AAAS: The epicentre of the rumble in the jungle

February 7, 2003

Anna Roosevelt has upset traditional thinking about Amazonia's prehistory and its ecosystem, writes Stephen Phillips

Anna Roosevelt's findings in the Amazon basin have resonated beyond the confines of archaeology. They have recast thinking about human origins in the Americas and challenged cherished notions in the conservation movement.

Confounding received wisdom that big-game hunting migrants from North America represented the first human stirrings in the southern continent, the University of Illinois anthropologist, a plenary speaker at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting, uncovered convincing evidence in the 1980s and early 1990s of a more sophisticated society contemporaneous with the earliest-discovered North American settlement, dating back 11,000 years, near what is now Clovis, New Mexico.

Roosevelt's conclusion that "a broad-spectrum collecting and foraging" culture, sustaining perhaps more than 100,000 people, existed in Amazonia at the same time that Asiatic settlers from North America were culling mammoth and bison to subsist was like lobbing a bombshell into the politically charged ranks of Paleo-Indian archaeology.

She also upset the orthodoxy that the Amazon jungle was an ecologically barren environment capable of supporting only small short-lived communities. She debunked conservationist views that agriculture there destroys a vital part of the ecosystem. Roosevelt pointed to evidence that significant tracts of the tropical forest are the products of deliberate human cultivation.

Such heretical pronouncements have brought stinging responses, not least from Smithsonian archaeologist Betty Meggers, whose excavation sites Roosevelt revisited. In one vituperative riposte, Meggers scoffed that Roosevelt seemed to think that being a US president's granddaughter made her research unassailable.

However, Roosevelt, who calls herself a "historical scientist", accuses many of her opponents of discarding scientific method and being in thrall to theories and politics.

Using an empirical approach, Roosevelt considers anything fair game as archaeological data. Fish teeth and crania, toad finger bones and brazil-nut casings are among the materials she has exhumed to build her picture of ancient lives.

Meanwhile, there is a growing tide of research supporting her position that early Amazonian settlers reached South America by boat from the north and modified their environment to make it more productive.

But Roosevelt argues that her research does not legitimise development of the rainforest, as some critics say. Rather, she says, it suggests that Paleo-Indian land husbandry has much to teach us about harnessing the environment sustainably.

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