Domestication of Rice in the Amazon

A new paper, Evidence for mid-Holocene rice domestication in the Americas, suggests that the Amazon basin was very culturally productive in the pre-Columbian period. What happened? From the conclusion:

The arrival of Europeans to the American continent in AD 1492, with the consequent population decimation and impact on cultural practices, caused the domesticated traits to gradually disappear. The loss of domesticated varieties is a phenomena that has also occurred for other indigenously domesticated species in both South….

One of the novel arguments in Charles C. Mann’s 1491 is that our idea that the Amazon basin has always been a pristine wilderness could be incorrect. Mann relays the theories of revisionist scholars who argue that at one point in history much of the basin was subject human landscape manipulation, with concentrated burnings allowing for increased productivity in the normally poor soil of the region. Of course, this triggered a counterattack from classical scholars.

If these results about rice domestication are confirmed and become solid I think this would lean toward supporting the arguments of the revisionists, whose side Mann seems to favor in any case.

A major general theme in 1491 is that the Columbian Exchange was a disaster for New World peoples, though relatively positive for the Old World. European access to land surplus in the New World has been given as one reason for the economic takeoff of this region (“ghost acres”), while maize introduced into China was responsible for its great population expansion in the centuries leading up to 1800.

In contrast, the consensus seems to be that New World populations suffered massive population declines (some of this has been confirmed by genetic evidence) driven in large part, though not exclusively, by introduced Old World diseases. Mann argues that early fantastical reports of a dense network of villages along the Amazon (which may have fueled legends of El Dorado) actually reflect the reality that in the 16th century the riverine civilization had not collapsed due to disease. At least not yet.

Let’s stipulate that rice domestication in the Amazon was occurring before 1492. This adds another independent domestication event during the Holocene. Basically, agriculture seems to be something that pops up over and over again after the end of the last Ice Age. Why? As I have suggested before a lot had changed since the previous interglacial over 100,000 years before the present. Our cognitive orientation and our cultural toolkit seem to evoke agriculture relatively quickly and independently.

Second, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon today are predominantly hunters and gatherers or slash & burn agriculturalists. Relatively simple societies. In 1491 the author outlines that that mass death often resulted not directly from disease, but the fact that the debilitation of large proportions of the population then led to famine, which led to social disruption and institutional collapse, which then fed into more death and destruction. Today we perceive the Amazonians as “ancient” and “primal” nomads of the forest, just as their tropical homeland is seen to be eternal and everlasting. This, despite the fact that many of them even today are agriculturalists, albeit of a low-intensity sort. But as they are, perhaps so we could be. Complex societies seem to unravel awful quickly when subject to exogenous “shocks.” Perhaps we should be grateful for our “Pleistocene minds.” You never know when a swiss-army-knife mind is going to come in handy….

Note: the natives of the Amazon are unique in the Americans is having a very basal Asian ancestry in their heritage.

(via Dispatches from Turtle Island)

26 thoughts on “Domestication of Rice in the Amazon

  1. In general, are these books (1491 and 1493) recommended? I’ve had them on my reading list for a while and wondering when is the right time to bump them up priority wise.

  2. Interesting, but. There were civilizations in Mesoamerica and in the Andes. The Mesoamericans had developed systems of writing and recorded computation that equaled those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Andean civilization, although extensive, lacked writing and recorded computation. Both civilizations, despite the destruction of the Hispanic conquest are still visible, and their peoples, though oppressed, are still there.

    Amazonian civilization, if you could call it that, sank without a trace. And, there were far fewer Europeans in the Amazon, than there were in Mesoamerica or the Andes.

  3. But as they are, perhaps so we could be. Complex societies seem to unravel awful quickly when subject to exogenous “shocks.”

    It’s one reason to be grateful for living in the continental US. We have a lot of land for farming, a lot of diverse climates unlikely to be hit hard by a shock in the same way (barring something like an asteroid impact or massive supervolcano eruption), and a lot of leeway in our agriculture system to survive off of. We could honestly go even further and stockpile several years’ worth of food and water for the US if we wanted to (might also have the effect of managing crop prices for stability).

    I don’t envy the British in the advent of a collapse in the world food trade.

  4. “Amazonian civilization, if you could call it that, sank without a trace. And, there were far fewer Europeans in the Amazon, than there were in Mesoamerica or the Andes.”

    The Amazon, unlike Mesoamerica or the Andes, is a lowland, warm-tropical environment where African-origin like yellow fever and malaria can thrive. Amazonians got hit by both European and African diseases, people in Mesoamerica and the Andes only by the European ones (at least to an extent).

  5. My theory is that it wasn’t just Old World diseases that hurt the New World natives, but also Old World transportation technology – particularly in Mexico and the Amazon (the Incas had a sort of Arab World transportation, with the llama).

    Smallpox was foreign, and serious. But it was nothing compared to the cocolitzi that followed it. The cocolitzi may have been home-grown. It spread like it did because New Spain had roads and horses, which the Aztec Empire did not.

  6. The cocolitzi may have been home-grown. It spread like it did because New Spain had roads and horses, which the Aztec Empire did not.

    While that sounds plausible, how much road-building was there in New Spain prior to the several deadly pandemics that destroyed the native populations? Very little, I would imagine, since these occurred within a short period of time of the conquests. I think the existing trade/tribute network was sufficient to spread them.

  7. tropical rainforest seems inclement to complex civ. the maya seem to have persisted more in drier zones.

    From personal experience, I can tell you that, while it’s much easier to feed/water oneself in the tropics than in dry climate, it’s miserable and unpleasant to be in the former.

    When I did jungle training, I didn’t really get much training… other than continual first aid. Every little cut would get nasty and infected. All the gear molded, rusted, and otherwise was a pain to maintain. It was just awful.

    I can see how, once the initial problems of survival was overcome, an arid climate would be far more conducive to civilization-building and -sustaining.

  8. 1491 popularized a lot of anti-myths. No, pre-Columbian America was not a wilderness on which small numbers of Natives lived lightly on the land. After contact with Europeans, new diseases literally decimated them, reducing population to less than a tenth of previous. At the time it was published (2004), this was not what educated people thought (though William Cronon’s 1983 Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England had covered some of the same ground). Both the Mann and Cronon books are well-written and well-done, though they suffer from being “classics”–if you have kept up in the area, you have already encountered much of what they say.

    1493 (2011) is also interesting, though I found it less focused.

  9. 1493 was a lot more complex and came across as less focused because its coverage was necessarily global, as opposed to 1491 which was focused on the Americas (and which I found an enthralling read which I would still recommend to anyone). Consequently, I found 1493 more difficult to wade through and somewhat less enjoyable to read – but still undoubtedly worth it.

    I have also read some of Mann’s pieces on the Jamestown settlement, which I also enjoyed reading. Some people would be disappointed that he made no mention at all of Pocahontas, but she was hardly central to the whole story, and Mann was commenting on the basis of what was revealed (and is continuing to be revealed) by the archaeology.

    “it’s miserable and unpleasant to be in the former” – For you maybe. Give me the tropics any time. I’m willing to take the occasional course of antibiotics when I take off enough skin by crashing my racing bicycle to get a serious infection, plus the added equipment maintenance burden.

  10. “it’s miserable and unpleasant to be in the former” – For you maybe. Give me the tropics any time. I’m willing to take the occasional course of antibiotics when I take off enough skin by crashing my racing bicycle to get a serious infection, plus the added equipment maintenance burden.

    1. I wasn’t there for fun. I was there to learn how to survive and fight in the deep jungle without any outside support. The conditions were unpleasant and spartan, to say the least.

    I like the tropics fine when I can get fresh clothes, a shower, and a beer in the evening.

    2. Antibiotics are a modern luxury.

  11. “I wasn’t there for fun.”

    Often, neither am I.

    My profession requires that I undertake field work in very steep, snake infested, thickly vegetated terrain, often in remote locations without outside support, in tropical heat and humidity. I often emerge with blood streaming down my arms from being ripped to shreds by thorn bushes. On numerous occasions I have had to undertake emergency duty in such terrain, at night in torrential rain, sometimes during thunderstorms with constant lightning strikes all around me, sometimes with the hillside failing beneath me as I scramble up, and sometimes during typhoons (hurricanes) when conditions are very hazardous.

    Not just me, I have female colleagues who do the same, skinny little Chinese girls who are as courageous and dedicated as hell. It’s a challenge, one that we are up for. Whether we ‘enjoy’ it depends on how you define enjoyment. There’s pride in what we do, and social responsibility – we are there to try to protect human life, not to take it. We are not wimps – these are the conditions we have to work in, year after year, and we accept that. I have been doing it for decades. The irony is that I grew up in a very dry, flat environment, but I am now fully acclimatized to working while constantly drenched to the skin in the most difficult terrain I have seen anywhere, with the possible exception of parts of Rio de Janeiro.

    I now hate very dry environments; they make my skin crack. I hate the cold, and I hate large diurnal temperature variations. Humans are plastic and adaptable; it’s a matter of what you become acclimatized to, if you have the necessary perseverance and determination. I don’t drink beer, either.

  12. You ask, why didn’t agriculture develop during the previous interglacial. But how about the other question — If agriculture is so easy, why didn’t it develop during the glacial? There was probably less good farmland than now, but not that much less, just closer to the equator. If there were 7 independent inventions, then 1/7 the land should be good enough to get 1 event, and the glacial lasted a lot longer than the interglacial.

  13. Along the lines of Douglas’ comment, we can handwave at potential genetic changes from the prior interglacial and think that explains why ag happened now and not then. However, there’s plenty of potential farmland during the glacial period. If we were genetically capable of ag in the last 100k years, why 7-plus inventions but only in the last 10k?

    Long periods of required prior cultural development also seems a suspect cause – New World populations went through a cultural bottleneck 20k years ago of small migrant groups bringing Arctic-adapted toolkits with them. That’s an improbable way to transfer tens of thousands of years of needed cultural development in order to develop ag.

  14. My profession

    1. Now you got my curiosity. What profession is that?

    2. During these “field trips,” where do you stay? And what’s with the bike?

  15. I’m experiencing déjà vu – I saw exactly this discussion somewhere very recently; I thought on this blog. I don’t wish to relive the whole thing, so won’t attempt to replicate it, but one of the reasons postulated was that climate was a lot more unstable during the last interglacial. I referred to a piece by Spencer Wells that discussed why the Holocene and not earlier, but I no longer have the link – but he postulated a particular series of climatic events that triggered people to plant seeds rather than just harvesting wild seeds. His theory would work for Mesopotamia, and maybe also China, but wouldn’t explain what triggered it in e.g. the Amazon basin.

  16. 1. My profession is for me to know and you to wonder about. Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.

    2. Day trips. Or often night trips, in emergencies. My ‘region’ isn’t that big – I might need to be out working for maybe as much as 36 hours on occasions, but can always get home again to sleep sooner or later. The relevance of the bike is that I ride it too fast and crash now and again, usually resulting in loss of sizeable areas of skin which, in this climate, easily become infected (I was responding to your comment about infection of wounds in tropical environments). I use it as a means of transport, mostly – it’s more than 4x faster than walking and, with the availability where I live of dedicated cycleways physically separated from both motorised vehicles and pedestrians, can often be faster than driving my car. Plus I can park it illegally by chaining it to street railings, so I pay nothing for parking, and the authorities don’t care because it’s not getting in anyone’s way, blocking anyone’s vision, etc. Why a racing bike? It’s light, fast (too fast), skinny rims/tyres are fine on smooth cycleways, and it has plenty of gear ratios for steep climbs.

  17. Variation in temperature and rainfall, which seem to be considerably greater prior to the present interglacial. If you’ve been relying on a planted harvest for twenty years and the frost comes three weeks earlier in the fall or later in the spring, or if the rains are well below average, and that happens two or three years in a row, you starve to death. Survivors go back to foraging.

  18. I would never have thought rice cultivation. Read both Mann and Mithen’s After the Ice and there was nothing about cultivating rice in the Americas before Columbus. Seems to have been a skill that was forgotten after they discovered manioc, perhaps?

  19. Regarding increased climatic variation during the glacial period, that seems like a partial explanation but insufficient. Early farmers, like many historic and even current farmers, would opportunistically switch between farming activities and hunting and fishing activities (and presumably foraging although I can’t speak to that). Why wouldn’t they switch back to farming when the climate interruption ended?

    Many farmers would also be dead center in the climatic zone for their main crop. It would be very unlikely that they wouldn’t be able to farm. And if farming spread enough geographically or even by altitude, then bad weather for some farmers at one edge of the climate zone would be good weather for farmers at the other edge.

    I suppose drought could be universally bad (as opposed to temperature variation) but it’s presuming a lot to think a crop that does well enough in the wild in that area is going to collapse when cultivated. And foraging will suffer as well under climatic variability, although maybe not quite as much as farming, so it’s not clear why people would abandon farming.

    There’s historical evidence of civilizations collapsing from climate change, although I don’t know of cases where that caused survivors to give up farming.

  20. There’s a big difference between farming as a complement to hunting/gathering and “farming is all we do and all we know how to do.” The second can support a much bigger population when weather is good but can lead to die-off when weather is bad. It also ties you to one place. The fact that there is no drought a hundred miles away is irrelevant. You can’t just load up the SUV and move, bringing your saved surplus with you to feed you until you are settled at your new place and next year’s harvest comes in.

    The former is resilient; the latter is not.

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