“Where man is not, nature is barren”
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
One of the first things that amazed me about the Amazon—and just always continues to enthrall—is the sheer abundance of super delicious and highly nutritious foods here. In fact, in the rainforest metropolis of Iquitos, Peru where I currently live, superfoods including the highest natural sources of vitamins C, E and A in the world are sold on every street corner for dirt cheap—check out the photo guide to them I wrote for Paste’s Health section a couple months back.
But while most people know that the Amazon Rainforest is the most biodiverse place on the planet and that is a natural pharmacy beyond compare, it still conjures up the textbook image of a savage wilderness for most, the opposite of “civilization.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
“Some of the tree species that are abundant in Amazonian forests today, like cacao, açaí and Brazil nut, are probably common because they were planted by people who lived there long before the arrival of European colonists,” says Nigel Pitman, the Mellon Senior Conservation Ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum, in a brand-new, first-of-its-kind, Amazon-wide study on how the rainforest’s edible biodiversity was shaped by human hands just published at Science Daily.
Cacao is chocolate, ya know, and acai is deli as hell too, meaning that the ancient Amazonians created a chocolate and berry superfood forest that would have made even Willy Wonka jealous.
For those of us who love the Amazon and have been paying attention, however, this is a just the latest news in a slowly breaking discovery that the largest tropical forest in the world is really a garden designed for maximum food production. The first time I read about it was a decade or so ago in Charles Mann’s NYT bestseller 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
“Planting their orchards, the first Amazonians transformed large swaths of the river basin into something more pleasing to human beings,” writes Mann in a feature for The Atlantic back in 2002 that is well worth the read.
Since then, more and research has surfaced showing that not only was the Amazon intensely cultivated but that the inhabitants, far from being the pristine hunter-gatherers that most people imagine, were actually highly civilized and created complex structures including hundreds of Stonehenge-like earthwork complexes.
Of course, this is all in line with the accounts of the first European explorers of the Amazon River as well, like Dominican Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, who accompanied explorer Francisco de Orellana on the first exploration down tributary rivers in the Andes to the mighty Amazon itself and then all the way to its mouth in 1541. Carjaval reports large “gleaming white” city complexes along the banks of the river with “fine highways” that lead deeper into the jungle to even larger cities and “very fruitful land.”
“There was one town that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house, which was a marvelous thing to behold,” Carvajal wrote.
Carajaval’s book however, called The Discovery of the Amazon, wasn’t published until the late 19th century—by which time several centuries of biologists and anthropologists had already decided that the Amazon was a wild pristine forest that was almost unsuitable for human habitation. Most of us grew up with some form of this myth, which now needs to be completely smashed if we are to really understand what the Amazon rainforest is and why it is a model for future human-nature relationships.
Dismissed as fantasy at the time, which was why his book was shelved, Carjaval’s accounts have now been validated by modern discoveries. In 2008, Michael Heckenbergern, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, published a study showing that the Amazon Rainforest was crisscrossed by a vast network of “garden cities” that were densely packed and arranged in an orderly pattern far more complex than anything that was happening in Europe at the time.
Photo by Ocean Malendra
“The whole landscape is almost like a latticework, the way it is gridded off,” Heckenberger told National Geographic. “The individual centers themselves are much less constructed. It is more patterned at the regional level.”
“These are far more planned at the regional level than your average medieval town,” He continued.
Beyond the superior overall urban planning, the Amazon was a super garden of delicious delights. While the Europeans were facing off against an oppressive monarchy that was famously shouting “let them eat cake,” the ancient Amazonians were scarfing down chocolate berry goodness fit for a bestselling Ben & Jerry’s flavor.
In fact, when I recently visited the Ethnographic Museum in Leticia, Colombia—a charming small city on the banks of the mightiest river in the world—I saw early European maps depicting the Amazon as the “garden of eden” or the “wordly paradise” on display. After centuries of being displaced from the commons through restrictive acts like the Forest Laws, Europeans were shocked to see such an abundant permaculture agroforestry project in full glory.
With tens of thousands of acres of Amazon Rainforest being lost every single day of the year it’s important that we realize we are losing more than just the living lungs of the plant, we are destroying an ancient food production system that is more advanced and sustainable than anything taking place in the modern world today.
Take the Brazil nut, for example. One of the most nutritious and largest nuts in the world—it grows in a softball-sized seed case that holds around 20 fat nuts—the Brazil Nut was planted extensively by ancient Amazonians and is now something that anthropologists look for as a marker for signs of pre-colonial human habitation in the jungle.
One of the largest and tallest trees in the Amazon and with a lifespan exceeding 1,000 years, each Brazil nut tree could feed thousands over many generations. And that’s just one of the dozens of superfoods that were cultivated and widely spread across this amazing tropical food forest.
Back in the USA, where not only fruit and food bearing street trees but even front yard food gardens are mostly illegal, we have to start waking up to the fact that we live in an artificially created system of scarcity that is in stark contrast to the systems of natural abundance that indigenous societies in the Amazon developed.
As our system reaches the point where it becomes obvious to all that a change is needed, let’s look a bit deeper at our definition of nature, and ourselves. What would happen if we started planting fruit and nut trees throughout our urban areas? What would happen if we started master planning our civilizations for the benefit of all? Even more, what would happen if we re-indigenized ourselves and the land and got rid of private property completely, taking back the commons for common use? Where my Robin Hoods at?
With the current movement towards urban food forests and even urban “agri-hoods” underway, the future looks green to me. But let’s step it up folks, and let’s put the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants back in their rightful place as examples of how to do it right—even if we have to smash some longstanding myths in the process.
Photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT), CC BY-SA 2.0
EarthRx columnist Ocean Malandra is a widely published writer that divides his time between the redwood forests of Northern California and the Amazon jungle of South America.