Amazonian Archaeology and Soil Science


archaeology, Amazonia, soil science, agriculture


Presentation at the Soil Science Society of America, International Soils Meeting

January 6-9, 2019--San Diego, California


An archaeological perspective on soil science points toward the relationship between the environment and human societies and cultures. Amazonian anthropologists and archaeologists have therefore always been interested observers of soil science. ÒAmazoniaÓ is an area as large as the continental United States, so to generalize about Amazonian soils is misguided at best. But for many decades, archaeologists presumed that Amazonian soils were of poor quality. While in the past, the quality of Amazonian soils was held to determine the qualities of Amazonian societies, many archaeologists now argue that the reverse is true. Soil science and anthropological archaeology have a shared interest, one which could be part of a larger perspective on interactions between human cultures, plants, animals, fire, water, and soil. The literature on Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE) is a practical collaboration that led to significant advances in understanding. Similar examples include new research on earthworks used for fishing, and the relationship between soils, forests, and savannas. Rather than starting from a zero-sum perspective on causality, in which either soil determines culture, or culture determines soil, we need perspectives that focus more on the interactions between Amazonian peoples and the earth, which took place over many millennia, across the basin. Indigenous perspectives are particularly useful, and taking them seriously reveals long-term economic practices with measurable impact on soils. Studies of Amazonian archaeology and soils are so sparse that every new project sets a precedent. As we continue to improve our understanding, incorporating anthropology and soil science into an integrated study of humans and the earth may provide us with not just a better understanding of soils, but of the long term history of the Amazon, and perhaps other regions as well.

Date Created





College of Sciences


Department of Anthropology