Friday, September 16, 2011

Pre-Columbian Fish Farming in the Amazon

by Clark L. Erickson, PhD

Article published in Expedition 43(3):7-8 (2001).

“One artificial feature, referred to as a zigzag earthwork, particularly intrigued me. Low earthen walls zigzag across the savannas between forest islands (Fig. 2). Because of their changing orientations, they did not make sense as roads between settlements. As we mapped them with tape measure and compass, I noted that there were small funnel like opening where the earthworks changed direction. I immediately realized that these matched the description of fish weirs that are reported in the ethnographic and historical literature on Amazonian peoples. Fish weirs are fences made of wood, brush, basketry, or stones with small openings that extend across bodies of water. Baskets or nets are placed in the openings to trap migrating fish. While most fish weirs are simple ephemeral structures crossing a river or shallow lake, those of Baures are permanent earthen features covering more than 500 square kilometers. In addition, small artificial ponds are associated with the fish weirs (Fig. 3). Today these ponds are filled with fish as the floodwaters recede in the dry season. I believe that in the past these were used to store live fish until needed. Our studies show that the weirs were used before the arrival of Europeans to the region.
The scale of the fish weir complex is larger than any previously reported. The native peoples of Baures shaped the environment into a productive landscape capable of providing sufficient protein to sustain large populations. The people responsible for this impressive land management are long gone or have forgotten the technology. Archaeology provides the only means of documenting this important lost knowledge. As politicians, conservationists, and aid agencies seek sustainable solutions to both develop and conserve the Amazon, archaeologists can play a key role by providing time-tested models of land use.
Fig. 2: Remains of fish weir (lower left to upper right) and fish ponds
(circular features surrounded by palms) from the air.

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