Amazon River. All the secrets to the terra preta are not yet revealed. Eighty-three domesticated plants remain in higher numbers than would tbe expected in nature, including cassava, pineapple and açai, surrounding the sites of former habitation.

Açai Berries. Photo: Vihelik

The three thousand year old answers to the question of sustainable agriculture in the Amazon lead us to solutions beyond slash and burn to allow food planting in the area, and without destroying more rain forest. This timely discovery lay unrecognized for more than fifty generations. What other technologies have we ignored because of our hubris of superiority?

The terra preta recipe could be a key to ensuring our survival as a species in the difficult growing years ahead. Thanks to the PBS show Hidden in the Amazon for the report on this amazing find.

I appreciate your visit. Please leave a comment so we can chat.. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

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Tecnología Agricola en las Amazonas Hace 2500 Años

Nuevas investigaciones arqueológicas por las orillas del Río Amazonas demuestren la magnitud de las modificaciones del suelo hecho por los humanos con tecnología agrícola sofisticada. El área transformado es tan enorme que lo hace invisible a una mirada casual. Según estudios científicos usando LiDAR en sis siglas en inglés, más de 1500 kilómetros (900 mi) por las orillas del río impresionante tiene tierra trabajada, llamada terra preta en Portugués, tierra negra.

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Los portugueses no son los responsables por trasformar la tierra amarilla con pocos nutrientes a tierra negra fecunda, tampoco las personas presente ahora. Los mejoramientos hicieron hace dos mil años antes de las visitas europeas como la de Francisco de Orellana vio la civilización extensa viviendo por las orillas del Río Amazonas en 1542. 

Terra preta era una práctica de permacultura de la sociedad pre-colombiana; usando carbon, fragmentos de hueso, cerámica, abono y estiércol humano para enriquecer la tierra tras generaciones. El resultado era tierra antropogénica, hecha por humanos, que retiene permanentemente su fertilidad, hasta hoy en día. Excavar en localidades de vivencia anterior se puede ver el color oscuro, que es un contraste enorme de la tierra amarilla normal de la selva lluviosa de las Amazonas que tiene una fertilidad baja.

No hay manera de ignorar la práctica sofisticada que permitió esta sociedad antigua sembrar huertos con árboles de fruta y dar de comer a una población de 8 a 10 millones de personas. Aunque, negar este hecho ha sido la historia dominante por los últimos 500 años. El explorador portugués Orellana hizo comentarios alabando la civilización desarrollada que vio en su visita a las Amazonas. Cien años más tarde, no había nadie. Con esta contraindicación, todo el mundo rechazaba su reportaje de una población grande y avanzado. Las personas indígenas fueron diezmadas por enfermedades europeos, y los sobrevivientes fueron esparcidos. La tecnología de la permacultura estaba perdido, pero el aumento de la fertilidad terrenal permanece.

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Científicos de la tierra están emocionados para analizar los ingredientes las Primeras Personas usaron para hacer que crecieran sus huertos de árboles y plantas en las orillas del Río Amazonas. Todos los secretos de la terra preta todavía no se han descubierto. Ochenta y tres plantas domesticadas quedan en números más altos que se espera en la naturaleza, incluyendo mandioca, piña y acai, en los alrededores de los sitios de vivienda anterior.

Las respuestas de hace tres mil años a la pregunta de como hacer agricultura sostenible en las orillas de las Amazonas nos presentan con soluciones más allá de cortar y quemar, de permitir sembrar comida sin destruir más bosque lluvioso. Este descubrimiento fue sin reconocer por más de cincuenta generaciones. ¿Cuáles son más tecnologías que ignoramos por nuestra arrogancia de creernos superiores?

La receta de terra preta podría ser una clave para asegurar que sobrevivamos como especie en los años de agricultura más difícil que vienen.

Gracias al programa de la televisión pública Escondido en las Amazonas (Hidden in the Amazon) por la información sobre este hecho maravilloso.

Aprecio tu visita. Favor de dejar un comentario para que podamos conversar contigo. ¡Olé! –Rebecca

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Rebecca Cuningham

36 thoughts on “2500 Year Old Amazon Soil Technology

  1. Very interesting. The most common practice in the Amazon, (and many other regions in Lat Am is indeed slash and burn. The main problem is the soil under the forest is quite thin. A few inches. So after two-three years the earth is just “sucked dry” and the people move on. Slash and burn again. Which was sustainable when indigenous tribes numbered in the hundreds or thousands of people. Not millions. Not to mention cutting down the forest to put cattle… (Happened in Chiapas too)
    Great article. Gracias Rebe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Our problem is that we think we know so much more than folk from so long ago, but I’m not sure we do. Our systems with their artificial fertilisers will ultimately denude the soil of its natural humus, making it infertile. More natural methods like this preserves fertility.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is very interesting and comes as a revelation to me. I knew nothing of this. It is strange what humankind forgets. Only a few hundred years later they were building walled towns and cities which (knowing nothing of crop rotation and fallow fields to allow nutrients to build) of course, became barren. Hense the many mass migrations and suddenly deserted cities in this area. I was reading a fragment of an old Text written by a monk, (possibly) from Durham where he exhorts the populace when eating to scatter apple and pear seeds as they walked. It is thought that the scrap comes from around 400AD (or CE dependent upon your preference) Less than a hundred years later the Catholic church (of which this monk was an acolyte) was urging people to cut down apple trees as they were tainted by the devil.
    Humanity is weird.
    Lol- went off on a tangent. Thank you so much for the information I will be reading more about this

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, the people of the Americas figured out a lot of ways to harness agriculture that the Europeans didn’t figure out until later. Unfortunately, so much knowledge was lost when the European diseases wiped out the indigenous population.

      Liked by 1 person

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