How pristine are tropical forests? An ecological perspective on the pre-Columbian human footprint in Amazonia and implications for contemporary conservation

Jos Barlow, Toby A. Gardner, Alexander C. Lees, Luke Parry, Carlos A. Peres

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84 Citations (Scopus)


Archeologists, paleoecologists and anthropologists argue that ecologists need to give greater consideration to the pre-historical influence of humans in shaping the current structure and composition of tropical forests. We examine these arguments within the context of Amazonia, and assess the extent to which (i) the concepts of “pristine forests” and “cultural parklands” are mutually exclusive, (ii) the aggregated distribution of some plants necessarily indicates enrichment planting, (iii) pre-Columbian human disturbance has increased forest biodiversity, (iv) pre-Columbian indigenous practices were always sustainable, and (v) if indeed, the ecological impacts of pre-Columbian peoples are relevant for modern biodiversity conservation. Overall, we reject the notion that “the pristine myth has been thoroughly debunked” by archeological evidence, and suggest that the environmental impacts of historical peoples occurred along gradients, with high-impacts in settlements and patches of Amazonian Dark Earth (ADE), lesser impacts where occasional enrichment planting took place in forests surrounding agricultural plots, and a very low influence (in terms of light hunting pressure and other types of resource extraction) across vast areas of Amazonia that may always have been far from permanent settlements and navigable rivers. We suggest that the spatial distribution of pre-Columbian finds is given more attention, and urge caution before case studies are extrapolated to the entire Basin. Above all, we feel that debates over “naturalness” and environmental impacts of pre-Columbian humans are of limited relevance to present and future biodiversity conservation, and can detract from the major challenges facing Amazonia and other tropical forest regions today.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45–49
Number of pages5
JournalBiological Conservation
Issue number1
Early online date30 Nov 2011
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012

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