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20 million people may have once inhabited the Amazon rainforest

Archaeologists have found evidence that the Amazon rainforest was home to an advanced civilization with as many as 20 million individuals living amoungst the jungle.

To the untrained eye, all evidence here in the heart of the Amazon signals virgin forest, untouched by man for time immemorial – from the ubiquitous fruit palms to the cry of howler monkeys, from the air thick with mosquitoes to the unruly tangle of jungle vines.

Archaeologists, many of them Americans, say the opposite is true: This patch of forest, and many others across the Amazon, was instead home to an advanced, even spectacular civilization that managed the forest and enriched infertile soils to feed thousands.

The findings are discrediting a once-bedrock theory of archaeology that long held that the Amazon, unlike much of the Americas, was a historical black hole, its environment too hostile and its earth too poor to have ever sustained big, sedentary societies. Only small and primitive hunter-gatherer tribes, the assumption went, could ever have eked out a living in an unforgiving environment.

But scientists now believe that instead of stone-age tribes, like the groups that occasionally emerge from the forest today, the Indians who inhabited the Amazon centuries ago numbered as many as 20 million, far more people than live here today.

[Full story]

17 thoughts on “20 million people may have once inhabited the Amazon rainforest

  1. Love it, but don’t understand the need to specify that most of the archaeologists were American. I don’t think the nationality of them makes the discovery any different…..

  2. I loved it too although I share Arianne’s sentiments about “most of the archaeologists were American”. I spent a few days in Manaus and took two boat trips on the Amazon and visited a local tribe. It is indeed difficult to imagine how a civilization could be supported in that area, but Amazonia is vast and it is not the same everywhere. Follow the tags in order to read the full article in the Washington Post. This newspaper is printed for an American readership so they are going to push American involvement, however in the full article, other non-American archaeologists are mentioned. I lived and worked in Brazil for nine years. I am retired and live in London now. Email if you wish:

  3. The article lends one to believe they are saying that twenty million people lived in the Amazon at the same time. I believe they mean to imply that over thousands of years there were twenty million people living in that forest. It wouled be interesting to know about how many native people lived there just before columbus discovered the new world.

  4. @jim: I think they mean 20 million at once, but that is a maximum and probably a “number from nowhere”, similar to claims about North America and Easter Island.

    However, the science that tends to discredit the classical anthropology idea of no civilization and low populations is focused upon the species cultivated. In the Amazon, it wasn’t typical crops; the soil is too poor for that. Instead it was trees! There is a good correlation between trees useful to humans and proximity to prehistoric settlements. The cultures we see today may be the remnants of those that fell when Europeans arrived with their infectious diseases and conquest ambitions. It may be that the survivors were those who fled, leaving their civilization behind, as well.

  5. Bloody unlikely. The requirements for a population of 20 million is staggering. We can’t eat trees.The social stresses alone will tear apart any group without sufficient resources long before it reaches that level. Without artificial supports (technology) you will never achieve that size. Assuming you did, the remains of that civilization would be copious and obvious. The model needs to be worked backwards; what is required to support this civilization? Given the location, when people began to arrive in the area, losses to disease, accidents, war and childbirth, the group could never have achieved these numbers prior to when they “mysteriously” disappeared. Were the women giving birth to only quadruplets? It is actually unlikely that a population of even 2 million existed at one time there. If these people simply “believe” this then they are certainly not scientists. There is no proof, even dubious to support such a claim. By analyzing the resources available, the level of technology and other factors such as transportation and disease you can begin to form a reasonable picture of POSSIBLE population. 20-30 million is the likely figure for all of South and Central America prior to the discovery by Europeans.

  6. However, if 20 million people HAD lived in the Amazon Forest their cities, roads, farms, eventual technology, etc would have decimated that oxygen generating piece of the planet to the extent that it would probably have shrunk to several smallish forests within the urbanized and farmland area needed by 20M people.

  7. The reason that it was said many Americans believe this to be true merely qualifies it as being a load of bollocks.

  8. Most of these comments are stupid. If you think the natives of the Americas were so primitive then you have a lot of research to do. People who have lived in those forests for thousands of years would obviously know how to sustain millions.
    Why are the indigenous people of these lands so stereotyped?! Why doesn’t anyone ever figure out real history?!
    Also, columbus was a genocidal madman and the Americas had much more population than europe before him. They also had more population than China at the time. Mexico alone had 30 million people compared to Chinas 28 million. When columbus and all the other europeans came there was a serious decline in population of the americas because they killed so many with biological warfare such as diseases. China got its population boost when corn from the americas reached it during the columbian exchange.
    So the Amazon would no doubt be able to have 20 million people, maybe even more because the forest would protect against some europeans for sure. And some people also think that the amazon is mostly, made up of tree crops, but even if that wasnt true the amazonian natives would still have thousands of years to adapt and would no doubt sustain a huge population.
    Not any more though because of the europeans.

  9. And also an addition to my previous comment, the amazon actually has more resources for survival than your wildest dreams. Lots of things to eat and build with, lots of animals to hunt. They contain plants that can cure hundreds of diseases. Of corse, it has many dangers but if you are from an indigenous nation there you will know what to do.

  10. There could have been millions living in the Amazon. The area covers 5.5 million km and has about four types of canopies (layers), and virtually all types of citrus fruits, nuts, coca, and other edible plants grow there. I am from Ecuador and just in the small Amazonian forest of the country, there are over 12,000 species of orchids. By the way Ecuadorians consider themselves American (from the south).

  11. Father Carvajal’s diary of the Orellana expedition in 1542 has achieved prominence recently. For over four centuries, scholars dismissed its reports of large cities, well developed roads, monumental construction, fortified towns, and dense populations. It was thought that the acidic soils of Amazonia could not support the level of agriculture necessary to sustain such a civilization. His writings were largely dismissed as fabrications and propaganda.

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