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Pay Dirt
Thriving civilization or ‘counterfeit paradise’?
The clues are underfoot as a UVM professor and an alumnus join forces to rethink the Amazon’s past
Story by Lee Ann Cox

It’s 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. It’s 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. It’s 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.”

The year 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 he’s 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 we’ve 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 planet’s 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.

“Here’s my first knowledge of the Amazon,” says Petersen with an edge of sarcasm. “I read this in 1977 and I said, 'Wow, that’s 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,” he says.

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 I had.”

While completing his undergraduate work in anthropology at UVM and spending summers working with Petersen in Maine, Heckenberger’s 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 wouldn’t be long until the student lured his mentor into the jungle.

photo 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 Heckenberger’s 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 region’s 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 60 more.

“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, there’s the pottery. By the time Petersen has his transcendental moment in the field, it isn’t finding decorated pottery that startles him. They’ve been unearthing ceramics since they got off the boat.

“The density of pottery was overwhelming,” Petersen says. “You’d 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 that’s what these guys did,” Petersen says.

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 wasn’t hard to find.

“We said, ‘Where’s black earth?’ and the first guy, a boat man, said, ‘Come with me’ and he brought us to Açutuba,” says Petersen.

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 Amazon’s 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?

“It’s 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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. It’s 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, Petersen’s partner in Brazil, answered that charge in a Chronicle of Higher Education article late last year: “Deforestation through ranching isn’t how the Amerindian interacted with the landscape,” he says. “The Amerindians weren’t 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. “It’s not like an AIDS vaccine in terms of its importance,” he says, “but it certainly has great potential, more than most scientific archeology.”

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. “It’s 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 Meggers’s 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 conquistador’s discoveries. “Things were made out of cotton and bark and wood and bone. The only thing that doesn’t rot away is the pottery and the black earth.”

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, he believes.

“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.”

Petersen’s views, say those who know him, are grounded in a broad historic and geographic perspective. “He doesn’t have a myopic view that comes from being focused on one region,” says Heckenberger. “It’s 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 we’ve come to embrace. “What he’s 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 weren’t these patsies who didn’t 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 [Petersen’s] doing. There are not that many archeologists doing such first-rate, front-rank work.”

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 other’s 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 it’s 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 people’s history.

“To get the story right, that’s 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, that’s 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: it’s not just a cold-hearted science but rather it’s the science of people.”