Dolores Piperno

Grant Type

Post PhD Research Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Smithsonian Inst., Washington, DC

Grant number

Gr. 9648

Approve Date

April 16, 2018

Project Title

Piperno, Dr. Dolores R., Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC - To aid research on 'Pre-Columbian Occupation and Modification of Forest in Western Amazonia: Terrestrial Soil Phytolith and Charcoal Records'

Preliminary abstract: The Amazon Basin is presently home to the largest contiguous expanse of Neotropical forest and much of the New World’s biodiversity. The cultural complexity of pre-Columbian human societies in Amazonia together with their relationships with the natural environment are enduring questions. More than 50 years ago, prominent scholars posited that due to severe environmental constraints (e.g. poor natural resources), prehistoric cultures were mainly small and mobile and exerted little environmental impact. Contentious debates ensued and have been on-going ever since. Empirical data accumulated during the past 10 to 20 years in part overturned the environmental constraint position by making it clear that dense, permanent, and complex settlements existed along major watercourses of portions of the forested Amazon and in seasonally flooded savanna regions, and that these societies exerted profound, sometimes regional-scale impacts, on landscapes. These results then led some investigators to propose that much of Amazonia, including the vast swath of non-riverine or terra firme forest that composes more than 95% of it, was significantly populated and modified before European arrival, and that modern forest composition and diversity is often a significant reflection of pre-Columbian activity. However, due to the paucity of archaeological and paleoenvironmental data from these forests, much more information must be generated to understand human occupation and its impacts across Amazonia. In this research, we will carry out phytolith and charcoal analyses of ancient soils across large tracts of previously unstudied and remote areas of the western Amazon to reconstruct prehistoric human settlement and influences on forests together with their modern legacies. We will significantly increase the scale and sensitivity of these proxy data to past human-caused influences of varying kinds.