Satellite image of Laguna San Antonio, Bolivia. NASA image

The Llanos de Moxos

Forrest Christian Reviews - Articles 7 Comments

Writing about Çatalhöyük has led me to do some other reading, which led me to the Llanos de Moxos of the Beni in Bolivia. It’s amazing: a massive culture that stretched around the size of the Midwest of America but that not too many people talk about.

Science had an interesting article about William Denevan’s work in the Beni.

There’s also an interesting article on Kenneth Lee, who discovered the Llanos de Moxos while working as a Shell geologist/wildcatter. It’s an interesting tale of a lifelong obsession. My brother would love it: he’s a bit of the type and would probably give his eye teeth to go there and see these giant causeways and raised fields. Lee dedicated his life to these massive earthworks he saw from the air. He dedicated himself to documenting these works and speculating about how a great culture, almost as big as the region’s current population, could have existed in the Amazon basin, with its very poor soils and rough conditions. His speculations have been shown to work, in the present if not the past. Very interesting story about one man who decided to change the world around him by bringing the wisdom of the past into the present.

The same site has another article (different version) on Kenneth Lee’s legacy in the Beni. Unfortunately, word never really got out as to what the findings were that came out of the local region:

In 1975, Kenneth was able to convince the Chilean archeaologist Victor Bustos to come visit the Beni for a few weeks. Victor stayed for two years…. With time Victor did see more and more and by the time he left the Beni he had collected substantial quantities of potshards and pots among other things. The potshards were left with the University in Trinidad and a few years later a rector that didn’t know their value sent the workers to lay the shards down on the paths around campus like gravel. You can still find them there.

These potshards may have lasted over 2000 years in the soil, only to be used as gravel.

So it goes.

One of the most interesting findings that is not mentioned in these articles on Lee is the Dark Earth found in the Amazon. This soil not only is incredibly fertile (think potting soil) but it regenerates itself. People in the region “harvest” only so many centimeters of it a year for their fields. The next year, those centimeters will return. This mysterious South American culture (mysterious only because not that many people want to study it) may have terraformed a chunk of the Amazon the size of France. This during a time when European agriculture could barely get wheat to grow.

I’m unfortunately quite fascinated by the agricultural and animal husbandry techniques of the native American peoples. We think of America as needing to return to the wild times before the Whites came over, willfully ignoring that the native peoples, who may have numbered in the millions, had been managing the land for thousands of years. When the first whites traveled through the Ohio valley, they said that you could drive a wagon in-between the trees. One hundred years later (and after 90% of the native population had died of smallpox, chickpox, influenza, and other common European diseases that were unknown in the Americas) travellers could barely get past all the thick undergrowth. The native peoples in the Americas (the mound culture?) had been strategically burning to keep the undergrowth at bay. The “let’s return this plot to nature” seem to not understand that mankind has systematically managed most of the Americas for thousands of years. We can’t return to a “pre-man” state because we’d have to go back 20,000 years and get the ice age to return.

Of course, we may be working on the return of the ice age…..

Nature had a report on Clark Erickson’s discovery of the Llanos de Mojos fishing weirs. Apparently, this ancient people created ponds to farm fish. And we think we’re so smart.

Comments 7

  1. you’ve been hanging around intelligentsia too long. first I see you use the anti-christian “BCE.” now i see you lauding the indians as some sort of advanced culture. sure there were one or two fairly advanced cultures in the americas. none of them were in the ohio valley. and don’t you think old growth forests in temperate climates have fairly little undergrowth? and who’s native to where? certainly there is no such thing as a native american. unless you’re now going to tell me that people evolved from apes right here as well. since evolution is chock full of holes and will never be more than a fanciful theory, i suspect you won’t. so if we want to start cooking up new lame politically correct titles maybe we should call them native siberians. about the only thing i agree with in all your recent posts is the moronic nature of “returning the land to nature.” incidentally, and continuing my rant on the ethnicity of indians, here’s something i posted on a discussion board i belong to about ethnic purity (is that a word?).

    Subject: Race

    I take great pride in being a Dutch/Mexican-American.

    However, lets probe my ancestory just a little bit more. First the Dutch part. Grandpa came over on the boat at age 2. My dad reports that he used to tease Great Grandma about some German ancestory. Given the history of the Netherlands this is very likely not much of a stretch. Given that German lesser nobility frequently led the military and many of them came from Prussia, its also not much of a stretch that there may be some eastern European influence in there somewhere as well. Let’s say Polish. And maybe even some far eastern Mongolian influence. Going back to the Dutch base, there’s clearly some Roman influence and although we’re not Frieslander’s its fairly likely there’s some French as well.

    Let’s go to the Mexican side. Great great great great great. . . . grandpa supposedly was a muleateer (sp?) with the conquistadores (not sure). He was awarded the San Fernando valley for his faithful service (sure). He found his wife in the new world. So, my Spanish ancestor, who almost assuredly has Moorish blood and as such is highly likely to have some African influence married a native woman who’s ancestors came from Asia, possibly even China. That was almost 400 years ago. In the intervening years, people from virtually all racial groups have passed through California, hightening the probability of some other influence. Just for conversation’s sake, lets pick. . . . . Greek. The Greek somewhere back there has some Medo-Persian almost for sure. SOOOOOOooooooooooo. . . .. . .

    In reality, I’m not a Dutch/Mexican-American.

    I’m a Dutch/Mexican/German/Polish/Mongolian/Italian/French/Spanish/Arab/African/Chinese/Greek/Medo/Persian-American.

    I guess my point is that we’re all humans and while it is absolutely wonderful to celebrate our uniqueness, its also absolutely wonderful to celebrate our “sameness.”

    (This is a bit of a hot-topic button for me as I live in LA which I have found to be the most racially divided state I’ve ever lived in. I am constantly amazed to find people who actually think their ancestory is pure “X.”)

    Thanks, – J

  2. Post

    Actually, the culture of the Ohio was fairly advanced for a people without a written language. And we’re not sure how large they were nor exactly how far they extended. The “highway” runs from New York down to the Scioto Valley in Ohio. Some think it stretched all the way into Southern Illinois or even included the Mississippi culture. Which is pretty impressive for folks without pack animals.

    The first “explorers” (trappers and such) reported back cities that 100 years later simply no longer existed. Wood structures that had been villages and towns simply rotted away after the people died of smallpox or whatever. The same problem exists for cultures in the Pacific northwest. They used wood for buildings and had no written language. The wet environment destroyed much before too many English, French or Spanish sources could detail them. The estimates vary wildly on the original numbers but estimates of 60-90% of the total population of aboriginal peoples of North America dying of European epidemics is common. Whether there were millions up here north of the Rio Grande or just hundreds of thousands, we’ll never know. But there are reasonable scholars who believe that the population of the Americas exceeded that of Europe at the time (which, of course, has less land mass).

    Certainly there was extensive trade throughout what is now the US and Canada, which represents a decent level of sophistication. Even corn and beans made it from central America into North America. And the remnants of the Mound Culture include artifacts from all over the area east of the Rockies.

    My point is that they spent a lot of time developing techniques that worked within their specific region. Not using their technologies where they worked better in this land doesn’t make much sense: even my ancestors used native American planting techniques when they got over here back in the early 1600s. However, glorifying these peoples as some form of noble savage is just as dumb. Like humans everywhere, they changed the environment they lived in to make it better for them. I have the nagging suspicion that the reason that whites saw these massive, state-sized herds of buffalo on the American plains had a lot to do with the fact that the things had been a wild but managed food source and their keepers had perished, leaving the buffalo to exceed their grazing space.

    The comment about the trees in the Ohio valley is simply that the first whites to visit the area said that you could drive a wagon through these forests. 100 years later that was not true. In what should have been older (by 100 years) growth forests, there was an marked increase in undergrowth. We know that a variety of burning techniques were common in the aboriginal cultures later and it would make sense that they used them to manage their hunting lands. It makes it easier to hunt when the undergrowth is thinned and burning itself can be used to drive game into hunting areas. It is certainly the easiest explanation of the difference between the same area, unless massive natural fires had just ravaged the areas always right before the first Europeans got there, which seems unlikely. Managed burning of such a large area takes some advancement but it does not require rocket science. And managed burning has many benefits for your society, not least of which is reducing the incidence of massive fires that can destroy your world.

    Native American is simply a way to refer to a collection of peoples (at least, much more so than Europeans) who lived in the Americas at the time of the massive European colonization. I could call them “Indians” but I find that confusing as I work with many people from India. I could also call them “American aboriginal peoples”, which would be more accurate. It has about the same poetics as “Native Americans” so it would do as well.

    As for BCE (“before the common era”), it simply customary for talking about people who could not have been Christian. Unless the Mormons are right. BC is pretty guessy anyway. And, interestingly, the the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia calls this era the Christian or common era. Plus, I don’t truck with anything being before Christ: he was, is, and will be. Sorry if it pissed you off.

  3. Post

    I guess old earth. I guess I buy the idea that the earth is about four billion years old. I’m not sure that I’m entirely comfortable with stratum dating for fossils, but that has more to do with a lack of reading than anything else.

    The production of methane without biological matter seems easy enough.

    Wouldn’t oil still not necessarily be renewable? It seems to me that you simply went from the large, albeit time limited supply we have today with a much larger pool that is much more difficult to reach. Going into the mantle means having some incredible engineering of the materials. I’d figure them having to be some form of biological material, constantly replacing the outer shell exposed to the heat and chemicals. But that’s probably too much Star Trek…

    I’m willing to buy that microbes exist below the earth, too. (Think more “strep” than “Mole Man”.)

    I’ve always wondered if anyone had ever created oil in the lab from biological matter.

  4. Post

    I can say that I never bought the “life came from Mars” hypothesis. Microbes blowing off the earth during meteor hits and surviving to Mars is probably more likely.

    And with Cricke’s death, we’re all reminded about how ridiculous his “spaceman” theories for the origin of terestrial life were.

  5. Who wrote that sci fi short about the “real” earthlings being little weeble wobble men and man was an extraterrestrial . . .. . it made for a good short story anyway. . . . ..

  6. I live my childhood in the Moxos area, and for me, is clear that a big civilization did exist in ancient times. What I do not agree is with the map showed. Actually, I have seen the same big mounds, channels and connecting ways in west Beni, hundred of miles west from the places plotted on the map of Mr. Mann. In these places, you can find a lot of broken pottery and you can still appreciate some characters and drawings on them. I also witnessed an accidental discovery of a tomb with a giant skeleton barely destroyed. I calculated the size of the man by his femoral bone compared to mine, and yielded two metres or more, an unusual height even in modern times. The skeleton was inside of a fine-clay made coffin. Unfortunately, the men digging the pitch destroyed almost everything, but I am sure that there is more of them in Moxos. Maybe we have in front of us the archaeological discovery of the century, and we don’t even know. People who transformed the entire landscape of a region bigger than France to suit their needs, without using the wheel, tracking animals or metal tools. Can you can imagine the effort involved in the task? The amount of people needed to move thousands (millions) of cubic metres of earth? The degree of social organization needed? I read that many investigators claim it to be impossible, because this, because that, blah, blah, blah, but I see the proofs every time I visit Moxos.

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