Pre-Columbian land use in the ring-ditch region of the Bolivian AmazonThe Holocene


J. F. Carson, J. Watling, F. E. Mayle, B. S. Whitney, J. Iriarte, H. Prumers, J. D. Soto
Earth-Surface Processes / Ecology / Palaeontology / Global and Planetary Change


The Holocene 1 –16 © The Author(s) 2015

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DOI: 10.1177/0959683615581204


In recent decades, there has been a paradigm shift in ideas over the size and complexity of pre-Columbian (pre-AD 1492) Amazonian societies. Rather than being limited to small, semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups and shifting horticulturalists (Meggers, 1992), there is abundant archaeological evidence, in the form of settlement remains, artificial earthworks and Amazonian dark earth (terra preta) soils (Woods et al., 2009), for sedentary groups with relatively large populations, in many different parts of the

Amazon basin. Some of the major archaeological sites occur in the

Llanos de Moxos (LDM), Bolivia (Erickson, 2000; Lombardo and

Prümers, 2010; Lombardo et al., 2010; Saunaluoma, 2010; Walker, 2009), eastern Acre state (Pärssinen et al., 2009; Schaan et al., 2012), the Upper Xingu (Heckenberger, 2003), the central Amazon (Glaser, 2007; Heckenberger and Neves, 2009), Marajó Island (Roosevelt, 1991; Schaan, 2012) and Amapá state (Saldanha and

Cabral, 2010), Brazil, and coastal French Guiana (Iriarte et al., 2012). Denevan (2014) has estimated a pre-Contact population of at least 5–6 million in Greater Amazonia (with the caveat that population density was not even across the basin, but concentrated in certain ‘more productive’ environments). It has been suggested that these pre-Columbian populations had a much more extensive impact on Amazonian environments than previously assumed and played an intrinsic part in the development of its ecosystems, through altering the floristic composition, soils, hydrology and topography of the landscape (Clement and Junqueira, 2010;

Denevan, 1992; Erickson, 2008; Heckenberger et al., 2007; Levis et al., 2012; Lombardo et al., 2010; Saldanha and Cabral, 2010).

However, there is still considerable debate over the type of land use, the scale of environmental impact, and the chronology of these societies.

The LDM, located in the Bolivian department of the Beni (Figure 1) in south-west Amazonia, has some of the most diverse and extensive examples of pre-Columbian earthworks in the

Amazon Basin (Denevan, 1966; Walker, 2008). These include raised agricultural fields (Rodrigues et al., 2014; Walker, 2004), monumental habitation mounds (Lombardo and Prümers, 2010), canals, causeways and ring-ditch structures (Erickson, 2000;

Pre-Columbian land use in the ring-ditch region of the Bolivian Amazon

John F Carson,1 Jennifer Watling,2 Francis E Mayle,1

Bronwen S Whitney,3 José Iriarte,2 Heiko Prümers4 and J Daniel Soto5


The nature and extent of pre-Columbian (pre-AD 1492) human impact in Amazonia is a contentious issue. The Bolivian Amazon has yielded some of the most impressive evidence for large and complex pre-Columbian societies in the Amazon basin, yet there remains relatively little data concerning the land use of these societies over time. Palaeoecology, when integrated with archaeological data, has the potential to fill these gaps in our knowledge. We present a 6000-year record of anthropogenic burning, agriculture and vegetation change, from an oxbow lake located adjacent to a pre-Columbian ring ditch in north-east Bolivia (13°15′44″S, 63°42′37″W). Human occupation around the lake site is inferred from pollen and phytoliths of maize (Zea mays

L.) and macroscopic charcoal evidence of anthropogenic burning. First occupation around the lake was radiocarbon dated to ~2500 calibrated years before present (BP). The persistence of maize in the record from ~1850 BP suggests that it was an important crop grown in the ring-ditch region in preColumbian times, and abundant macroscopic charcoal suggests that pre-Columbian land management entailed more extensive burning of the landscape than the slash-and-burn agriculture practised around the site today. The site was occupied continuously until near-modern times, although there is evidence for a decline in agricultural intensity or change in land-use strategy, and possible population decline, from ~600–500 BP. The long and continuous occupation, which predates the establishment of rainforest in the region, suggests that pre-Columbian land use may have had a significant influence on ecosystem development at this site over the last ~2000 years.


Amazon, anthropocene, archaeology, human–environment interactions, phytoliths, pollen, tropical palaeoecology

Received 19 December 2014; revised manuscript accepted 18 March 2015 1 Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of

Reading, UK 2 Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter, UK 3Department of Geography, University of Northumbria, UK 4 Kommission für Archäologie Aussereuropäischer Kulturen, Deutsches

Archäologisches Institut, Germany 5 Herbario del Oriente Boliviano, Museo de Historia Natural Noel

Kempff Mercado, Universidad Autónoma Gabriel René Moreno, Bolivia

Corresponding author:

John F Carson, Department of Geography and Environmental Science,

University of Reading, Russell Building, Whiteknights Campus, Reading

RG6 6AB, UK.

Email: 581204 HOL0010.1177/0959683615581204The HoloceneCarson et al. research-article2015

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Prümers, 2014a, 2014b; Prümers and Betancourt, 2014a), which together are indicative of large and socially complex, sedentary populations. The north-east province of Iténez is a unique archaeological sub-region within the Beni. It is characterised by extensive ring-ditch earthworks alongside causeways, ditched agricultural fields, and fish weirs (Denevan, 1966; Erickson, 2000; Lombardo et al., 2013). It is also home to the Iténez Forest

Reserve, which was established in recognition of the unique species diversity of this region. However, to date, research in this important historical and natural landscape has been limited.