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)

Amazon will go to Denver

Lots of discussions last week in the office about where Amazon will locate its second headquarters. After looking at the criteria the consensus converged on Denver. The Upshot did a similar analysis…and settled on Denver as well.

The huge downside of Austin is its deficits in transportation. Its airport is relatively modest. The mass transit is minimal. And traffic congestion is horrible.

Amazon purchases whole foods and the distribution channel comes to you

The purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon has sent grocery store stocks into tailspin. Could Amazon do to Safeway and Korger what it did to Borders and Barnes & Noble?

Some people have observed that the purchase impacts the nascent grocery delivery sector more than the established supermarkets. That was my first thought. For me Saturday used to involve a trip to Whole Foods. But not anymore. Basically I use Instacart. (I can’t use Amazon Fresh because it doesn’t delivery to where I live. For now….)

Because Amazon is such a monster of a company people are talking about grocery stores as the underdog in this new war. But the reality is that what we think of “grocery store” is something far different from what someone in 1900 would have imagined. Americans today assume that the supermarket is synonymous with groceries. But supermarkets as institutions are economic innovations which date to the 20th century. The rise of the sector by showcasing its pioneering firm is detailed in The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. As the title makes clear the rise of supermarkets resulted in a massive creative destruction in the American economy and culture.

Before A&P reimagined the profession being a grocer was a way for working class men to have a job that could support a family and give them some independence. But as the supermarkets cannibalized small grocers, men who had run their own businesses became employees in large corporations. Entrepreneurs became clerks. Creative destruction also worked so that eventually A&P was marginalized by new-model supermarkets that catered to suburban families. Today Walmart and Whole Foods have been attacking the low and top ends of the market and squeezing out smaller players.

Walmart’s battle from the bottom-up seems to have beaten Whole Foods’ premium strategy. Amazon’s purchase makes sense since Whole Foods has some assets major it can bring to the battle, but Walmart scale just too much for them to tackle.

As we all know the retail sector is changing. Half of millennials now buy groceries online at least some of the time. Malls are closing as their anchor department stores struggle. Where would a modern day Tiffany do her tour? Obviously it’s YouTube.

But that doesn’t mean that people won’t venture out. Upscale retail plazas are replacing the role of malls. Independent bookstores are still around, while Borders is gone and Barnes & Noble is a shadow of what it was. The positive aspect of the death of bricks and mortar retail is that we spend less time out and about on errands. Rather, we go out to eat at a restaurant, or meet friends in the park or at a bar. The downside is a smaller and smaller set of firms are dominating the supply chains between producers and consumers. I think Amazon will be targeted by antitrust considerations in the 2020s.