With a landmass larger than the continental U.S. west of the Mississippi and the richest diversity of plant and animal species on earth, the Amazon has always struck its explorers and would-be exploiters as infinite and largely impenetrable. For decades, anthropologists assumed that permanent human habitation was impossible–but they were wrong. Recently, proof of centuries-old Amazonian civilizations has been unearthed, shifting perceptions of the inhospitability of the rain forest–and providing a precedent for human occupation. Today, as developers and environmentalists clash over the region’s future, the seemingly endless forest is fast disappearing in fires, rampant mineral extraction, rogue logging operations, and encroaching urban sprawl.
Through a series of startling human encounters–interviews with government ministers and environmental crusaders, millionaire ranchers and disenfranchised slum dwellers–Mark London and Brian Kelly, longtime explorers and trailblazing chroniclers of the Amazon basin, trace the region’s transformation. Logging thousands of miles, London and Kelly take readers from the mushrooming shopping malls of Manaus to the pristine rain forest that still seems beyond the reach of civilization, from the ghostly ruins of abandoned factories and failed plantations to the thriving agribusinesses that one day may feed the entire world and change this landscape forever. Again and again, they collide with the same fundamental question: Is it too late to strike a balance in the Amazon between economic sustenance for the twenty-one million Brazilians who live there and protection for the world’s last great forest?
London and Brian Kelly have fashioned a complex, vibrant portrait of a region on the edge of crisis. At once a seductive journey and a searing account of political, environmental, and social tumult, The Last Forest is a masterpiece of contemporary reporting.
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Mark London is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C. Brian Kelly is the executive editor of U.S. News & World Report. Together they have written two books: Amazon and The Four Little Dragons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
AN UNEXPECTED BEGINNING
From the time he was a small boy, Nelsi Sadeck heard about the cave paintings out beyond the sandstone ridges that fingered their way down toward the north bank of the Amazon River. He and his friends already were well acquainted with the paintings high on the cliffs closer to town, really nothing more than lines of dull colors against gray rock. Because they knew only their small river town of Monte Alegre and its environs, they never knew just how special these paintings were in the region. Along the main Amazon for two thousand miles upstream, there was nothing taller than a tree, except for these rocks. And other than the chocolate brown water of the swift- moving river and the sentries of green trees guarding the riverbank, there was no color. Anyone from anywhere else in the region would have known Sadeck had seen something special up in those rocks, but for him, these were nothing more than local artwork.
Then, in the early 1970s, Sadeck started to hear stories about other paintings, ones scattered randomly in caves hidden in the small hills farther inland. He had heard by then from enough visitors that there was nothing else like them in the vast green sea of Amazon forest. So, he went exploring. The paintings he found were simple red and yellow renderings of animals and people, childish and exuberant— primitive depictions of spiders, frogs, owls, and giant snakes. He saw stick figures of men and women and a rail-thin cow with horns. Bright suns and handprints mixed with geometric spirals and concentric squares. One painting looked to be a calendar, a six-by- eight-foot rectangle lined by precise squares, some with X’s through them. No record exists of the society that created these paintings, so it’s just as easy to speculate that they depict a game of chess or tic-tac-toe or a calendar. There are seven such cave sites, Sadeck came to learn, with hundreds of paintings. Still, thirty-five years after he first saw the caves, Sadeck believes others may exist.
Sadeck didn’t discover these caves. More than a century before Nelsi Sadeck went exploring, Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist of Darwin- like importance, came to the Amazon to survey the flora. He was a botanist, not an anthropologist. And though Wallace’s scientific discoveries provided much of the foundation for ecological scholarship of the Amazon, he was more concerned with nature and missed the main event—the historic record of humans in the area. Not for another 140 years would the significance of these painting be appreciated.
In 1988, a scholar named Anna Roosevelt came to Monte Alegre and asked to see the caves. By this time, Sadeck, a high school ecology teacher, had become the caves’ caretaker and guide, the man to see in Monte Alegre if you were the odd off-the-beaten-path tourist or enterprising academic. Monte Alegre lies about sixty miles downriver from the regional hub of Santarém, which is the largest city between Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River where it meets the Atlantic, and Manaus, about four hundred miles upstream. Santarém sits on the south bank of the Amazon at the river’s intersection with the crystal blue Tapajos River, whose waters run side by side with the muddy Amazon for about ten miles before the brown swallows the blue. The journey from Santarém to Monte Alegre is by car to the river’s edge, then by barge, and then by a waiting flatbed truck that Sadeck hires for the visit.
Sadeck accompanied Dr. Roosevelt the first time she saw the caves, and he has guided many of her subsequent trips. His enthusiasm hasn’t diminished over time. “This is a magical place, and Anna has explained that to the rest of the world,” he told us. “This gives history to the Amazon.”
These caves actually provide a lot more than history. Roosevelt’s findings have revolutionized our understanding of the Amazon’s place in history, in Brazil, and in the rest of the world. Her theories that humans once thrived in the Amazon (hinted at by anthropologists who had preceded her but without the startling evidence of these caves) have radically altered political and scientific perceptions of this rain forest—perceptions not only of its past but of its future.
In forging this academic breakthrough, Anna Roosevelt is a worthy heiress of her great-grandfather President Theodore Roosevelt, whose courageous exploration of the heart of the forbidding Amazon rain forest is well documented by Candice Millard in The River of Doubt. TR traveled the length of a river that now bears his name (the Rio Roosevelt), braving the stew of tropical horrors: diseases, insects, isolation, and hostile indigenous tribes. In the end, the jungle won out, as TR, the epitome of the robust American, died several years after the Amazon had destroyed his health.
Anna Roosevelt, a former curator of the Field Museum in Chicago and now an anthropology professor in the University of Illinois system, made her first discoveries about the Amazon in the early 1980s in Cambridge, Massachusetts—at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Following a lead she had come upon in a 1960 article about Amazon archaeology, she traveled to Harvard to examine the long-neglected collection of pottery and shells donated by Charles Frederick Hartt, a promising geologist who made several trips to the Amazon in the 1860s. As Hartt didn’t have sophisticated dating equipment available to him, he, like Wallace, could not appreciate the significance of what he had come upon.
Roosevelt, using radiocarbon technology, concluded that Hartt’s samples were over six thousand years old—“at the time the earliest date for pottery in the New World.” That the oldest trace of ceramic society on the continent was found in the Amazon, she wrote, set “the stage for the revision of Amazon culture history, a process that was to reverberate in New World culture history as a whole.”
The age of the pottery showed a ceramic society in the Amazon at least three thousand years before the Amazon was thought to have been settled and, more important, it was older than any Andean pottery that had been found. That meant the Amazon wasn’t settled by “ceramic- age agricultural people from the Andes,” the prevailing theory throughout the twentieth century. Amazonians came first, or at least they developed independently of Andean society.
Roosevelt wasn’t done in the Peabody. She also surmised that a “pile of yellow pages” must have been “Hartt’s long-lost book,” a manuscript of his findings that one of his students had sent to Harvard after Hartt’s death in Rio from yellow fever in 1878. Hartt described finding spear points at a site near Monte Alegre. Roosevelt was intrigued because she didn’t recall such relics at any ceramic- age sites she had explored or read about. She sensed the presence of an even older society.
Both Wallace and Hartt had written about the cave paintings, and Roosevelt appreciated the uniqueness of such a place in Amazonia. Charles C. Mann describes the site in his book 1491: “Wide and shallow and well lighted, Painted Rock Cave is less thronged with bats than some of the other caves. The arched entrance is twenty feet high and electric with gaudy petroglyphs. Out front is a sunny natural patio, suitable for picnicking, that is edged by a few big rocks. During my visit I ate a sandwich atop a particularly inviting stone and looked through a stand of peach palms to the water seven miles away and the forest between. The people who created the petroglyphs, I thought, must have done about the same thing.” Roosevelt focused on the thick black dirt on the pathway just outside the entrance to Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Painted Rock Cave), a stunning site, albeit infested by wasps on the day of our visit. She hypothesized that by excavating the soil around the petroglyphs she would learn more about the people who had drawn them. In 1991 and 1992, her team unearthed “30,000 stone artifacts, pigment, and many thousands of burn nuts, seeds, shells and bones.” The dating process showed proof of human habitation at this site from between 11,200 and 10,000 years ago.
Until Roosevelt published her findings in a series of articles for Science magazine, scientists had adopted the theory that South American civilization had drifted down from the north. The skeletons found in Clovis, New Mexico (hence, Clovis Man), were thought to be the forefathers of the original tribes of South America. It was thought that when they ran out of food, they headed south and eventually east from the Andes to Amazonia. But Roosevelt’s findings proved that there was a contemporary culture in the Amazon before Clovis Man traveled southward. This discovery of a contemporary parallel universe in the south, as well as the discovery that the continent’s oldest pottery samples are in the Amazon, roiled the world of science in the 1990s. The debate hasn’t subsided.
The controversy boils mostly because if Roosevelt’s theories are right, the long-held theories of how the Amazon was settled must be wrong. The person most identified with the opposing viewpoint is Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution, a woman of legendary status in Amazon scholarship. (When we first wrote about the Amazon, we were told that our work would have no credibility without input from Meggers; we placed a visit to her musty artifact-cluttered office at the Smithsonian at the top of our list.)
In 1948, she and her archaeologist husband, Clifford J. Evans, began fieldwork on Marajó Island, an island the size of Switzerland that clogs up the mouth of the Amazon near Belém like a fist in a trickle of water. Meggers and Evans concluded that the scarcity of evidence of a settled culture on Marajó meant the early Amazonians were a nomadic culture. The Amazonian environment, they argued persuasi...
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