Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in the Purus-Madeira Interfluve, Central Amazonia
Native Amazonian populations managed forest resources in numerous ways, often creating oligarchic forests dominated by useful trees. The scale and spatial distribution of forest modification beyond pre-Columbian settlements is still unknown, although recent studies propose that human impact away from rivers was minimal. We tested the hypothesis that past human management of the useful tree community decreases with distance from rivers. In six sites, we inventoried trees and palms with DBH≥10 cm and collected soil for charcoal analysis; we also mapped archaeological evidence around the sites. To quantify forest manipulation, we measured the relative abundance, richness and basal area of useful trees and palms. We found a strong negative exponential relationship between forest manipulation and distance to large rivers. Plots located from 10 to 20 km from a main river had 20–40% useful arboreal species, plots between 20 and 40 km had 12–23%, plots more than 40 km had less than 15%. Soil charcoal abundance was high in the two sites closest to secondary rivers, suggesting past agricultural practices. The shortest distance between archaeological evidence and plots was found in sites near rivers. These results strongly suggest that past forest manipulation was not limited to the pre-Columbian settlements along major rivers, but extended over interfluvial areas considered to be primary forest today. The sustainable use of Amazonian forests will be most effective if it considers the degree of past landscape domestication, as human-modified landscapes concentrate useful plants for human sustainable use and management today.