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The Grandmother Trees


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Ancient humans shaped this
landscape. Their history is in the trees,
the plants, even the soil.

Ancient humans
shaped this landscape. Their history is in
the trees, the plants, even the soil.

Opinion This author is a tktk

We think of humans as destroyers of the Amazon, but for centuries Indigenous people have tended to this landscape.


Ms. Levis is a postdoctoral researcher in ecology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.

  • Oct. 2, 2020
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This article is part of the Opinion series The Amazon Has Seen Our Future, about how the people of the region are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s problems.

FLORIANÓPOLIS, Brazil — The samaúma tree is one of the largest and tallest of the forest. Its canopy flourishes in the sky and its roots embrace everything around them. Local people call it the “grandmother tree,” and ethnographic researchers have found that Indigenous peoples used to bury their dead in urns among those roots. They also used the tree to communicate with others in the forest: When you hit the roots, the noise reverberates through the trunk like a drum.

The first time I saw a huge samaúma, also called a kapok, was in the Tapajós National Forest in northern Brazil. I was amazed, both by the tree’s grandeur and by its presence there, growing in nutrient-poor soil many miles from the Amazon River. The tree usually grows in floodplains, where it is nourished by the minerals washed down from the Andes. What was it doing here?

A guide told me that the lush forest surrounding the samaúma tree was once the house of his ancestors. He showed me dozens of piquiá trees growing in stands. It takes a piquiá tree 10 to 15 years to produce fruit, but when it does, the fruit is starchy and rich in calories, its oil used to treat infections, burns and inflammation.

It is not a coincidence that many trees like those, used for food and medicine, can be found clumped and abundant in the forest. Nor was it a coincidence that I was able to find many pieces of broken pottery around the samaúma tree. Clearly this area had been lived in and cultivated for centuries. Perhaps the people here had tended to the samaúma tree or created the right conditions for it to grow.

The Amazon is about as “wild” as you can imagine, but people have been living there for roughly 13,000 years. We normally think of humans as destroying the Amazon, but it’s also true that the samaúma and piquiá trees I saw might not have existed there without them.

ImageA member of the Uru Eu Wau Wau Indigenous group standing at the base of a samaúma tree.
Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

Much more research is needed to understand the history of the relationship between people and the natural world. Radiocarbon dating and tree-ring dating tell us how a tree grew; genetic analysis can reveal signs of domestication and which plants migrated with people. But the idea that a living tree carries with it part of human history — the idea of a tree as an archaeological record — is fascinating.

Today these trees are in danger. Illegal deforestation has increased in recent years. This often leads to extensive fires, which are now spiking across the region, with devastating consequences for the forest itself, the people and their memories.

The trees aren’t the only things that hold those memories; even the dirt tells a story. Patches of black, extremely fertile soil, called “terra preta” or dark earth, are a sign that a community cultivated that area of forest. These were the waste dumps of Amerindians who lived in sedentary and dense human villages before the arrival of Europeans. They tossed in food scraps and broken ceramics, and burned the refuse. So the nutrients accumulated in the soil, until it was fertile enough for the growth of new plants.

Experts estimate that these deposits can be found in 60,000 square miles or so of the forest, especially along river banks.

In the Bolivian Amazon, beginning about 11,000 years ago, people started to cultivate manioc and squash. They created 4,700 “artificial forest islands” — oases of trees and other plants — within savanna landscapes. Starting around 1,500 years ago, hundreds of monumental mounds — most likely the sites of settlements — were also built in Bolivia’s lowlands. On the eve of European contact in 1491, the Amazon region supported at least eight million people, some of whom lived in large towns of 1,000 or more.

These people shaped the region. Soils were modified and their fertility increased, expanding the distribution of nutrient-demanding plants. Plant species with greater utility were selected, dispersed and propagated while unwanted plants were filtered out. Indigenous peoples domesticated to some degree hundreds of species, including crops that remain important today such as Brazil nut, acai palm, manioc, maize, hot peppers, rice and cacao trees. This “virgin rainforest” would be very different without the presence of Indigenous peoples.

Even today traditional societies often return to the places where their ancestors lived, refreshing old memories and revitalizing ancient practices. As one local man told me about a stand of Brazil nut trees: “The castanhal used to produce when our grandfather cleaned the area twice a week. Now the canopy has closed and it does not produce anymore.”

Credit…Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times

Another told me: “The forest is an inheritance that we need to teach our children how to use. Our father left us the rubber trees.”

Indigenous communities can teach us better ways to live on and develop the land. This knowledge has a special value now, when humans turn out to be the main driver of climate and biological crises.

The big question is: How has the Amazon supported such diverse forests after thousands of years of human land use?

Clues may be found in the circular villages of the Xingu Indigenous National Park, and others like them. These villages, composed of central plazas linked by roads that line up with the movement of the sun, were discovered by local Indians and researchers led by the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger. Between 250 and 1,000 Xingu peoples lived in these places, surrounded by a mosaic of gardens, orchards and managed forests.

In an article in the journal Science, Dr. Heckenberger and colleagues described how these people developed an urban system adapted to the forested environment more than 500 years before a very similar model was proposed by Sir Ebenezer Howard, the English urban planner who founded the garden city movement.

For centuries, scientists searched for the “Lost City” hidden in the Amazon. They were searching for a standard model of monumental stone buildings common in cities in Europe and the Middle East. They missed other forms of monumentalism expressed by the trees standing right in front of them.

Giant trees, like the grandmothers of the Tapajós Forest, are liaisons between Amazonian peoples and their ancestors. Burning one to the ground is like destroying a library full of irreplaceable historical records.

Carolina Levis is a postdoctoral researcher in ecology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Cover photo by Stefan Huwiler/Getty Images. Cover inset photo by Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters.

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