Archaeology and Sustainability in the Amazonian Basin

As global population grows at a startling rate, global emissions of greenhouse gasses and demand for more reliable sources of food grow in parallel. These issues are slowly becoming ones that urgently need to be addressed. Gradually, more and more individuals are trying innovate new ways curb anthropogenic greenhouse emissions and cope with the growing global demand of food. Engineers are developing cleaner sources of energy and international politicians are trying to implement legislation that limits emissions. More recently however, archaeologists concerned with preservation and sustainability are rediscovering land management techniques used by ancient civilizations that could be replicated in a modern fashion with enormous payoff.

During her work in deep within the Amazonian rainforest, Crystal McMichael, an archaeologist/paleoecologist at the Florida Institute of Technology, mapped a large collection of soil deposits classified as terra preta or “black earth”. These deposits of darker soil are drastically different than the soil surrounding it. Typically, Amazonian soil is of rather poor quality because the biodiversity of the rainforest promptly extracts any extra nutrients. It would be almost impossible to maintain a civilization on this type of soil. However, the terra preta found in many sites had a considerably larger nutrient count and was much more suitable for agriculture. McMichael’s team located several terra preta deposit sites in Amazonia and found that a majority of sites of enriched soil were located in eastern Amazonia on top of bluffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Typically, these bluffs were eroded of the porous Amazonian soil and were practically bare and infertile. However, after the terra preta was introduced, there’s evidence that these bluffs could have sustained huge swaths of agriculture. From a purely archaeological standpoint, this data is useful because it can be a basis in which future archaeologists plan to dig. Because the terra preta soil is a direct cause of human interaction, wherever there are deposits of terra preta, there are likely past developments of human society. Using statistical analysis, this data can be used to predict where other terra preta deposits are, and therefore where other people used to live.

Big picture. A new model of the Amazon predicts that terra preta is more likely to be found along rivers in the eastern part of the rainforest. The letters indicate known archaeological sites.

(Region of McMichael’s study)

While valuable from an archaeological perspective, the discovery of terra preta also could be a major breakthrough in more sustainable agriculture. According to Johnannes Lehmann and his team at Cornell University,

“The knowledge that we can gain from studying the Amazonian dark earths…not only teaches us how to restore degraded soils, triple crop yields and support a wide array of crops in regions with agriculturally poor soils, but can also lead to technologies to sequester carbon in soil and prevent critical changes in world climate”.  (Johannes Lehmann)

Via experimental methods, Johannes deduced that the terra preta was made by slowly burning biomass in a low oxygen environment (also known as biochar). This method of slow charring transforms the biomass into an incredibly useful substrate. The terra preta has an abundance of calcium and phosphate (nutrients that most of the Amazonian soil lacks) and the process of biocharring the organic matter actually sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

(Biochar use in agriculture)

Archaeology has come a long way from the era of collectors and curiosities. Today, archaeological findings are being used to possibly help ameliorate some of the world community’s most pressing issues.


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“Searching for the Amazon’s Hidden Civilizations.” Science/AAAS. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Johannes, Lehmann. Biochar for Mitigating Climate Change: Carbon Sequestration in the Black (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Terra Preta Soils and Their Archaeological Context in the Caqueta Basin of Southeast Colombia
Michael J. Eden, Warwick Bray, Leonor Herrera and Colin McEwan
American Antiquity, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 125-140


Punk Archaeology and American Consumerism

Popular culture and media depicts archaeology in a way that likens the study to glamorous finds of mysterious cultures in exotic parts of the world. However, Andrew Reinhard and his team of “punk archaeologists” are not looking for mummies or treasure, but rather a deposit of old video games in an Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill. The team was not focused so much on the content of their excavation, but rather what the discarded game had to say about current modes of thought in American culture. Specifically, Reinhard’s archaeologists were looking to analyze “corporate history, the product’s end-of-life cycle and how objects move from desire to discard” (Reinhard, Why We Dug Atari) in a contemporary American society that is dominated by capitalist and consumerist desires.

A key idea of capitalism is consumerism. In order for economic growth, citizens within the United States must continually buy newer and more appealing goods at an ever increasing rate. Reinhard’s dig unearthed, quite literally, a striking example of consumerism. Deep within a landfill, mulched with dollops of dried concrete and other trash, there was a deposit of Atari games, many of which had not even been opened. The consumerist mentality of many drove Atari to discard these supposedly old and outdated products. Even today, when Atari is nothing but a distant memory in the lives of many, the same ideology holds. Technological giants design and release supposedly newer, more powerful and overall better products faster than many can buy them. On one hand, this may instill a desire in the consumer to continuously spend and therefore stimulate our economy; few would argue this to be a bad thing! However, when one steps back and truly analyzes what is going on, they may be disturbed to find that the blistering pace of capitalism and consumerist demand is severely devaluing our personal, material objects.

The Alamogordo dig challenged this way of thinking by resurrecting and revitalizing the value of the forgotten goods. The frantic pace of American consumerist society stripped the games of their value even before most of them hit the shelves. However, the punk archaeologists redefined the value of the overlooked games simply by uncovering them and showing them to the world. The work of the archaeologists can be seen as a reality check. Perhaps, by showing society how quickly objects cycle from ripe to ruin, the archaeologists can slow the blistering pace of waste and consumerism.

Rediscovering the Era of Russian Colonization in America

Usually, the history of the colonization of the North America is dominated by authorities such as Spain, England and France. However, excavations in the past few decades in Alaska have brought light to the previously unknown period of Russian colonialism in America. This epoch consisted of a mixing of two thoroughly different cultures that is still apparent in the southwestern Alaskan landscape today. By studying archaeological findings that were confirmed to be from this Russian Colonial period, we can form a more in depth understanding of our own nation’s history as a whole.

Russian America began in the mid-18th century when groups of fur traders from Siberia traversed the Bering Strait and established camps in the Aleutian islands of southwestern Alaska. Sponsored by wealthy moguls, these trappers were well equipped and had practically an unlimited bounty of resources. Quickly, they began establishing their own infrastructure that consisted of houses, huts, docks and an array of forts that were scattered along the Alaskan coastline. In order to monopolize the seal population of the Alaskan coast, the Russian trappers moved in with brute force, often murdering entire villages and totally undermining the Aleutian way of life. In addition, the Russians exploited Aleutian natives and forced the indigenous people to work for them, often kidnapping the children of village leaders to ensure that hunters met their quota. As the Russians slowly moved eastward into the Alaskan mainland, native resistance steadily grew. Finally, in 1784, Grigorii Shelikhov led a group of infantry man to build an outpost on Refuge Rock, Kodiak Island. The trappers were met with a stiff Aleutian resistance, but Russian weaponry was simply too much for the native confrontation. The battle at Refuge Rock marked the beginning of a short stint of Russian occupancy in Alaska.

Battle of Sitka

Battle of Sitka


Refuge Rock, Alaska (Kodiak Islands)

Today, there are few superficial indications of past Russian settlement. However, there is a treasure trove of artifacts and relics that lie just below the cold Alaskan soil. Brian Hoffman, an archaeologist at Hamline University, excavated a dwelling on Unimak Island and uncovered evidence of a massacre initiated by Russian trappers that included skeletal remains and broken weapons. Aron Crowell, the Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Arctic Studies center, and a team of archaeologists have found a bounty of Russian artifacts including coins, samovars, religious items and pottery (American Archaeology, pp. 18). Because the trappers brought over an abundance of Russian supplies, archaeologists also found artifacts that were Russian in origin but were modified and reused by the native population. In addition to finding Russian artifacts that were used by natives, archaeologists found a trend of Russian architecture that had been adopted by the Aleutian people.

Archaeologists working to uncover Russian-America era artifacts

Relics buried under hundreds of years of soil are a perfect way to study the composition and evolution of a society. Stratigraphic evidence shows a distinct development of the Aleutian society that is clearly changed by Russian involvement. By understanding how different cultures affect one another’s growth, it is easier to study and make judgments about a nation’s social identity as a whole.

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American Archaeology Vol. 13 No. 2