AHRC-FAPESP MoU Human-Environment Relationships in pre-Columbian Amazonia (HERCA)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Geography and Environmental Sciences


The dynamics of past human-environment relationships is one of the most relevant issues in archaeology today. Pre-Columbian (pre-1492) Amazonia provides a case study of a long-standing debate into human-environment interactions. At one end of the spectrum are those who view Amazonia as a largely pristine wilderness which has shaped human history, while at the other are those who argue that Amazonia has been utterly transformed into a domesticated landscape by millennia of human land use. Recent ground-breaking discoveries of vast, pre-Columbian landscape engineering projects -- monumental habitation mounds, ring ditches, causeways and canals -- overturn the paradigm that environmental constraints limited cultural development in Amazonia to simple semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles, as practiced by indigenous peoples today. However, the processes by which these complex (stratified) societies emerged and declined, and their relationships with the environment, remain unresolved.

This uncertainty stems from a paucity of archaeological data and a lack of the inter-disciplinary collaboration essential for investigation of human-environment interactions. This project therefore assembles an international, multi-disciplinary research team to integrate archaeological and environmental approaches and data to address our overarching research aim:
To determine the relationships between the emergence and demise of stratified societies, food procurement strategies, and environmental conditions in Pre-Columbian Amazonia.

We focus on three study areas in SW Amazonia which provide a unique opportunity to examine the emergence and demise of different societies across a broad spectrum of environmental conditions -- in terms of forest cover, soil quality, and flood/drought risk.

The following techniques will be employed:
1. Archaeological excavations will reveal human occupation histories spanning over 8,000 years, while laboratory-based analyses of pottery, human bones, and soils will provide insights into diet, food processing, cultural practices, and land use.
2. Microscopic analyses of ancient charcoal, pollen, and plant remains from nearby lake/channel sediments and soils will reveal forest and savanna resource management; e.g. use of fire and selection of economically important species such as fruit trees and palms.
3. The evolutionary history of the physical landscape and river networks will be reconstructed to determine how changes in flood regime influenced occupation history and land use.
4. The above data will be compared with annual-resolution climate records from nearby cave stalagmites to determine potential linkages between cultural/land-use change and climate change.
5. To integrate these different lines of evidence, and understand their relationships through time, it is essential to have secure chronologies, which we will achieve predominantly through radiocarbon dating.

There is increasing interest in cultural heritage and identity among present-day urban and rural Amazonian communities. We will therefore engage with a museum in Trinidad (the provincial capital of one of our Bolivian study areas) to improve its educational value by incorporating best practice to develop stimulating, interactive museum exhibits and accompanying booklets that can convey our project findings to a wide public audience. We will also explore the potential for building eco-museums in rural villages in the heart of our archaeological study areas. By engaging with urban and rural communities in this way, we hope to lay the foundation for longer-term impact by contributing to the wider socio-political issue of land-use conflict between indigenous peoples, landowners, and conservationists. Broader, international impact will be achieved via our project website and end-of-project exhibitions in museums of the major Bolivian and Brazilian cities of La Paz and Sao Paulo.

Planned Impact

OVERALL AIM: Engage with museums to strengthen the cultural identity of inhabitants of the Beni province of Amazonian Bolivia and foster awareness of its sustainable land-use potential.

The Beni province (study areas 1 and 2) is one of the poorest regions in South America. The Bolivian government is keen to promote archaeological heritage to enrich Beni cultural identity and foster awareness of land-use potential beyond cattle ranching (the predominant economic activity today). We focus on museums because they are uniquely placed to achieve these goals via their collections and outreach activities.

BENEFICIARY 1: The Ethno-Archaeological Kenneth Lee Museum (EAKLM), Trinidad, Beni.

The EAKLM (project partner) was built in Trinidad (provincial capital, pop. 90,000) in 2002 and houses artefacts collected in the Beni over the last 20 years. A visit to the EAKLM is now a compulsory part of the curriculum for the 90 schools in the Trinidad municipality, causing admissions to rise from only 690 in 2013 to 10,948 in 2016. Because of the central role this museum plays in educating children across study area 1 about their cultural heritage, focusing activities here will ensure long-term educational impact. Museum staff recognise that existing exhibits are static (traditional display cabinets). We will therefore apply best practice, via interactive exhibits, to create a dynamic environment which entertains and inspires audiences, linking the past with the present to inform individual and community identity. Visitors will benefit from an enhanced sense of cultural identity and place fostered by interactive exhibits of Pre-Columbian heritage. Our exhibits will focus on two key themes: a) cultural identity -- based on a 10,000 year cultural history developed in this project, and b) sustainable land use -- by using our research findings to demonstrate that seasonal flooding and drought, which still pose the main environmental challenges to the region, need not prevent thriving economies based on diverse land-use strategies. Our project findings will help inform alternative models of sustainable land use as a means to poverty alleviation.

BENEFICIARY 2: Bella Vista and Baures villages.

The population of study area 2 is concentrated in two remote villages -- Bella Vista and Baures. Our conversations with local residents reveal a strong desire among these communities for a local eco-museum, as the issue of cultural identity is becoming increasingly important, especially among the younger generation. We will therefore explore the potential for establishing eco-museums, or 'heritage spaces' in both villages. An 'eco-museum' follows a participatory community model whereby archaeological discoveries/artefacts directly benefit the local 'source' community through 'grassroots' involvement, in contrast with the traditional colonial model of 'extraction' of artefacts to museums in distant urban areas (e.g. Trinidad). Such an eco-museum can therefore serve to strengthen community identity and sense of place among these villagers by fostering greater understanding of shared cultural heritage. This in turn may lay the foundation for longer-term impact by contributing to the wider socio-political issue of land-use conflict between indigenous peoples, landowners, and conservationists.

Exhibitions of our project findings and artefacts will be held at: a) the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (MUSEF) (project partner) in La Paz (pop. 2 million), ca. 30,000 visitors per year; and b) the USP Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE) (PI Neves' institution) in Sao Paulo (pop. 12 million), ca. 130,000 visitors per year. The national prestige of these museums will ensure our exhibitions reach a wide public audience, including the political sphere with the legislative power to protect this cultural heritage. Via our project website and social media, we will convey our project findings to a global audience.
Description Fish and fisheries in the Llanos de Moxos
Amount $5,000 (USD)
Organisation Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Amount £56,500 (GBP)
Funding ID 0011358 
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2022 
End 10/2022
Description The domestication of Amazon rainforests by pre-Columbian societies
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Funding ID 2438195 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2020 
End 09/2023
Description Interview with local radio in Santa Cruz, Bolivia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact HERCA project member -- PDRA Umberto Lombardo -- shared his research activities and findings on pre-Columbian land use in Bolivia. This radio podcast generated interest and debate, and was shared further via facebook.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.irfabolivia.org/10411-2/
Description Interviewed by famous Bolivian political commentator - Carlos Valverde 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact HERCA team member Umberto Lombardo (PDRA based at Bern) was interviewed for 15 min by Carlos Valverde in Santa Cruz, Bolivia -- a famous political commentator who interviewed Umberto while he was in Bolivia doing fieldwork. The interview focused on Umberto's archaeological research in the region, encompassing, but not confined to, the HERCA project. The key take-home message that the commentator took from the interview was that current occupants of study area 1 (Beni basin of Bolivia) are not recent arrivals into an empty, unproductive landscape, but instead descended from populous pre-Columbian societies, dating back ca. 10,000 years, who transformed pristine wilderness into a domesticated landscape via complex earthwork engineering projects. The key point of the commentator was to draw attention to the deep cultural history, cultural identity, and land-use legacy of this region, challenging the prevailing, politically-charged, narrative that complex human pre-Columbian societies were confined to the Bolivian high Andes. Valverde is a famous political commentator who made his name by challenging politicians across the political divide. His Youtube broadcasts are widely listened to across Bolivia. This Youtube interview had 1,948 views.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gzOuSf7RDE
Description Invited oral presentation at Bolivian project partner -- Noel Kempff Mercado Natural History Museum, Santa Cruz 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact 40 Bolivian undergraduate and postgrad students listened to a talk by HERCA project member -- PDRA Umberto Lombardo -- describing his role and initial research findings within the HERCA project. The talk was hosted by project partner 'Noel Kempff Mercado' Natural History Museum and generated interest and discussion from students and museum staff alike.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Invited talk at collaborating institution -- Museum for English Rural Life (MERL) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact HERCA project PDRA -- Marco Raczka -- was invited to give a talk by collaborating institution 'Museum for English Rural Life'. Title of talk was 'Career and Research Paths in STEM', aimed at year 7 local school children. Sparked lots of interest and questions from the ca. 30 pupils from a local girls school in Reading.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022