Public Release: 

Study seeks to understand Amazonia's past to ensure its sustainable future

University of Exeter


IMAGE: This is a NAURU Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) made by Xmobots -- state-of-the-art LIDAR technology will be used on a UAV. view more

Credit: Xmobots

A new international project led by the University of Exeter will investigate the Amazon's sustainable future by studying the way that ancient societies used and transformed the environment. The study is pioneering a remote sensing data device that will be attached to an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to scan beneath the canopy of the forest.

Professor José Iriarte, a European leader in Amazonian archaeology, from the University of Exeter will announce the project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS), annual meeting (12-16 February) in California, USA.

The €1.7 million European Research Council (ERC) project aims to study how the Amazonian land was used during the late pre-Columbian period (the last 3 thousand years leading up to Christopher Columbus's voyages of 1492). It will focus on the scale and nature of how complex human societies transformed the environment, from the minimal impact of hunters to the influences of more complex societies.

This research sets out to resolve one of the most debated topics in New World archaeology, ethno-history, paleoecology and conservation by looking at the nature and scale of pre-Columbian land use and its modern legacy on Amazonian landscapes. It is known that humans have lived in Amazonia for at least the last 13,000 years and until recently, it had been assumed that people lived in harmony and made little or no impact on the ancient forests. However, recent archaeological studies suggest the presence of sizable, regionally-organised, pre-Columbian societies began to transform the landscape during the Late Holocene (1 A.D - present) at a scale not previously recorded.

Professor Iriarte is leading an international team that is currently carrying on a comparative study of pre-Columbian land uses in four different regions of Amazonia which represent different types of land-use during the last 3000 years of the pre-Columbian period. Evidence of ancient societies in these areas includes sites in the Lower Amazon that feature the human-made Amazonian Dark Earths - where the land is more fertile than surrounding area due to the composting of food leftovers and human waste through the influence of the community staying in one area.

The research is being shaped through a holistic understanding of the origins of the Amazonian landscape by applying an approach that integrates experts from a wide range of disciplines for the first in this field, including archaeology, ethno-history, archaeo-botany, paleo-ecology, soil science, landscape ecology and remote sensing, including the Light Detection and Ranging remote sensory technology, LIDAR used for high-resolution maps. This methodological breakthrough is the first time that the state-of-the-art LIDAR technology will be used on a UAV to explore the forest's archaeological features below the canopy of trees in the middle of the Amazon. The premier flight is due to take place in Autumn 2015.

Professor Iriarte explained: "The data gathered through the project has the potential to estimate, for the first time, the spatial scale of past human disturbance across the entire Amazon basin. Our project will resolve the previously overlooked role of humans as important agents of environmental change; from being viewed as the 'noble savage' living in harmony with ancient forests creating little or no impact on the landscape to actively shaping Amazonia through agricultural practices. In order to make informed decisions about a sustainable future, it is critical that policy-makers have a sound understanding of the historical role of humans in shaping the Amazonian landscapes and to what extent forests were resilient to historical disturbances."

To ensure the results of the project are placed in a wider context of conservation and environmental policy, the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) are project partners based in Brazil.

Professor Iriarte added: "Understanding the origin and dynamics of the pre-Colombian period's agricultural practices has broader implications for the sustainable Amazonian futures. The implantation of sustainable forms of agriculture can provide a form of alternative food security to the more vulnerable and poorest rural populations of the Amazon and at the same time become a substitute for clearing tropical forests for slash and burn agriculture. We could learn valuable lessons from understanding what type of land management was used and what crops were planted and raised in the past."


The project is an international co-operation with Brazilian partners including the Federal University of Para, Belem, the National Institute of Space Research, São Jose, the National Institute of Amazonian Research, Manaus, and a European partner from the Gothenburg University, Sweden.

Images available

NAURU UAV - remotely piloted aircraft made by Xmobots - photo credit Xmobots

Tropical forest from Vila Americana, Santarem, Brazil - photo credit: Projeto Geoglifos - CNPq'

About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 19,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 12th in the Guardian University Guide 2014. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the last few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange on the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.

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