Amazon rainforest was home to millions of people before European arrival, says study

The research tallies with reports from some of the first Europeans to visit South America

Far from a pristine forest stretching for mile upon mile, the Amazon was once home to millions of people who domesticated huge swathes of land before the arrival of Europeans caused their societies to collapse, according to a new study.

An international team of researchers concluded that the minimum population in 1492 would have been about eight million, with an “unlikely” upper figure of 50 million. Their findings suggest the forest returned to wilderness after the civilisations were wiped out by disease and conquest brought by the Europeans.

The researcher’s conclusions are partly based on one of the few remaining signs of the civilisations – the dark, fertile soil produced by farming techniques and waste. Some of theses sites are only accessible because of deforestation.

The research tallies with reports from some of the first Europeans to visit South America, which have been dismissed by some at the time as nothing more than propaganda.

Gaspar de Carvajal wrote of the Amazon in 1542: “There was one town that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house.”

The researchers, led by Dr Charles Clement of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, said that today the word Amazon “conjures images of dense rainforests, painted and feathered natives, exotic fauna and flora, as well as rampant deforestation, biodiversity extinction, and climate change”.

But they pointed to evidence of considerable human impact. According to one model, extremely dark earth known as terra preta is thought to occur on more than 150,000 square kilometres of Amazonian rainforest, about 3.2 per cent of the total area.

“The idea of a domesticated Amazonia, the immense diversity of social, cultural and historical processes that shaped Amazonia during the Holocene, situates this vast area in the company of other world anthromes [human-dominated areas],” the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal.

“It contrasts strongly with reports of empty forests, which continue to captivate scientific and popular media.”