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Pre-Columbian human-environment interactions in the Upper Madeira basin, southwest Amazonia

Grant number: 14/21207-5
Support type:Scholarships in Brazil - Post-Doctorate
Effective date (Start): March 01, 2015
Effective date (End): February 28, 2018
Field of knowledge:Humanities - Archeology - Prehistoric Archaeology
Principal researcher:Eduardo Góes Neves
Grantee:Jennifer Watling
Home Institution: Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (MAE). Universidade de São Paulo (USP). São Paulo , SP, Brazil


The proposed research will apply palaeoenvironmental methods to the archaeological site of Teotônio in SW Amazonia in order to explore relationships between Holocene climate change, modes of subsistence and human impact on the environment at the site and its surroundings.The current lack of palaeoenvironmental and palaeoecological data from archaeological sites in Amazonia has led to gaps in our knowledge of prehistoric human-environment interactions in the region. The debate which has most strongly polarised scholarly opinion is the extent and legacy of past human impact on the environment - while some believe that landscape transformation was limited, heterogeneous and restricted to specific locations such as floodplains or highly seasonal regions, others have posed a scenario in which human impact was homogeneous, widespread and long-term across the whole of the basin. The types of land management strategies practiced in the past are also debated, particularly in relation to the importance of swidden agriculture. While we know numerous species were domesticated in Amazonia, the relative contribution of wild to domesticated crops to people's diets, and the timing of their introduction, is still poorly understood. This study aims to shed light on these issues with empirical data from the Teotônio site, located on the Upper Madeira river in Rondônia. The Teotônio site provides a unique case study for several reasons:1) It contains the oldest known examples of anthropogenic dark earths (terras pretas) in the Amazon basin (5000 BP). In other regions, terra preta formation has been linked to sedentary, agricultural populations, which raises the possibility that this area was a major early centre of crop domestication and cultural development. 2) The site contains cultural material that spans several millennia of human occupation. These include (i) a pre-ceramic, pre-terra preta phase, (ii) a pre-ceramic, terra-preta phase (unique in Amazonia), (iii) ceramic, terra preta phases that include the Barrancoid tradition and the earliest dates for the Polychrome tradition in Amazonia. The antiquity and duration of human occupations provide an excellent opportunity to test changes in resource consumption, human impact on the environment, and human-climate interactions over a considerable timescale.3) This region of SW Amazonia experienced strong climatic drying during the Mid Holocene which led to the temporary expansion (9000 - 4/3000 BP) of savanna at the expense of forest. The earliest terra preta deposits at Teotônio are roughly contemporary with the beginnings of reforestation caused by the onset of more humid conditions in the Late Holocene. We aim to test the hypothesis that the transition to sedentism in this region was a cultural response to changes in resource availability caused by climatic variables, and to see whether this was accompanied by an increased reliance on domesticated resources.The methods that will be used in this study are phytolith, charcoal and starch grain analyses. Phytolith and charcoal analyses will be conducted on stratigraphic soil samples from a 290cm-deep terra preta deposit and underlying cultural levels (collected in 2011) to inform about land-use and subsistence strategies practiced at the site over time. Lithic and ceramic artefacts retrieved from excavations are also available for phytolith and starch grain analyses for tracing the introduction and use of domesticated resources at the site.Palaeoecological samples will be collected from off-site soil profiles to reconstruct the Mid to Late Holocene environment and identify the extent of human impact associated with occupations at Teotônio. Profiles will be excavated at increasing distances away from the archaeological site so that spatial scale of impact can be assessed.By conducting this research we hope to make a significant contribution towards understanding human-environment interactions at both local and regional scales.

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Scientific publications
(References retrieved automatically from Web of Science and SciELO through information on FAPESP grants and their corresponding numbers as mentioned in the publications by the authors)
WATLING, JENNIFER; CASTRO, MARTIN TORRES; SIMON, MARCELO F.; RODRIGUES, FLAVIO O.; DE MEDEIROS, MARCELO BRILHANTE; DE OLIVEIRA, PAULO E.; NEVES, EDUARDO G.. Phytoliths from native plants and surface soils from the Upper Madeira river, SW Amazonia, and their potential for paleoecological reconstruction. QUATERNARY INTERNATIONAL, v. 550, p. 85-110, . (17/25157-0, 17/09718-2, 14/21207-5)
CALO, CRISTINA MARILIN; RIZZUTTO, MARCIA A.; WATLING, JENNIFER; FURQUIM, LAURA; SHOCK, MYRTLE P.; ANDRELLO, AVACIR C.; APPOLONI, CARLOS R.; FREITAS, FABIO O.; KISTLER, LOGAN; ZIMPEL, CARLOS A.; et al. Study of plant remains from a fluvial shellmound (Monte Castelo, RO, Brazil) using the X-ray MicroCT imaging technique. JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL SCIENCE-REPORTS, v. 26, . (14/21207-5)

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