Fire-free land use in pre-1492 Amazonian savannas

José Iriarte, Mitchell Power, Stephen Rostain, Francis Mayle, Huw Jones, Jennifer Watling, Bronwen Whitney, Doyle McKey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

The nature and scale of pre-Columbian land use and the consequences of the 1492 “Columbian Encounter” (CE) on Amazonia are among the more debated topics in New World archaeology and paleoecology. However, pre-Columbian human impact in Amazonian savannas remains poorly understood. Most paleoecological studies have been conducted in neotropical forest contexts. Of studies done in Amazonian savannas, none has the temporal resolution needed to detect changes induced by either climate or humans before and after A.D. 1492, and only a few closely integrate paleoecological and archaeological data. We report a high-resolution 2,150-y paleoecological record from a French Guianan coastal savanna that forces reconsideration of how pre-Columbian savanna peoples practiced raised-field agriculture and how the CE impacted these societies and environments. Our combined pollen, phytolith, and charcoal analyses reveal unexpectedly low levels of biomass burning associated with pre-A.D. 1492 savanna raised-field agriculture and a sharp increase in fires following the arrival of Europeans. We show that pre-Columbian raised-field farmers limited burning to improve agricultural production, contrasting with extensive use of fire in pre-Columbian tropical forest and Central American savanna environments, as well as in present-day savannas. The charcoal record indicates that extensive fires in the seasonally flooded savannas of French Guiana are a post-Columbian phenomenon, postdating the collapse of indigenous populations. The discovery that pre-Columbian farmers practiced fire-free savanna management calls into question the widely held assumption that pre-Columbian Amazonian farmers pervasively used fire to manage and alter ecosystems and offers fresh perspectives on an emerging alternative approach to savanna land use and conservation that can help reduce carbon emissions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6473-6478
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Volume109
Issue number17
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2012

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