Thriving civilization or counterfeit paradise?
The clues are underfoot as a UVM professor and an alumnus join forces
to rethink the Amazons past
Story by Lee Ann Cox
Its a bad day in the jungle.
In this part of Brazil, near the spot where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon,
a good day means mind-bending heat, humidity that will cover a book in
mold within a week, a nighttime torrent of mosquitoes, not to mention
the menacing tarantulas, anacondas, and jaguars.
James Petersen usually bears the harshness of life here with equanimity,
but today the rains are heavy. Its too wet to dig, and with clothes
soaked, Petersen and his fellow archeologists are chilled despite the
steamy heat. They are scanning the ground for artifacts when Petersen
has what he calls an epiphany moment.
I look down and I see a face smiling up at me, he recalls.
Its a piece of pottery broken off a jar, a human face, almost life
size. I had been cold and distracted and uncomfortable, and then
the humanity of the Indians came to me like a shot. I had a communication,
in a way, with the people of the Açutuba site. It was really dramatic.
is 1985. Petersen, an ecological anthropologist and ceramics expert, has
until then taken a pragmatic approach to his career. At the time, he is
founder and director of a busy consulting archeology program at the University
of Maine at Farmington; joining the UVM faculty is twelve years in his
future and his work in the Amazon is just a summer vacation. But when
hes there he feels the ghosts of Pre-Columbian Indians and they
seem to be telling him along with others who are increasingly called
to listen that their story is vastly different from the one weve
been told. Now Petersen is dedicated to setting the record straight
and rewriting the history of the Amazon in the process.
When Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana returned to Europe in
1542 with tales of cities and temples and roadways and women warriors
in the Amazon they were never taken seriously, and subsequent explorations
just a few decades later would seem to justify the skepticism. Indeed,
excepting the much-publicized slash-and-burn destruction of the past several
decades, the Amazon was considered a pristine habitat, unspoiled by the
hand of man. Its soils were thought to be too poor and protein too scarce
to have ever sustained large, complex societies. This view was so well
established that it went nearly unquestioned until a handful of researchers,
Petersen and his former student Michael Heckenberger 88 among them,
decided to have another look.
Today, after a decade of ongoing and controversial research,
they are upending the conventional wisdom about the rainforest and its
people, with implications that impact not just the telling of history,
but the rights of native peoples and the planets ecological future.
The influence of UVM weaves in and out of this story of groundbreaking
archeology, of a scientist with a rare expertise in three distinct geographic
regions, of how a mentor-student relationship can become a fluid entity,
characterized by mutual inspiration, friendship, and true collaboration.
Petersen, who calls himself a child of UVM (his parents met
here and graduated with the Class of 49), was a young undergraduate
at the University when he was assigned a book, Amazonia: Man and Culture
in a Counterfeit Paradise. It is the influential work of Smithsonian archeologist
Betty Meggers, who, along with her late husband, Clifford Evans, was the
first to closely research ancient Amazonian culture. The pair concluded
that the lush green jungle masked land so inhospitable as to make a thriving,
sophisticated culture impossible. The apparent Edenic paradise of the
rainforest, they said, was a sham.
Heres my first knowledge of the Amazon, says Petersen
with an edge of sarcasm. I read this in 1977 and I said, 'Wow, thats
a really funny story. The environment there in the Amazon brings people
down. It makes them limited. It was a seed of doubt that would
stay dormant for some time.
After graduating from UVM in 1979, Petersen started doctoral studies at
the University of Pittsburgh, where he developed an interest in the tropics.
He began fieldwork in the Caribbean, where he still works today (New England
is his third area of research). The Amazon was beguiling but Petersen
was focused on making a living and doing archeology-for-hire in advance
of development was the surest way to do that. I talked about [the
Amazon] at a distance. I was a student of it, but I never went there,
Petersen would soon return to UVM for a stint as a visiting professor,
a time when he would fire students imaginations, in particular one
who would grow into a colleague and friend. Michael Heckenberger, now
an assistant professor at the University of Florida, recalls meeting Petersen
in that first life-changing field course. Jim is an infectious person
and teacher, he says. He attracts so many people to anthropology.
He is without a doubt one of the most powerful and influential teachers
While completing his undergraduate work in anthropology at UVM and spending
summers working with Petersen in Maine, Heckenbergers own ambitions
in the field began to emerge. He was interested in issues of continuity
from prehistoric to contemporary people; he wanted to learn Portuguese
and work in Brazil; he wanted to live with indigenous people. Even an
inspiration is given to moments of healthy skepticism Petersen
wondered how Heckenberger would get a job, but offered his advice and
support every step along the way.
It wouldnt be long until the student lured his mentor into the jungle.
by Marion Lloyd
Working on his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, Heckenberger
began spending extended periods in the remote Upper Xingu region of Brazil,
hundreds of miles away from the nearest light bulb, living
with natives, making friends with tribal chiefs. The young scholar found
dramatic evidence of interconnected villages with well-engineered plazas,
roads, moats, and bridges. At the end of Heckenbergers doctoral
research in 1994, Petersen visited him in the Upper Xingu, and on a side
trip to the central Amazon they found further evidence of the regions
human past. As Heckenberger puts it, things got even worse; things
got bigger and bigger. The counterfeit paradise theory was looking
shaky and the intrigue would finally pull Petersen in.
The pair gathered funding, a partner, Eduardo Neves from the University
of São Paulo, permissions from the Brazilian government, and launched
the Central Amazon Project (another student of Petersen, Robert Bartone,
would also join them). To date, they've excavated five sites and explored
We formally began in 1995, not fully understanding what we were
into, says Petersen. It's some of the richest, most exciting
archeology anywhere on the planet.
To begin with, theres the pottery. By the time Petersen has his
transcendental moment in the field, it isnt finding decorated pottery
that startles him. Theyve been unearthing ceramics since they got
off the boat.
The density of pottery was overwhelming, Petersen says. Youd
see smashed jars with all kinds of complex things, snakes and heads and
jaguars and all these beautiful things.
The sheer number of ceramics (with so many deliberately broken) and their
elaborate nature suggests large numbers of people living in material comfort.
Who has the time to make a million jars and then smash them, just
to build a mound, but thats what these guys did, Petersen
But odd as it seems, the soil surrounding all those pots may be the real
treasure. For more than a hundred years naturalists and explorers had
noted and debated the rich black soil known as terra preta
do Indio (Indian dark earth). It was widely believed to be a natural phenomenon.
For Petersen and Heckenberger it was a red flag. They went looking for
terra preta and it wasnt hard to find.
We said, Wheres black earth? and the first guy,
a boat man, said, Come with me and he brought us to Açutuba,
There on a high bluff overlooking the Rio Negro was a two-mile stretch
of land profuse with papaya, peppers, and other crops. The soil, Petersen
says, was black as charcoal. Elsewhere, the soils are just as Meggers
argues. The Amazons lush tropical forest conceals a virtual ecological
wasteland beneath it.
Thanks to a combination of harsh sun and pounding rains, the soil is highly
acidic and low in organic matter and nutrients, making a hostile environment
for agriculture. But how to explain these areas of dark, fertile earth
highly prized throughout Amazonia?
Its a gift from the past for the farmers, Petersen contends.
The farmers where we work have been growing crops there for fifty
years and they dont even need to fertilize the fields. And these
are the worst soils in the world.
Petersen and a host of archeologists, soil scientists, and geographers
who converged at a conference in Brazil in 2002 now believe ancient Indians
intentionally created terra preta by partially burning the fields to make
charcoal not ash, a critical distinction, notes journalist
Charles Mann, who covered the conference for Science magazine. This wasnt
slash-and-burn, which offers only short-lived fertility. They stirred
the charcoal into the soil, and then added a variety of organic wastes
from fish, turtles, and humans. The charcoal, explains Mann, provides
a place for a variety of nutrients and microorganisms to take root, build
up, and resist the incursion of rain.
Now, after work completed last summer, Petersen says that he and his team
can push the date of terra preta formation to before 3,000 years ago,
1,000 years earlier than thought at the time of the conference. While
some of these sites may have been unintentionally created (the result
of ancient garbage heaps), Petersen and his colleagues are convinced that
when faced with environmental limitation, early farmers found a solution.
Its a conclusion that worries environmentalists who are invested
in the Amazon as a pristine habitat, believing that to suggest
that the Indians managed the land is to license modern destruction.
Eduardo Neves, Petersens partner in Brazil, answered that charge
in a Chronicle of Higher Education article late last year: Deforestation
through ranching isnt how the Amerindian interacted with the landscape,
he says. The Amerindians werent destroying the environment.
They were enriching it.
How to replicate their tactics is a problem researchers are steadily trying
to solve. Given their progress and his own backyard experiments
with charcoal and sunflowers Petersen is convinced that terra preta
will one day be reproduced, offering a means of sustainable agriculture
in hot climates worldwide. Its not like an AIDS vaccine in
terms of its importance, he says, but it certainly has great
potential, more than most scientific archeology.
A LITTLE BIT OF FAITH
The pottery, terra preta, and complex settlements that Heckenberger found
in the Upper Xingu all suggest large, permanent societies. Petersen adds
one more point supporting that possibility: the issue of protein. There
are more known fish species in the Amazon than all the other fresh water
sources in the world, he says. Its not a counterfeit
paradise. The Amazon is a treasure trove of food and people should be
able to live there as well as many other places, if not better.
These new ideas about ancient Amazonian culture have been hotly contested,
primarily by Meggers herself. Her views, that only small tribes could
ever be sustained in the rainforest (the way indigenous people live today,
in fact), remain entrenched. Now in her eighties, Meggers claims that
researchers are confusing multiple occupations by small groups as evidence
of one large site.
Petersen, who speaks carefully and graciously of Meggerss work,
nevertheless disagrees. He suggests there are two central flaws with her
arguments. One, that Meggers and Evans simply did not look carefully enough,
given the dense nature of the jungle and the perishable nature of materials
in the Amazon.
Unlike the Maya, they had no stone to make anything with. All of
the constructions that Orellana records complicated houses and
temples and idols, were all organic, Petersen says, citing the conquistadors
discoveries. Things were made out of cotton and bark and wood and
bone. The only thing that doesnt rot away is the pottery and the
The other issue with their work, according to Petersen, is that they began
with closed minds. You need a little bit of faith, he says.
They did groundbreaking research but they started with a flawed
idea, that the environment is limiting to human culture, and for fifty
years they tried to prove themselves right.
If Petersen and his colleagues are correct, what happened to the Amazonians
(and, Petersen would add, Indians all over the Americas) is a tragedy
made crueler by widespread historical accounts of natives as wild savages.
How many Indians lived in the Western hemisphere before the Europeans
arrived? What happened to those people? asks Petersen. We
know from select areas that 90 to 95 percent of the Indians that were
here when the Europeans arrived were killed unintentionally by disease.
Disease, warfare, and enslavement by Europeans decimated their numbers,
The Europeans wrecked the Indians, Petersen says. So
modern-day Indian tribes, even though there are over two hundred tribes
in the Amazon today
are tiny remnants of once large, proud, complicated
cultures. They are just a small fragment.
A VOICE FOR THE GHOSTS
Petersens views, say those who know him, are grounded in a broad
historic and geographic perspective. He doesnt have a myopic
view that comes from being focused on one region, says Heckenberger.
Its rare. Most people only know one place really well.
That scholarship, from New England to the Amazon, has led Petersen to
the conclusion that Pre-Columbian culture was wholly different from the
mythic idyll weve come to embrace. What hes been doing
in the Amazon, says Mann, who writes about Petersen's work in his
forthcoming book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,
is showing that there was a whole lot more going on than people
previously thought. It suggests that Native Americans werent these
patsies who didnt affect their environment, living lightly on the
land. These were smart, sophisticated people who had a profound impact
on their environment. The University should be proud of what [Petersens]
doing. There are not that many archeologists doing such first-rate, front-rank
Petersen has been working under the auspices of UVM since 1997, bringing
the prestige and the lively debate to the campus and the
classroom. Heckenberger has now left the Central Amazon Project to concentrate
on the Upper Xingu, where Petersen joins him when he can.
Jim and I are close personal friends with a long, long professional
relationship, says Heckenberger. To some degree we are always
mutually entangled in each others work.
The passion that keeps them both going is the chance to get to know contemporary
indigenous people, to witness their ceremonies and study their culture
up close. It is the rare privilege of the archeologist working in the
Western Hemisphere. Petersen credits Heckenberger for presenting him with
the opportunity to gain insight into the past by observing how Amerindians
in the Amazon live today. I know its not exactly like their
prehistoric predecessors, he says, but I can use that information
to envision snapshots of what life was like.
In return, Petersen and Heckenberger say, they do what they can to make
native life easier, taking cues from the tribal chief about how much of
the outside world to introduce. They bring gifts of a flashlight, a bicycle,
a motorboat. And they tell the truth about these peoples history.
To get the story right, thats my motive, says Petersen.
I work in the Amazon as part of a broader effort like I do here
in North America, in New England, the Caribbean and wherever else I work,
to see the correct story told. That we don't underestimate the degree
of sophistication, the degree of elaboration, the degree of complexity
of the native people.
The impact of that goes beyond what we teach our kids in the fourth grade.
Particularly for Heckenberger, who is spending increasing amounts of his
time working on human rights issues, he believes the archeology becomes
meaningful when indigenous people can appropriate it as a means of understanding
their own history and protecting their land. It also has significant implications
for the environmental movement, he says. Recognizing that the Amazon is,
at least in part, a human construction is important for understanding
biodiversity, conservation, even the question of what nature is.
What gets me out of bed in the morning, Heckenberger says,
is the belief that this is going to contribute to something more
than just academic discourse. I love academia, but we all hope we can
make some contribution to the greater good. In the Amazon, thats
not an unrealistic hope.
So two archeologists dig up the past to move humanity forward. As Petersen
says of his epiphany moment, I got extremely excited and I was reminded
of this: its not just a cold-hearted science but rather its
the science of people.