Mirage de el Dorado – Complex Civilizations?

On 13 August 2005 two scholars, Eduardo Neves, a Brazilian, and James Peterson, Anthropology Department chairman at the University of Vermont, visited a roadside restaurant in the Amazon jungle.

Two gunmen walked in and demanded their money. As a departing afterthought, one shot the American in the abdomen. Peterson died before Neves could get him to a hospital. It was a terrible irony, because Peterson was the man about to bring the true El Dorado to the attention of the world. What he and his colleagues had identified bore no resemblance to the shiny monetary metal, but it may very well offer greater benefit humanity than mere gold.

During Francisco Orellana’s voyage down the Amazon River in 1542 seeking the legendary city of El Dorado, chronicler Gaspar de Carvajal, a Dominican friar, described densely populated settlements along the river’s banks, especially after the explorers had arrived at the confluence with the Río Negro, near present-day Manaos. The treasure awaiting the twenty-first century discovery was staring them in the face, but it was black, not golden.

When Orellana returned a few years later, he found no sign of the settlements described in his earlier adventures. Attacked by indigenous warriors, Orellana was killed. Later adventurers and modern scientists exploring the river found no sign of the populations described by Carvajal and Orellana and dismissed the original accounts as exaggeration or fantasy.

Scientists have argued that as lush as the rain forest growth is, it occupies extremely poor soils. Tropical flooding and rains leach the nutrients that might accrue in the soils. Such conditions could not support dense sedentary agricultural populations, only small groups of primitive stone-age hunter-gatherers.

However, there is good reason to believe that the area where Orellana met his end is the large (15,500 square miles) Amazon estuary island of Marajó. Modern anthropological research has concluded that the Marajó Island supported a substantial sedentary culture, perhaps as great as 100,000 inhabitants that probably succumbed to disease brought by Orellana’s first expedition. The hostility exhibited on his second visit may have resulted from that experience.

In the early 1990s American anthropologist Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida lived in a village of about 300 people who called themselves Kuikuro. Southeast of Manaos about 600 miles, they inhabited a region on the banks of Lake Kuhikugu in the Brazilian Mato Grosso, near the headwaters of the Xingu River, an Amazon tributary. Exploring the surrounding region, Heckenberger discovered that the Kuikuro inhabited a corner of an area of 7,700 square miles that as late as 400 years earlier might have supported a population of 50,000. He discovered remnants of bridges, roads and canals connecting large and small nodular settlements dispersed in a very orderly geometric design. He located vestiges of cultivated fields of grasses for thatching, maize and manioc, (still a staple of forest people in South America) and untended orchards of fruit trees. They uncovered evidence that suggested that earlier inhabitants may have created enclosures for fish farming. The Kuikuro themselves still retained cultural practices, social hierarchies and religious customs attributable to far more complex societies.  This led Heckenberg to surmise that the Kuikuro were survivors of more advanced societies, earlier occupants of the region. 

Similar research conducted in the early 1990s by Carl Erickson, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, in the savannas of the Bolivian Amazonia (north-east corner of Bolivia) noted parallel strategies by Amerindian island settlements, (the savannas experienced seasonal flooding and dry spells), connected by straight causeways making use of canals, raised earthen fields for cultivation of maize and manioc and weirs for fish husbandry. Such complex social organizations in such diverse regions imply a widespread cultural exchange and probable lively trade across the breadth of the Amazonian region. Its reach may have extended to the north of the Amazon as far as the headwaters of the Río Negro, the Orinoco and the Venezuelan Tepuis. The Raleigh expedition’s description of Manoa, suggests similarities to the Mato Grosso and Bolivian Amazonia civilizations. Such connections may someday prove to have extended to Percy Fawcett’s Lost City of Z.

Heckenberger and Erickson concurred that the depopulation of these complex societies occurred rapidly in the 16th century likely due to European diseases (smallpox, cholera, etc) for which the Amerindians had no immunity. Enslavement by European invaders, warlike resistance to their incursions and finally, flight to more remote regions of Amazonia also must have contributed to their disappearance.

Heckenberger and James Peterson (his former professor and mentor) exchanged visits. Peterson had been working on an archeological project on the peninsula formed by the union of the Negro and Amazon Rivers (Study Site indicated on the large map) where he had discovered vestiges of denser, much more complex settlements than earlier scholars had imagined. Their researches in their separate sites were about to raise gargantuan challenges to conventional scholarship, provoking a great deal of chest-beating and hair-tearing among their more conservative colleagues.

Heckenberger later traveled to Açutuba, the site of Peterson’s researches. On a solo exploration of the near-by banks of the Río Negro he encountered a farmer turning up ceramic shards embedded in charcoal black soil. This soil extended for two miles along the shore. The discovery implied an extensive settlement on the site. The shards bore common links with pottery found in Heckenberger’s Kuhikugu site.

Peterson’s investigations had unearthed more than 100 sites of deep black soils across the peninsula leading him to argue that the Amazon before the Europeans arrived supported complex communities with social hierarchies, “roads, agriculture, soil management, ceramics and extended trade.” These societies left few archaeological remains, because their principal construction material was not stone, but wood that would rapidly disintegrate in the humid tropical climate.

But the inhabitants left one legacy, terra preta do indio, meaning “Indian black earth” in Portuguese. Involved scholars believe that the terra preta based cultures date from about the fifth century AD and lasted until their collapse following the arrival of Europeans.

Terra preta has been defined as having a high to very high carbon content (more than 13–14% organic matter). Gardens close to dwellings received more nutrients than outlying fields. The variations make it unclear if they were intentionally created for soil improvement or whether the variants are a by-product of habitation. The varied nature of the dark earths suggests ancient native civilization dating back 500 to perhaps even 2500 years.

Terra preta’s capacity to sequester more carbon, thus to expand its own volume—remains the central mystery of terra preta. The black earth evolved from a mixture of cooking middens, (plant, animal and fish remains), human and animal excrement and large quantities of charcoal, often referred to as “bio-char” that is especially rich in nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium. Notably limited in tropical soils, the charcoal residues from incomplete combustion absorb and retain nutrients that otherwise would be lost through leaching. Of human origin, these soils are referred to by scientists as anthropogenic (man-made.)

These soils reach as deep as over six feet and have been found in extensions averaging up to 50 acres and in rare cases as great as 900 acres. In interfluvial (riverine) environments their extent averages much less, about 3.5 acres.

Broadly stated, the black earths in all their variations support the arguments, (in fact have given rise to the arguments), for a wide-spread human occupancy of the Amazon Basin in complex societies carrying out extensive trade. Later in vastly depleted numbers they reverted to hunter-gatherers as a means of survival. In fact Heckenberger argues that the so-called pristine forest primeval has yielded to and been molded by the hands of men for centuries, if not millennia, well before the advent of modern Europeans. The indigenous inhabitants still retain vestigial social sub-structures that derive from their earlier cultures. The evidence also affirms the reports of high density populations in the region made by Carvajal, Orellana and Walter Raleigh’s subordinate, Laurens Keymis. And it may vindicate the reports of João da Silva Guimarães, Robério Dias, and Hugh McCarthy and the faith of Percy Fawcett. And above all it stands as a legacy of James Peterson, whose life was ended so tragically and pointlessly at age fifty-one.

Perhaps in the twenty-first century, the 500 years of European adventures and exploitation, the sacrifices to avarice, the urge to explore, to see and experience things their contemporaries had never imagined, will come to fruition in the “black gold” of terra preta. Perhaps the modern adventurers of science will learn enough as they explore the chemical and the catalytic nature of the Amazonian black soils to initiate large scale sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere back into the earth and reproduce anthropogenic soils on a scale that will elevate the lives of the 800 million human beings classified by the UN who barely scratch out a living on lands that today cannot supply them with adequate nutrition.

Author’s Note:  The El Dorado series began as a two-part story, but research inevitably led to new avenues to explore, a likely metaphor for the El Dorado stories themselves. It led me to new insight and even a return visit to a personal adventure. There is something very basic underlying these separate, but entwined tales, legends and myths. The reports of those who went before were truth as they perceived it, through the litmus of their times and experience. And then the tales began to grow in the imaginations of those who followed, giving rise to great fantasy. El Dorado was born as a ritual to sanctify a Muisca priest-king and eventually led to the fantasy of a city of gold. Perhaps today the modern adventurers in the world of science will reveal a greater wealth, more redemptive than mere gold, for the benefit of mankind.

Gaspar Carvajal told of battles with women warriors . . . “These women are very white and tall, and have hair very long and braided and wound about the head, and they are very robust and go about naked with their privy parts covered, with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men…”  Among the facts in this tale Francisco Orellana and Carvajal’s chronicle so convinced the Spanish king that the “great river” was renamed “Río de las Amazonas.”

And how about Hugh McCarty’s blue-eyed Indian lover?

At the end of my researches a curiosity that had caught my attention years ago and returned to haunt me. There is some evidence, in linguistic vestiges of Brazilian indigenous languages and archaeological findings along the north coast of Brazil, especially the estuarine island of Marajó that argues for the presence of Phoenician merchant adventurers as early as 800 years before the birth of Christianity. Two of the legends, Hugh McCarthy’s missives and the 512 document in the Río de Janeiro Archive that describe lost cities with monumental stone masonry architecture that would not have come from the sedentary cultures of the savannas or from the rain forest dwellers simply for the lack of such building materials in their environment. Could adventurers from the Mediterranean and the Levant have arrived and brought with them those skills?

Who knows what further confirmation of presumed legends or fabrications may emerge as scholars set out on searches for their own personal El Dorado?

June 2022 Issue

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Robert Bruce Drynan
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