A living archaeology in the Amazonian rainforest

The research project “A living archaeology in the Amazonian rainforest: use of tree DNA and chronological profiling to reconstruct prehistoric human rainforest disturbance” led by Dr. Patrick Roberts (Department of Archaeology) has been granted a Max Planck Society Research Grant. Dr. Roberts, alongside Prof. Nicole Boivin (Department of Archaeology), and Prof. Johannes Krause (Department of Archaeogenetics), as well as colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, the University of São Paulo, and the National Research Institute for Amazonia, will geochemically and biologically study living trees from the Amazon rainforest in order to track spatial variation in past human impacts and land-use.

August 21, 2017
Disturbed tropical rainforest in the Amazon.

After the planet’s ice caps, tropical rainforests are the most threatened terrestrial environments today. Every day c. 320 km2 of tropical rainforest is destroyed, and 135 plant, animal, and insect species along with it, as a result of expanding human populations, monoculture plantations, unsustainable livestock systems, and reckless exploitation for wood and mineral resources. Despite popular belief, however, significant human impacts on tropical rainforests are not recent phenomena, and it is increasingly recognized that each rainforest is a dynamic ‘artefact’ of millennia of human interactions. Modern deforestation is therefore not only destroying ecosystems central to the stability of the Earth’s climate, but is also threatening to erase a long history of human tropical rainforest habitation.

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest and encroaching farmland.

This study seeks to make maximum use of this living prehistoric resource by studying the DNA and chronological profile of stands of living trees in parts of the Amazonian rainforest with different histories of human presence. Not only is the planned sampling non-harmful to these trees but it further justifies the conservation of patches of forest that have stood witness to human action over centuries. This work will also facilitate the testing of the hypothesis that pre-colonial human populations have significantly and persistently influenced the populations of these tree species throughout the Holocene, with important implications for the ongoing conservation of these taxa as well as the archaeologically-suggested start date of the ‘Anthropocene’ from an ecological standpoint.

This interdisciplinary project will link together different departments of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Archaeology and Archaeogenetics) and three Max Planck Institutes (MPIs for the Science of Human History, for Biogeochemistry, for Developmental Biology). Together these institutes represent all three Max Planck Sections (Humanities & Social Sciences, Biology & Medicine, and Chemistry, Physics & Technology). Furthermore, it will link the Max Planck Society to South American institutions that are striving to aid in the conservation of rapidly disappearing Amazonian rainforests, including the University of São Paulo and the National Research Institute for Amazonia.

An example of terra preta soils in the Amazon. These soils represent the past living floors and forest management of pre-colonial farmers.

The word ‘rainforest’ was first used by German botanists (‘tropischer Regenwald’ – A.F.W. Schimper, 1898) and this multi-national, multi-disciplinary project represents a fitting link between German and Brazilian institutions attempting to use scientific data to inform public policy. It will build on a tradition started by Alexander von Humboldt more than 200 years ago and followed by scholars such as Spix, Martius, Varnhagen and von den Steinen, as well as the immensely positive impact of the ecological work in the Amazon carried out in the second half of the twentieth century by Harald Sioli at an outstation of the former MPI for Limnology at Plön.

Two cross-institutional PhD positions will be available under the project and interested parties should monitor the website for the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, for updates.

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