LANDSCAPES OF MOVEMENT IN AMAZONIA: NEW DATA FROM ANCIENT SETTLEMENTS IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER AMAZON Morgan J.

Schmidt (morgan.j.schmidt@gmail.com) Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi Coordenação de Ciências Humanas Av. Magalhães Barata, no 376, São Braz Belém Pará, CEP:66040-170, Brazil 1. INTRODUCTION The human impact on the environment and landscape transformations are themes in geography and related disciplines that have become critical in recent times with the realization of the profound changes brought about by human activities to ecosystems at both local and global scales and over short and long timescales. Particular attention has been paid to current rates and extents of deforestation in the tropics and prospects for conservation but less attention has been given to indigenous impacts and management in tropical forest environments and even less to pre-colonial impacts (Balée and Erickson, 2006). This research examines human impacts on rainforest environments where anthropic features caused by the movement of humans through the landscape can still be detected under thick forest centuries after settlements were abandoned. More specifically, this article describes recent research on ancient transportation networks in archaeological sites in the Central Amazon and Lower Trombetas River (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1 MAP OF THE AMAZON BASIN WITH STUDY AREA LOCATIONS Geomorphology, a sub-discipline of geography, is concerned with landforms, landscapes, and the processes that create them while geoarchaeology takes an earth science approach to understanding the contexts of archaeological sites by incorporating information on geology, geomorphology, topography, and paleoecology (Ghilardi and Desruelles, 2009). Thornbush (2012) called for the development of archaeogeomorphology as a subfield within geomorphology. Using GPS, topographic mapping, and archaeological excavations, this
Papers of the Applied Geography Conferences, Volume 35 (2012); 355 - 364

1934). shallow (~30 cm) depressions running between sites. The earliest Europeans to explore the Amazon reported that there were “many roads here that entered into the interior of the land. 2005). but since then nothing more has been reported on these significant archaeological remains either for these or any other sites along the lower tributaries or the Amazon itself. The linear mounds define plazas and roads. modified wetlands (ponds and reservoirs). and roads. 2003). 1934. 2008). Curvilinear or ring mounds formed from middens surrounding houses and yards. and soil. FIGURE 2 LANDSAT IMAGE OF THE UPPER XINGU STUDY AREA WITH MAPS OF TWO PREHISTORIC SITES 356 .. and extensive transportation networks (Heckenberger. Earthworks mapped in prehistoric sites included ditches surrounding settlements and linear mound curbs around plazas and along road edges.research takes an archaeogeomorphological approach to studying pre-colonial transformations in rainforest ecosystems. Curt Nimuendajú (1952) identified them early on in the Belterra uplands near the city of Santarém where he found straight. dividing public space from residential areas. These features provided evidence of basic site configurations including circulation patterns. Research in the South American Lowlands has uncovered ancient human built landscapes that are much more constructed and extensive than once thought. earthworks. Archaeological roadways documented in the Middle and Lower Amazon take the form of incised linear depressions. What is often considered pristine rainforest hides traces of human lives that can still be seen as modified vegetation. 2003. and principal transportation networks. Substantial roadways that led up the steep riverbanks into large. often representing landscape capital that is utilized by succeeding generations (Heckenberger et al. In Amazonia. well-kept roads connecting many settlements were utilized by early expeditions to penetrate into the interior (Medina. Erickson. 200). topography. Distinctive mounds of terra preta formed from construction and maintenance activities and from refuse disposal in middens in locations that were dictated by the use of domestic and public space (Schmidt. 2007.. Pre-colonial land use in Amazonia is often ignored in biological research with serious implications for understanding the ecology and implementing sustainable management and conservation strategies (Heckenberger et al. 2010). these human landscapes include anthropogenic forests. patches of fertile anthrosols (known as terra preta). very fine highways” (Medina. Research in the Upper Xingu has revealed a complex ancient built landscape of diverse earthworks. domestic areas. densely populated settlements were mentioned and wide. Figure 2 shows the ancient settlements Nokugu (upper left) and Hialugihїtї (lower right) connected by a wide curbed road (Heckenberger et al.. 2001). p.

B) RAISED CAUSEWAY. and 4) incised depressions on the floodplain (Figure 3). the use of space. connections between settlements. Temperature averaged about 26.1°C over the same period. and roads are part of the human built landscape and. and 2) the Lower Trombetas River near its confluence with the Amazon River. it addresses the questions: 1) How did trails and roads transform the landscape? 2) How did they reflect the use of space and resources? 3) How did they structure the formation of anthrosols? 2. and relationships with natural resources (Snead et al. The juxtapositions show that the incised depressions on slopes were once trails. 1400 km upstream from the Amazon mouth. incised depressions were encountered wherever a road or trail went up and down a slope. is about 23 m above msl. All three sites are located on the river bluff overlooking the floodplain or várzea. Bluffs are elevated up to about 40 m above the level of the floodplain. once constructed. Research was carried out at four sites: one 357 .Four main types of roads were identified in the Upper Xingu: 1) flat roads with linear mounds or curbs along their edges. they can structure the use of space for centuries or millennia. The greater amount of sediment allows for a relatively greater abundance of aquatic resources and its deposition on flats and natural levees provides rich soils that can be cultivated during the low water period. There are also cases of earthen levees and dams that served as roads. changed again to an elevated causeway leading into wetlands. Roads often transform into different types along their routes. research was carried out at three archaeological sites on the north bank of the Amazon River near the town of Iranduba.. 2) raised causeways. THE STUDY AREAS Investigations were carried out in two study areas: 1) the Central Amazon near the city of Manaus. A B C 0 10 m FIGURE 3 PROFILES OF ROAD FORMS IN THE UPPER XINGU: A) FLAT ROAD WITH LINEAR MOUND CURBS. Specifically. The river level near the city of Manaus. Trails. C) INCISED DEPRESSION Studies of past landscapes of movement inform us about the layout of settlements. and changed yet again into an incised linear depression on the floodplains. On the uplands. 3) incised depressions on upland slopes. paths. Incised depressions on the floodplain were formed by repeated movement along trails where peat soil was likely compacted or removed by wind erosion when dry or dislodged by walking through shallow water when flooded. In one case. This research focuses on lasting transformations caused by humans within and around ancient settlements in the Middle and Lower Amazon where repeated movement has left indelible marks on the landscape in the form of incised features that formed particularly where roads or trails followed sloping terrain. 2009). a flat curbed road transformed into an incised depression on a slope. In the Central Amazon study area. The Lower Trombetas River study area is located in the Saraca-Taquera National Forest between the Trombetas and Amazon Rivers. Rainfall at Manaus averaged 2587 mm for the period 1971-2000 with a season of markedly lowered rainfall from June through October. The várzea refers to floodplains of the so-called white water rivers that have their headwaters in the Andes Mountains and carry larger sediment loads than rivers emanating from the Guiana or Brazilian Shields.

described. 2005. The results indicate that the areas in the vicinity of the three sites are built environments with virtually no parts left unmodified. The three sites are located near one another on the northern bluff overlooking the Amazon River floodplain. 4. 2009. Machado. Soil samples were collected from each depth interval to obtain complete profiles.. often in transects at 1 m intervals. incised roads. has located more than 100 archaeological sites in a study area approximately 900 km2 near the confluence of the Amazon and Negro Rivers (Neves. 3. Upland soils in both study areas are typically Oxisols and Ultisols. Most often. 1934). Rainfall averaged 2140 mm per year for the period 1970-2002 with the wettest months occurring from December to May and the driest months from August to October. The average annual temperature for the same period was 26. 1999). In some cases features were mapped by hand using a reference grid of survey stakes laid out for subsurface testing. Surveying equipment (total station) was used to create contour maps and digital elevation models of sites by mapping the micro-relief with data points collected at sub-meter to several meter intervals. A recurring pattern of terra preta was discerned across the three sites consisting of mounds in the form of a ring or broken ring surrounding circular or semi-circular flat depressions or terraces approximately 10-20 meters diameter. 2006). In a few cases.. The anthropic features included excavated ditches. 2007). Schmidt et al. thick forest and recent second-growth vegetation needed to be cleared with machetes before features could be identified. High-resolution and handheld GPS were used to map features. Ethnohistoric reports mention the common practice of storing river turtles in artificial ponds (Medina. Subsurface testing included archaeological test pits in transects and grids and larger excavations in selected areas. 2008). Schmidt. The excavations followed typical archaeological procedures using either 5 or 10 cm artificial depth intervals and 50 x 50 cm or 1 x 1 m units. RESULTS 4.6° C. MATERIAL AND METHODS Landscapes in and around archaeological sites were examined for anthropic landscape features indicated by topographical anomalies. Fieldwork initiated in 2006 at three sites (Laguinho. Soil analyses included pH. soil surface coloration. 2003. and Caldeirão) has identified and mapped several different types of anthropic landscape features including a pattern of ring-shaped mounds of terra preta. All excavated fill was screened for artifact recovery. Later studies have identified mounds in almost all of the sites that have been studied with some that show evidence of deliberate construction (Donatti. The sizes of incised depressions were estimated by measuring their width and depth at several points along their length.1 THE CENTRAL AMAZON The Central Amazon Project. The first indications of substantial earthworks in the region were found at the Açutuba archaeological site on the south shore of the Negro River. and possible ponds and canals (Figure 4) (Castro. coordinated by Eduardo Neves of the University of São Paulo. Hatahara. 2010. organic carbon.on a Trombetas floodplain lake and three in an area of plateaus that reach a maximum height of 210 m above msl. and a range of soil nutrients. Wetland modifications were observed at the three sites that share similarities with the built wetland environment in the Upper Xingu and could likewise have been constructed and utilized to manage water and aquatic resources. 358 . Features were drawn. Moraes. mounds (often rectilinear or curvilinear) and linear incised depressions. and artifact densities. some areas were burned to reveal subtle relief. photographed and sampled. A ditch possibly for defensive purposes was located along with mounds of terra preta anthrosols surrounding a possible rectangular plaza of large dimensions (approximately 450 x 100 m) (Heckenberger et al.

359 . These depressions in the mounds are interpreted to be passage ways or trails where people walked from one terrace to another. Immediately behind or staggered behind the terraces on the bluff edge are additional rows of terraces defined by ring-shaped mounds. TERRACES. one next to another. along the crest of the bluff (for about two kilometers at Laguinho and Caldeirão) and cover an extensive area of the site further back from the bluff edge. AND CIRCULATION PATTERNS The mounds separate and delineate the flat terraces that lie. AND MODIFIED WETLAND. ROADWAYS. The open end of the horseshoe faces the bluff edge with the highest part of the mound to the inland side. The terraces are arranged side by side with the mounds in between them along the entire length of the bluffs upper edge. When the terraces are on the bluff edge they are truncated by the edge and take on the aspect of terraces at different levels on the upper slope of the bluff with either an open or almost closed horseshoe-shaped mound that defines the terraces (Figure 6). TERRACES. FIGURE 5 PARTIAL MAP OF FEATURES AT LAGUINHO ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE The mounds regularly have depressions or level areas (absence or lowering of the mound) at the back of the terraces and between adjacent terraces. behind this first row of terraces (Figure 5). B) MOUNDS. The terraces vary significantly in size with the ones along the bluff edge tending to be larger.FIGURE 4 SCHEMATIC REPRESENTATIONS OF FEATURES A) RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MOUNDS.

Incised depressions at Caldeirão ranged from 60 to 80 m in length. less surface ceramics. Especially large depressions are at nearly opposite sides of the lake at the two sites and may indicate more formal or public ports and entrances between the two communities. giving canoe access from the floodplain lake to locations in the settlement further from the river and to other settlements. The circulation areas are observed as depressions or flat passageways formed by foot paths connecting one terrace to another. thereby taking advantage of the naturally gentler slope. visible surface erosion. smaller ones that exit the center of terraces on the bluff edge. therefore the estimates given here are conservative. The soil surface in the terraces. or simply going straight up and down the bluff from the terraces to the water’s edge. more bioturbation. Incised roadways that provided access to the floodplain for the terraces were measured and mapped. The angle of the slope in the steepest sections was greater than 30 degrees. bathing areas. darker color. family compounds. less bioturbation. and larger ones that exit the site between terraces. Hypotheses were generated for the possible use of space including living and activity areas. Sometimes roads exit from the center of two or three terraces and join with one another a short distance down the bluff. The bluff edge is located at the open side of the horseshoe mounds with roadways in the form of linear depressions formed by erosion in trails leading down the bluff to water accesses. or small groups of houses. and is level and more compact. It is proposed that the flat terraces were the locations of domestic activities in houses or yards and the mounds formed from refuse deposited in middens surrounding and between the terraces. has a lighter color. more surface ceramics. 360 . an uneven or “bumpy” surface. differences were observed in the soil surface. The canals and ponds extend along the base of the bluff back to the inland areas of the site on both sides. Roadways were found to be either located in concave curves of the bluff edge. The roadways led in straight lines from the terraces down to what appear to be landscaped and excavated circular ponds connected to one another and to the lake beyond by canals that have likely been constructed. and ports on the floodplain below. and less compacted soil. Roads were also partially mapped at the Lago de Iranduba site on the opposite side of the lake from Laguinho. to the contrary. and refuse disposal areas based on the pattern of the mounds and roadways. The mounds have a rounded crest. indicating that the larger roads may have been more public thoroughfares while the smaller ones served individual houses. traffic areas.FIGURE 6 CONTOUR MAP OF TWO TERRACES WITH A ROADWAY LEADING DOWN SLOPE (THICK BLACK LINES INDICATE MOUNDS AND ARROWS INDICATE DEPRESSIONS (SCALE IN METERS)) In addition to the ground elevation defining the ring-shaped mounds and terraces. Two classes of roadways were identified. Some of the depressions were so large that it was difficult to measure their widths and depths. Measured widths ranged from 12 to 20 m and depths ranged from 1 m to over 3 m.

a wide. The mapping detected a series of wide (10-15 m) flat terraces located (like steps) on the slope leading down to the lake’s edge. Furthermore. 2012. FIGURE 7 MAPS OF CIPOAL DO ARATICUM ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE A) TOPOGRAPHIC FEATURES IN THE CENTRAL AREA (ARROWS INDICATE MOVEMENT ALONG A PATH OR ROAD) B) SITE OVERVIEW (WITH STREAMS ON THREE SIDES) SHOWING MOUNDS AND INCISED DEPRESSIONS. Depressions begin shallow on the upper slope and increase in depth on the steepest slopes before reaching the stream floodplains. In the steepest portion of the bank leading down to the lake’s edge. Evidence that the depressions were formed from roadways includes their orientation leading from the mounds and terraces in the flat central area of the site down the slope to the streams surrounding the site on three sides. a detailed topographic survey was carried out with a total station to examine the micro-relief in two portions of the site. 361 .. shallower parallel depressions following ridge lines. Research initiated in 2006 aimed to verify the presence of anthropic landscape features in and around sites in the study area (Schmidt 2010. depressions that traverse slopes diagonally. A total of 30 incised depressions were mapped at Cipoal do Araticum. Lengths range from less than 20 m to more than 100 m. coordinated by Vera Guapindaia of the Emílio Goeldi Museum in Belém (Guapindaia. The anthropic nature of the depressions is indicated by their U-shaped profile. were observed in several places around the site and the topographic mapping showed flat areas several 10’s of meters in diameter surrounding each of the mounds. There were also indications that circular ponds had been excavated in the stream beds at these sites that could have been used for bathing and stocking fish and water turtles. and Cipoal do Araticum) in an area of high plateaus between the Trombetas and Amazon Rivers. At a site called “Terra Preta” on a floodplain lake of the lower Trombetas River. Depths range from 25 to 40 cm on the upper slope where they begin to be visible in the undergrowth and forest litter while the deepest parts generally range from 60 cm to 2 m. Schmidt et al. 2008). and depressions up and down plateaus on the straight line between two ancient settlement sites. depressions over longer distances on relatively flat ground that articulate with larger depressions on steep slopes. pairs on opposite sides of streams (crossings). Greig II. Low mounds. The angle of the slope was greater than 30 degrees on the steepest banks.4. Further research was carried out at three sites (Greig I. 2008). less than 1 m high. mounds of terra preta and flat areas or terraces were found along with incised depressions going up and down slopes (Figure 7). shallow incised depression was located where there had once been a roadway down to the beach. Just as in the Upper Xingu and Central Amazon. surveys indicated that similar features are not found further away from ancient settlements except in cases where they connected settlements with one another.2 THE LOWER TROMBETAS RIVER Research has been carried out in the lower Trombetas River region since 2001 by the Trombetas Archaeological Project.

and deposits significant quantities of sediment (Rijsdijk et al. Ratios of runoff to rainfall were up to 40 times greater on trails than off trails at rainforest sites in Costa Rica and Ecuador and on-trail runoff transported soil particles while off-trail runoff was completely clear (Wallin and Harden. Gullies form where human activities: (a) increase the amount and/or velocity of runoff. 1973). they should since they were formed mainly by rain water erosion on the bare surface of a trail or road in sloping areas. The 362 . Rainwater is channeled in roads and trails where the ground surface is sloping. and soil type (Bayfield. In some cases. The ditches surrounding sites such as Nokugu (probably associated with palisade walls) were likely built for defensive or symbolic purposes (Heckenberger. 2005) but it is also likely that they functioned as roads as indicated by ramps leading down into them (sometimes only on one side) and their termination at the river’s edge. 1981) and tropical regions (Odemerho and Sada. Erosion removes. thus providing access to the water (Schmidt. along with excavations. Soil erosion is a three step process consisting of: 1) detachment of soil particles. maintenance activities may also have been undertaken to fill the gullies to control erosion or smooth the road surface. 1984.5. and fine sand (Odemerho and Sada. indeed. 1980). formal road entrances to settlements that are built even in the smaller Xinguano villages of today. 1996). 1996). as the depressions from trails formed and grew. 1984). Depressions documented in the Central Amazon study area were generally larger than those in the Trombetas study area presumably because of a longer time in use and/or more intensive use. transports. Incised depressions in the Central Amazon and Trombetas study areas typically had U-shaped profiles. they took on sacred or monumental significance. Foot traffic on trails compacts the soil surface. Their formation is not limited to human movement. It was observed that. here too. 1973. artifacts and dark soil extend from the top to the base of the bluff in the roadways indicating that. support the interpretation of the terraces as former domestic areas and show their relationship to water resources. and 3) deposition of transported particles. 1973. They have also been documented as resulting from movements of other large mammals such as elephants (Haynes 2012). silt. This was apparently carried out in the Trombetas sites where several excavations revealed infilling of gullies with refuse (terra preta and ceramic sherds) over 1 m deep. increasing bulk density and reducing infiltration (Wallin and Harden.. As gullies formed. rainfall intensity. The locations of incised roads. The U-shaped form may have evolved from a trail (or several trails) shifting positions over time in the same general area. 1996). Rijsdijk et al. Wallin and Harden. 1996) particularly in areas with high rainfall and where soils have high contents of clay. Ancient incised roads that had been subsequently covered by volcanic deposits were studied in Costa Rica by Payson Sheets (2009). Coleman 1981). causing the trail to expand laterally (Bayfield. or (b) increase soil detachability and/or transportability (DeGraff. Sheets posited that. Erosion in roads and trails is principally a function of the steepness and length of the slope. creating gullies. A large body of research has documented the formation of incised depressions in trails or roads in both temperate (Bayfield. The impact of raindrops causes most of the detachment on bare. Incised depressions form almost universally wherever trails and roads pass up and down slopes and bare soil is the major condition initiating erosion. Indeed.. steps may have been dug into the slope to make walking easier as was observed in some incised roadways that are currently in use in the Central Amazon. DISCUSSION The incised depressions on slopes often resemble “natural” ravines and. 2) transportation of detached particles. Wallin and Harden. today. This could have happened as erosion in trails formed gullies that became difficult to walk in. 2007. gullies may have been infilled with domestic refuse. 2010). 2002. 2007. smooth surfaces while the cutting action of flowing water detaches soil particles where flow is concentrated into channels (Brady and Weil. Coleman. some of the roads in the Upper Xingu appear to be monumental such as the wide. p. traffic. the slopes are very steep and the soil is loose so that a significant amount of material is transported downward by mechanical forces from footsteps. 750). In the Central Amazon.

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