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The junction of the Amazon and the Rio Negro rivers in the Brazilian state of Amazonas was densely populated in prehistory. (Michael Tennesen) Distribution of the Arawak language group at the time of European contact

Deep in the Amazon rainforest archaeologists have unearthed evidence of sophisticated prehistoric cultures

The peninsula where the Amazon and the Rio Negro rivers meet is a vibrant green—the center of the largest tropical rainforest in the world. The Amazon, known here as the Solimões, moves rapidly and carves steep bluffs, while the Rio Negro runs slower, broader, and darker. While the Amazon is the world’s largest river, the Rio Negro is the largest of the planet’s “blackwater” rivers, slow-moving channels containing so much vegetation leaching tannins that the water is stained the color of coffee. The land where these two rivers meet is one of Brazil’s most richly biodiverse regions and a magnet for human settlement. Across the Rio Negro from the peninsula lies the urban sprawl of Manaus, a city of two million founded in 1669. But archaeologists of the Central Amazon Project, led by University of São Paulo anthropologist Eduardo Neves, have found that the area was densely populated long before that. For more than a thousand years, this region was home to the Arawaks, a people who played a critical role in pre-Columbian South American history and whose agricultural practices not only transformed the Amazon basin, but are still affecting it today.

The first archaeologists to study this area thought the region had been occupied by small bands of hunter-gatherers living in a world of scarcity. Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida who helped found the Central Amazon Project, describes this misconception as “the myth of Stone Age savages frozen at the dawn of time.” Neves and his colleagues have unearthed evidence here of early cultures going back 2,000 years that had larger populations and were more advanced than previously imagined. The team has found elaborate pottery, ringed villages, raised fields, large mounds, and evidence for regional trade networks that are all markers of sophisticated cultures. There is also evidence that they modified the soil using various techniques such as deliberate burning of vegetation to transform it into “terra preta,” or “black earth,” which even today is famed for its agricultural productivity.

Michael Tennesen is a writer based in Lomita, California.