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Published on May 11, 2012
A presentation by Clark Erickson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Part of the University of Chicago Program on the Global Environment's inaugural conference on the Social Life of Forests, held May 30-31, 2008.Biologists, ecologists, and conservationists expect and find high biodiversity within what has been assumed to be the pristine tropical forest of Amazonia. Historical ecologists and landscape archaeologists now question this traditional assumption. They document clear signatures of human creation, transformation, and management of the so-called pristine environments of the Amazon Basin and throughout the Neotropics. By treating the complexly patterned palimpsests of landscapes as dynamic material culture or built environment amenable to multiscalar temporal and spatial analysis, archaeologists can contribute to a better understanding of the human history of forests. Over the past 18 years, colleagues and I have conducted landscape and historical ecological research on pre-Columbian earthworks in the Bolivian Amazon. Our research initially focused on earthworks built for agriculture, transportation, communication, water control, and the management of fish within the vast savannas and wetlands of the region. Much to our surprise, we began to document similar earthworks deep within what appear to be relatively pristine forests. We have documented associations of 1) chocolate groves and ring ditch earthworks in Baures; 2) mahogany forest and raised fields in the Tsimane Indigenous Territory; and 3) biologically diverse forest and the settlement mound of Ibibate in the Sirion? Indigenous Territory of the Bolivian Amazon. Historical ecologists stress that successful management and conservation strategies for contemporary and future biodiversity should be based on a sound understanding the human history of any environment. In the Bolivian Amazon, the history of forests is much more dynamic and complex than a simple ?return to nature? or ?forest recovery? of a previously occupied, constructed landscape. In this presentation, I explore how anthropogenic and historical processes created and shaped in the forested landscape from the Pre-Columbian period through the Colonial and into more recent periods and I suggest some ways that the past might inform the future.