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Remote sensing improves knowledge about Amazonian pre-history


A regional socio-economic organization was developed in parts of the Amazon centuries before the Europeans came to America. This is stated in a new publication by, among others, Per Stenborg, archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg.

The publication is the result of a collaboration between Per Stenborg, Denise Pahl Schaan from Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA) in Belém, Brazil and Camila G. Figueiredo from University of Toronto (U of T) in Canada.

Recent fieldwork undertaken by the Cultivated Wilderness Project has revealed that pre-Columbian societies in the Santarém Region in the lower Amazon undertook significant landscape modifications, including earthworks.

Image removed.– This shows that — unlike the common idea that Amazonia was populated by small groups living along the banks of the rivers throughout the prehistory — a regional economy emerged from c. A.D. 1300 and continued up to the time of European colonization in the seventeenth century. This development involved an expansion of human settlements into the inland (or upland) — previously not used for permanent occupation, says project director Per Stenborg.

These upland sites have been found to be associated with particular features in the landscape: cavities or depressions, known locally as “Poços de Água”. Most recently, analysis of LiDAR (remote sensing) data shows that a pattern of non-randomly distributed depressions extends far into the densely forested Tapajós National Forest (Flona-Tapajós).

– This allows us to suggest that the expansion of inland settlement extended considerably farther to the South than what we previously thought, says Per Stenborg.

It illustrates the great potential for using LiDAR data collected for other purposes — in this case for tracking illegal logging — to locate archaeological sites and features hidden by dense vegetation, as well as in protected areas such as National Forests and Parks.

– Beyond its great importance for archaeological research in similar regions, LiDAR technology may also support the protection of archaeological remains if their location and extent can be registered without extensive and expensive ground surveying.

– Amazonia is far from the only region where geographic extent and limited accessibility has restricted archaeological knowledge. New techniques of remote sensing will evidently be of great value in improving our knowledge about the history of such previously poorly investigated regions.

About the publication:

Per Stenborg, Denise P. Schaan & Camila G. Figueiredo 2018 Contours of the Past: LiDAR Data Expands the Limits of Late Pre-Columbian Human Settlement in the Santarém Region, Lower Amazon. Journal of Field Archaeology Vol. 43, Issue 1: pp. 44-57

Link to publication: