Science / Medicine : Rain Forests Not as Fragile as Believed, Ancient Pottery Find Hints


Anthropologists have traditionally viewed tropical rain forests as “counterfeit paradises,” seemingly attractive ecosystems that in reality are too fragile and resource-poor to support extensive human habitation.

A growing body of evidence, however, is bringing many researchers to the opposite conclusion--that these areas have in the past supported relatively large populations without adverse environmental consequences and perhaps can do so again.

The most recent evidence for this somewhat startling conclusion is the discovery of ancient pottery, the oldest known in the Western Hemisphere, deep in the interior of Brazil. Anthropologist Anna C. Roosevelt of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago reported last week in the journal Science that her team had excavated reddish-brown pottery fragments that have been dated to 8,000 years ago, as much as 3,000 years before the oldest pottery that has been discovered in coastal regions. The latter regions have traditionally been identified as the oldest sites of cultural evolution in South and Central America.

The discovery of the pottery and other artifacts at Taperinha, near the banks of the Amazon River in the Santarem region of Brazil, indicates that the oldest sophisticated civilizations in the Americas were created in the heart of the tropical rain forest and that it was not until much later that the technology and culture developed there filtered out to other sites.


Roosevelt’s discovery is “really a fantastic find,” said anthropologist Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania. Her data, he said, “is telling us a lot about village life, the cultures responsible for the ceramics, the food they ate and the local environment 7,000 years ago. It’s helping to overcome the idea that nothing went on there.”

Roosevelt excavated the pottery fragments from a shell midden, a huge mound formed by discarded debris from the harvest and processing of shellfish. Residents of the villages in the area typically threw other waste materials on the middens as well, and they have been a rich source of information about prehistoric life.

Dating of the pottery and other artifacts showed that they originated between 8,025 and 7,170 years ago. “That would be the earliest known use of pottery in the New World,” said anthropologist James B. Richardson III of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The use of pottery is a particularly important clue to the level of cultural evolution, Roosevelt said in a telephone interview from Venezuela, because “it is one of the most important technical developments for sedentary lives. It’s rather ironic that this supposedly retarded area is actually leading the rest of the hemisphere. Areas that have been considered more advanced don’t get pottery for another 3,000 years.”


Roosevelt believes that the first residents of the Amazon arrived there about 12,000 years ago, descendants of Asians who migrated across the Bering Strait and down through the Americas. “They then became the first people in the Americas to make pottery,” she said.

Over thousands of years, descendants of these first inhabitants conquered large regions of South America, developed sophisticated cultural systems and cleared large areas of forest for farming and housing. But the invasion of the region by Europeans brought diseases and slavery that wiped out much of the indigenous population and turned most of the rest into “support populations” for the new arrivals, she said.

When these cultures died out after the invasion of the Europeans, Roosevelt said, the rain forest took over once again, demonstrating its resiliency. “The most fragile elements in the ecosystem,” she concluded, “were not the plants and animals but the indigenous human populations.”