Pre-Columbian agricultural landscapes, ecosystem engineers, and self-organized patchiness in Amazonia
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
National Academy of Sciences
The scale and nature of pre-Columbian human impacts in Amazonia are currently hotly debated. Whereas pre-Columbian people dramatically changed the distribution and abundance of species and habitats in some parts of Amazonia, their impact in other parts is less clear. Pioneer research asked whether their effects reached even further, changing how ecosystems function, but few in-depth studies have examined mechanisms underpinning the resilience of these modifications. Combining archeology, archeobotany, paleoecology, soil science, ecology, and aerial imagery, we show that pre-Columbian farmers of the Guianas coast constructed large raised-field complexes, growing on them crops including maize, manioc, and squash. Farmers created physical and biogeochemical heterogeneity in flat, marshy environments by constructing raised fields. When these fields were later abandoned, the mosaic of well-drained islands in the flooded matrix set in motion self-organizing processes driven by ecosystem engineers (ants, termites, earthworms, and woody plants) that occur preferentially on abandoned raised fields. Today, feedbacks generated by these ecosystem engineers maintain the human-initiated concentration of resources in these structures. Engineer organisms transport materials to abandoned raised fields and modify the structure and composition of their soils, reducing erodibility. The profound alteration of ecosystem functioning in these landscapes coconstructed by humans and nature has important implications for understanding Amazonian history and biodiversity. Furthermore, these landscapes show how sustainability of food-production systems can be enhanced by engineering into them follows that maintain ecosystem services and biodiversity. Like anthropogenic dark earths in forested Amazonia, these self-organizing ecosystems illustrate the ecological complexity of the legacy of pre-Columbian land use.
Funding was provided by two interdisciplinary programs of the CNRS, Amazonie and Ingénierie Ecologique,and by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication.
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 107, No. 17, pp. 7823 - 7828
Place of publication