Pre-Columbian fire management and control of climate-driven floodwaters over 3500 years in southwestern Amazonia

Neil A. Duncan*, Nicholas Loughlin, John H. Walker, Emma Hocking, Bronwen Whitney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


The Chavín, Moche, Tiwanaku, and Inka are well-known pre-Columbian cultures, but during the same time, in the southwestern Amazon, people were transforming a 100,000-km2 landscape over thousands of years. The extent of earthworks in the Llanos de Mojos has become clear since the 1960s, but dating these features has been difficult. We show that pre-Columbian people used hydrological engineering and fire to maximize aquatic and terrestrial resources beginning at least 3,500 years ago. In the 17th century CE, cattle and new technologies brought by Jesuit missions altered the form and function of these landscapes. The scale and antiquity of these Amazonian earthworks demand comparison with domesticated landscapes and civilizations from around the world.
In landscapes that support economic and cultural activities, human communities actively manage environments and environmental change at a variety of spatial scales that complicate the effects of continental-scale climate. Here, we demonstrate how hydrological conditions were modified by humans against the backdrop of Holocene climate change in southwestern Amazonia. Paleoecological investigations (phytoliths, charcoal, pollen, diatoms) of two sediment cores extracted from within the same permanent wetland, ∼22 km apart, show a 1,500-y difference in when the intensification of land use and management occurred, including raised field agriculture, fire regime, and agroforestry. Although rising precipitation is well known during the mid to late Holocene, human actions manipulated climate-driven hydrological changes on the landscape, revealing differing histories of human landscape domestication. Environmental factors are unable to account for local differences without the mediation of human communities that transformed the region to its current savanna/forest/wetland mosaic beginning at least 3,500 y ago. Regional environmental variables did not drive the choices made by farmers and fishers, who shaped these local contexts to better manage resource extraction. The savannas we observe today were created in the post-European period, where their fire regime and structural diversity were shaped by cattle ranching.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2022206118
Pages (from-to)1-6
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number40
Early online date7 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2021

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