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25 July 2015

New Scientist has published new information on the human imprint discovered along the Amazon river and its tributaries

It seems the river was once lined with fields, orchards of brazil nuts and fruits, and towns with plazas. The first Europeans to penetrate the rainforest reported cities, roads, and fertile fields – and one town stretched 15 miles without any space, house to house. We don't know how many people were living there but we may assume that at some point all the houses were occupied.

Once the rainforest encroached on the former human habitations these stories were disregarded as fantasies – or fabulous ramblings. It's the old story of what I can't see could not be. Modern penetration of the rainforest by rising human populations and LiDAR remote sensing via aerial photography has revealed urban centres that could have housed up to 10,000 people as well as causeways and canals, graveyards and ridged fields etc. The reason the story has re-emerged is because it has now appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal – better late than never. I can remember going to a talk several years ago where the bloke speaking was recently returned from South America where he had been working on the project.

The same story is at www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3173398/Is-Amazon-rainforest-MAN… … and the link was provided by member Gary. The Daily Mail articles always come with lots of images – which is a bonus, so this is probably the best link to click on for the casual visitor. Being a newspaper there is a certain amount of hype and sensationalism and in this instance it is the estimated number of people that might have been living near the Amazon. They say it is anything between 8 and 50 million people – and infer that millions of people were living there when the Spanish turned up in the 16th century. The next bit of hype, or urban myth, is that all these people died out because of the introduction of diseases common to the Old World – and the use of firearms by the newcomers. The Spanish accounts do not in the main mention anything but the odd skirmish so this is probably not true. They would have had to wade up their knees in dead bodies in order to kill off millions of Native Americans – so what did happen. Disease is the more obvious killer – but when did this happen?

The Black Death pandemic, in the middle of the 14tyh century, killed off a third of the European population, destroyed the Mongol Empire and depopulated large tracts of the Middle and Near East (and was equally destructive in China). Historians do not make a connection between the pandemic in the old world and the depopulation of the new world – even though there is plenty of evidence to say that the two were contemporary. The Spanish arrived on boats and conquered Mexico and Peru in a very short time – which itself is a bit of a mystery. The native people were no doubt affected by the introduction of diseases such as measles and smallpox – but would these diseases have wiped out millions of people? How many people were actually living in Mexico and South America when the Conquistadors turned up – have we a clue?

We do know that the plaza civilisation of Ohio (in the St Louis region) with it's mounds and effigies and far reaching trade contacts, collapsed in the 14th century. A similar thing happened to the Pueblo civilisation of the American South West. The  cat among the pigeons is that there is no logical way for rats to spread the Black Death to the Americas, enough to decimate wide and disparate territories – unless the pestilence was in the air (atmosphere). We may compare that idea to the outbreak of Bird Flu a couple of years ago. Migrating birds spread that particular strain of influenza from East Asia to Europe and beyond but they seem to have become impregnated with it whilst flying in the air (or that is one theory).

The interesting thing is that Mike Baillie, a dendrochronologist from Queens University in Belfast, proposed that the Black Death was an atmospheric phenomenon in his book, 'New Light on the Black Death: the cosmic connection' (Tempus Books, 2006). From dendrochronology studies from different parts of the world it was found that the Black Death occurred in a deep environmental trough (that was self evident even in New Zealand). Baillie's theory is that this trough, and the Black Death within it, was a global phenomenon. In other words, it can explain the fall in population in the Americas, some 150 to 200 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish (see chapter 2, page 27-39). Dendrochronology began in the US and Douglas found an environmental anomaly there dating between 1260-85, which has been associated with a Great Drought now dated between 1276-99 (it followed on or was created by whatever was responsible for the environmental downturn). Around 1300 precipitation began to increase over the next 50 years, occurring at a high level until 1335. In that 35 year period population numbers increased in the Pueblo that was studied – Arroyo Hondo, but the precipitation pattern shifted to one of high rainfall punctuated by years of poor rainfall (drought). Around 1345 the pueblo was abandoned (right on the cusp of the outbreak of the Black Death in the Old World). In the 1370s the pueblo was resettled – but with reduced numbers of people. Baillie then remarked that the only vector for depopulation in the New and Old worlds is conveniently outlined in Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's theory of diseases originating from space.

In chapter 6 Baillies discusses the AD536-45 low growth tree ring event and the Justinian Plague – which just might coincide with the so called 'Maya Hiatus.' Again, was plague global in extent at this time as David Keys marked this event down as a watershed in his book, 'Catastrophe: an investigation into the origins of the modern world.' The Black Death was certainly a watershed – it hamstrung some societies but allowed other societies to thrive. Something to think about.

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