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Dark Earths and manioc cultivation in Central Amazonia: a window on pre-Columbian agricultural systems?

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date2008
JournalBoletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas
Journal number2
Volume3
Number of pages20
Pages175-194
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Many commentators highlight the fertility of Anthropogenic Dark Earths (ADE), emphasizing their potential for sustainable agriculture. Some scholars believe that terra mulata (the less fertile, more extensive form of ADE) was created by means of agricultural practices used by large settled populations of pre-Columbian farmers. But what was it that these Amerindian farmers were growing? Until recently, scholarly consensus held that manioc does not perform well on ADE. New research on the middle Madeira River is showing, however, that this consensus was premature. In this region, the most common crop in ADE fields is bitter manioc. Farmers there have various landraces of manioc that they believe yield particularly well on ADE, and logically plant more of these varieties on ADE. Aspects of the behaviour and perception of manioc cultivation among 52 farmers at the community of Barro Alto were measured quantitatively on four terra firme soil types (Terra Preta, Terra Mulata, Oxisols and Ultisols). These farmers plant different configurations of landraces in different soils, according to their perception of the suitability of particular landraces and their characteristics to certain soil types and successional processes. This, in turn, shapes selective pressures on these varieties, as new genetic material incorporated from volunteer seedlings is more likely to contain traits present in the most prevalent landrace(s) in each soil type. Owing to localized population pressure at Barro Alto, manioc is under more intensive cultivation systems, with shorter cropping periods (5-10 months) and shorter fallow periods (1-2 years). The outcome of these processes is different co-evolutionary dynamics on ADE as opposed to non-anthropogenic soils. Further anthropological study of manioc swiddening in one of the richest agricultural environments in Amazonia can fill a gap in the literature, thus opening an additional window on the pre-Columbian period.