After Europeans brought smallpox and other highly infectious diseases to the Amazon in the 15th and 16th centuries, millions of native people died and much of their civilization was wiped out. But it didn’t disappear entirely. Left behind was a verdant, leafy legacy in the untold numbers of palms and other trees that had been cultivated across the Amazon. Now, researchers report that Pre-Columbian peoples had a significant impact on Amazonian forest diversity by making their favorite species much more common.
The findings “contribute to an emerging consensus that Pre-Colombians altered most of the Amazon,” says Joe Wright, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, who was not involved in the research.
Pre-Columbian people began domesticating plants on the edges of the vast Amazonian forests at least 8000 years ago, and their descendants continue to cultivate many species today. Archaeologists have long known that certain domesticated plants—palm trees for example—are often found around ancient sites in the Amazon, such as earthen mounds and the fertile soils known as terra preta, a relic of past agriculture