Amazonia Not Pristine
The tropical rainforests of Brazil, once thought to be pristine habitats of noble savages, show evidence of mass reworking by humans for millennia.
They gained global attention in the 1950s: naked tribes living deep in the rainforests of the Amazon River basin. They murdered Christian missionaries, including Jim Elliott, who had come to share food, medicine, and the gospel. Civilized people around the world felt either revulsion or fascination with these people. Were they noble savages living in harmony with nature? Were they less-evolved members of Homo sapiens? Or were they degenerate children of once-mighty civilizations?
Conventional wisdom, exemplified by National Geographic, took the first view: they were misunderstood families of basically peaceful primitive humans who survived in a pristine world, living off the land with no need for clothes, permanent dwellings or western implements. How dare westerners intrude on their space with alien religious ideas! The missionaries were killed out of fear or misunderstanding, not out of western vices like hate or intolerance. Anthropologists, aghast at finding tribespeople with western clothes and iron pots, fought with developers pushing the remaining untouched people groups further into the jungle.
The Disney-style, Hiawatha, Jungle-book portrayal of Amazonia is starting to come crashing down. Discoveries of massive earthworks throughout the jungle are revealing an ecology modified by cooperative societies on a massive scale for centuries. Forerunners of today’s naturist monkey-hunters must have been sophisticated exemplars of intelligent design. A paper in PNAS explains the shift in thinking:
Amazonian rainforests once thought to be pristine wildernesses are increasingly known to have been inhabited by large populations before European contact. How and to what extent these societies impacted their landscape through deforestation and forest management is still controversial, particularly in the vast interfluvial [between-river] uplands that have been little studied. In Brazil, the groundbreaking discovery of hundreds of geometric earthworks by modern deforestation would seem to imply that this region was also deforested to a large extent in the past, challenging the apparent vulnerability of Amazonian forests to human land use. We reconstructed environmental evidence from the geoglyph region and found that earthworks were built within man-made forests that had been previously managed for millennia. In contrast, long-term, regional-scale deforestation is strictly a modern phenomenon.
This is like turning off the lights in the Fantasyland Castle and watching the workers change out of their costumes, pick up their lunchboxes and walk to their Toyotas as they head for home. The storyland was fun while it lasted, but now back to the real world: people are just people, where you find them.
Other media have echoed this major paradigm shift:
- Mysterious Amazonian Geoglyphs Were Built in Already-Altered Forests (Live Science).
- Hundreds of ancient earthworks built in the Amazon (press release from University of Exeter).
- Amazon forest ‘shaped by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples’ (BBC News)
The articles show photographs of some of the geoglyphs that had long been hidden by trees. First uncovered in the 1980s, they take the shapes of squares, circles and other clearly-designed patterns not explainable by natural causes. Live Science quotes Jennifer Watling of University of São Paulo and University of Exeter, the lead author of the paper:
“There’s been a very big debate circling for decades now about how pristine or man-made the Amazonian forests are,” Watling said. The new study suggests that humans have been altering these forests for about 4,000 years.
The press release adds:
Dr Watling said: “The fact that these sites lay hidden for centuries beneath mature rainforest really challenges the idea that Amazonian forests are ‘pristine ecosystems’.
“We immediately wanted to know whether the region was already forested when the geoglyphs were built, and to what extent people impacted the landscape to build these earthworks.”
Even though the purposes of the structures remains unknown, the design is unmistakable. Researchers see evidence that large tracts were burned down to make clearings, but the rainforest modifications were done in a purposeful and controlled manner:
Instead of burning large tracts of forest – either for geoglyph construction or agricultural practices – people transformed their environment by concentrating on economically valuable tree species such as palms, creating a kind of ‘prehistoric supermarket’ of useful forest products. The team found tantalizing evidence to suggest that the biodiversity of some of Acre’s remaining forests may have a strong legacy of these ancient ‘agroforestry’ practices.
In other words, intelligent design is evident not just in the geoglyphs themselves, but in modifications of the forest species for the purpose and intent of the humans living there. The “legacy” of the forest today is different than it would have been if left to the unguided forces of nature.
In addition to these evidences, the archaeologists found decorated pots that had been smashed, perhaps for ritual purposes. Watling thinks that people gathered at the geoglyph sites sporadically, at special times of the year for ceremonies or when coming to the ‘prehistoric supermarket’ for supplies. One thing is clear: “There’s loads of them,” Watling said of the earthworks. “And we don’t really know why.”
Update 3/03/17: On The Conversation, Chris O. Hunt, a “cultural paleoecologist,” describes how science is often dictated by our political biases:
When I started doing fieldwork in Borneo 17 years ago, most people thought of tropical forests as wildernesses, hostile to civilised human life and home only to vagrant, primitive people. Major textbooks portrayed these forests as largely unchanging over several million years.
This mindset suited common political goals, previously for imperial expansion and more lately for corporate development. Logging, ranching, mining and dam construction were seen as bringing better lives to impoverished (and inferior) hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers.
But is he right to blame imperialists and businessmen? It could be argued that Darwinian materialists were expecting to find primitive people in remote wilderness areas, incapable of large-scale modification of their environments. Maybe he should look in the mirror and see what political biases are making him draw his own conclusions. All the while, he infers intelligent design from the evidence of forest modifications, but if he’s like most of his colleagues, he would probably abjure any association with the ID movement. Most certainly he would want to distance himself from the early Social Darwinists who exterminated primitive people on the grounds they were less evolved than white Europeans.
Some principles of intelligent design theory are clear from this story. You don’t have to know who the designer was. You don’t have to know what the purpose was. All you need to establish a design inference is that an intentional modification of nature occurred that required foresight, intelligence and controlled execution. First, you rule out chance. Then, you rule out natural law. What you are left with is an intelligent cause. The design inference is robust; science uses it all the time. Archaeology is a perfect example. There’s no reason to rule it out for the earth, the universe or the DNA code when applying the same logic.
Another implication of this story is that today’s tribes-people are degenerates from a once-great civilization. They are not noble savages, living peacefully with nature, even though they have gotten by for centuries with little in the way of tools. They obviously have the skills they need to live; they can climb trees, create poison darts, and find monkeys to shoot. They can grow their favorite crop. But their ancestors had organized societies, capable of modifying the landscape in big ways with cooperative effort. The BBC News estimates 8-10 million natives lived in Amazonia before Europeans arrived, but many were decimated by diseases they brought. Even so, the survivors could have remembered the technology they inherited.
It’s also interesting that the archaeologists trace back the habitation to only a few thousands of years— not tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands. The timeline fits the Biblical record for the history of man.
We need to look at the living descendants differently than we have been taught. They are not on the evolutionary path of Progress. They have regressed due to sin and forgetting their Maker. They live getting drunk and drugged, fighting with their neighbors, killing some who come to help them. Jim Elliott was right; they need the gospel.
For a historical look at the “rise and fall of Progress,” see chapter 21 in Tom Bethell’s new book, Darwin’s House of Cards. Victorians were so drunk on the elixir of Progress they couldn’t think straight. Darwinism was born in that era. Now, environmentalists view man as the enemy of the earth. Yet Darwinism remains! Time to ditch natural selection.