back to article Would it be bad if the Amazon rainforest was all farms? Well it was, once

It's generally assumed that it would mean a disaster for the planet if the rainforests of the Amazon were to be replaced with farmland. But it turns out that, actually, much of the area was indeed farmland just a few thousand years ago. We learn this from new research just published in the august Proceedings of the National …

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  1. Hairy Spod

    "Plainly there have been times even just within recorded human history when large chunks of the current jungle simply weren't there, and the land was used for farms instead - without any associated eco-disaster."

    .....unless they unwittingly caused the desertifaction and decline of civilisation on the other side of the world in parts of North Africa.

    I'm not saying that they did, just saying.....

    1. localzuk

      They can't actually make that claim at all, without simultaneous studies of the rest of the planet's land. Were there more forests elsewhere, for example?

      1. Tom 35 Silver badge

        But

        It's no fun if you can't just pick out the bits you like.

      2. Triggerfish

        Surely global population and pollution levels were a bit different as well.

      3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        They can't actually make that claim at all

        I assume by "They" you mean "Lewis Page", since that part of the Reg article appears to just be Lewis' exercise for today in not thinking critically.

        ("rather conclusively cast doubt"? What is that supposed to mean? "At first we doubted whether there was any doubt, but now we have only the slightest of doubts about the existence of doubt.")

  2. DrBobK

    rainforest obscured by clouds

    My immediate thought was that a 'rainforest' was some kind of new cloud thing operated by Bezos & Co and that it was a step beyond old-fashioned server farms (render farms, whatever...)

  3. Richard 33
    FAIL

    The rest of the world was heavily forested

    The rest of the world was heavily forested, so the Amazon didn't matter that much. Now it does.

    1. Amorous Cowherder

      Re: The rest of the world was heavily forested

      Indeed, the highlands of Scotland, known for being sparse and barren these days was once very heavily forested. However I believe it started decline around 1500BC when the climate got wetter and windier, people moved into the area with animals, even the Romans reported from around 30BC there the Caledonian forests were still quite thick.

    2. Marshalltown
      FAIL

      Re: The rest of the world was heavily forested

      In fact, that is not, well, true. Some parts were. Other parts, not so much. The western US for instance supported about one-third the number trees then that it supports at present. Available historical accounts indicate that this was probably true in the eastern US as well, but there's no photographic evidence there like we have for Yosemite. The change is that the present forest is composed of smaller trees growing closer together, in large part due to fire suppression actions since the 19th C.

      Southeast Asia, which is pretty heavily enjungled (to coin a phrase) was less vegetated as well. In Thailand, the big complexes like Angor Wat and Angor Thom had to be supported by agricultural products don'tcha know. Currently, based on NASA studies, windblown dust from North Africa fertilizes Amazonia, and studies of oxygen production vs. CO2 fixation indicate that the Amazon just breaks even. Little if any excess O2 is contributed to global systems (again, this according to NASA).

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Plainly Forgot something?

    "Plainly there have been times even just within recorded human history when large chunks of the current jungle simply weren't there, and the land was used for farms instead - without any associated eco-disaster."

    Plainly... when that happened the majority of north america, europe, subtropical Africa, India and South East Asia was also heavily forested !!!!!

    So - Plainly - the amazon was not so critical at the time

    And - Plainly - This is not the case anymore where the Amazon is for all intents and purpose the largest of the few remaining "major" forests in the world.

    So you might - very plainly - need to review your assumptions....

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: Plainly Forgot something?

      Actually Russia has more than a million square miles more of forest than Brazil, although it is not rain forest.

      Russian forests are equal to the area of Australia.

  5. phil dude
    Joke

    duck...!

    At least in this article I saw the words "Muscovy duck". I took a picture of one when visiting a friend at Virgin tech. If you want to know what it looks like "The head of a chicken with body of a goose with the feet of a duck". Isn't evolution wonderful?

    There's good eating on one of them....

    P.

    1. bozoid

      Re: duck...!

      > I took a picture of one when visiting a friend at Virgin tech.

      I first saw a Muscovy duck (and took a picture) at Virginia Tech, too, about 10 or 12 years ago. Truly the weirdest bird I've ever seen.

    2. Steven Roper

      Re: duck...!

      We had two Muscovy ducks as pets when I was a kid back in the 70s. They were lovely as ducklings and we kids loved them. Then they grew up and covered the entire backyard in a 6-inch deep layer of duck shit, which Dad loved for the garden, until Mum slipped in it and hurt herself.

      Whereupon the ducks were politely escorted off the premises and dumped in the Torrens to fend for themselves, since we kids refused outright to allow Dad to kill and cook them. A few months later, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife gassed all the feral ducks on the Torrens to allow the native species to return. So in the end they died anyway and we missed out on some roast duck for our sympathy!

  6. Mage Silver badge

    Sahara etc

    The Sahara was 1/2 the size I think 2000 years ago. I think they blame goat keepers.

    Not sure about Australia.

    Ireland used to be forest. Now look at the Burren. Manmade.

    1. Swarthy Silver badge
      WTF?

      Re: Sahara etc

      I'm pretty sure the karst landscape of the Burren is an artifact of glaciation. It would be ...difficult... to justify calling the last (much less any previous) ice age man-made.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sahara etc

        Yeah, we usually blame the extensive deforestation on the Brits - where do you think they got the timber to build all those ships to rule the world from the 16th Century on!

        1. Dazed and Confused Silver badge

          Re: Sahara etc

          > Yeah, we usually blame the extensive deforestation on the Brits - where do you think they got the timber to build all those ships to rule the world from the 16th Century on!

          Err that lot of oak came from the British Isles (well mostly)

          Funnily I heard something on R4 the other day where someone was saying they'd been involved in some environmental committee a few years back where they were looking at trees and visited the Forest of Dean and he was extolling the beautiful natural woodland, when a local pointed out that none of it was natural, it was all planted to grow battle ships for the navy.

          1. Paul Shirley

            Re: Sahara etc

            >>Err that lot of oak came from the British Isles (well mostly)

            ...just one of the reasons the british were so keen on Ireland being one of those british isles.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Joke

            Re: Sahara etc

            So THAT's where they come from!

        2. NeilPost

          Re: Sahara etc

          I think you'll find most of the deforestation was largely to support growing agriculture, not a Clone Wars Navy of millions of wooden ships. A huge re-forestation of the UK should be supported, which would off-set much CO2 produced, and make the place a lot better and have additional benefits of stabilizing land, better drainage and provide a sustainable fuel and raw material source.

    2. Steven Roper

      Re: Sahara etc

      "Not sure about Australia."

      Before European colonisation, much of Australia, except for the Nullarbor and inland deserts in the main body of the continent, was covered in eucalyptus forest, while the Murray-Darling Basin was mostly mallee. Mallee is a large bush or small tree, famed for its toughness and resilience, that in the wild forms an interlocked and impenetrable tangle of head-high scrub. Most of this was cleared for farmland during colonisation, although large swaths of it remain in places like the Sunset Country and Big Desert national parks.

      Considering that mallee wood is as hard as steel and blunts axes and chainsaws with infuriating rapidity, clearing thousands of square miles of that shit was no mean feat!

      1. Fluffy Bunny
        Angel

        Re: Sahara etc

        But it burns quite well, which is how it got cleared.

      2. Persona non grata

        Re: Sahara etc

        Actually that was before human colonisation. The Aboriginal cultures engaged in land clearing by fire and changed the environment considerably. 30k-60k years (the figures are often contentious) gives you a big window for environmental change. They also apparently hunted all the megafauna to extinction.

        What Lewis is trying to conflate with farms here is slash and burn as still practised in SE Asia today. It's a method where the population moves yearly after burning the local vegetation to provide an ash based fertiliser layer in the notoriously poor soils of rain forest. Only a tiny percentage of the forest is under cultivation at any time as it only supports low population densities. Frankly it's a crap and inefficient method of farming and hugely damaging to the environment and soil. Most of the nutrient load is wasted in gases created in the fire. It's only saving grace is that it can only support small populations so that self-limits its damage.

        As Lewis would know if he's spent a few minutes researching rather than trying to prop up his no-legged hobby horse.

  7. Dave, Portsmouth

    Surprise?

    Quite surprised that they were surprised by this. We only have Great Barrier Reef because of sea level rises. Lots of bits of Europe used to be underwater in the distant past. The world is always changing - we re-establish a balance and live on... except those species that don't! But that creates opportunities for new species, so it's all a balance. Humans are just a bit more arrogant now and believe that we should just stop that change and keep the world just as we like it now.

    1. P. Lee Silver badge

      Re: Surprise?

      There are two issues with this.

      1) Waterfront property is very expensive. That means lots of rich people lose money if sea-levels rise. That in itself will cause the powers that be to try to hold back the sea. If London and New York went under water, a lot of "wealth" would just disappear.

      2) We've engineered ourselves into a highly lucrative but stupidly fragile economy. Until relatively recently, people could simply move over a bit and farm somewhere else and carry on. Now we've locked up all the land in ownership and (in the West) most people have no idea and no tools for growing their own food. If a company goes bust, not only do all the employees lose their income (and therefore food), all the feeder industries go down, and unrelated industries are hit too, from the battering of the centralised debt-carrying banks, stock market and pension funds. We have created a vast safety-net for ourselves by tying everyone together. The downside is that it hides problems until they are vast and (almost?) unmanageable. How much do you think Apple stock will be worth if people are desperate for food? The 1930's are really not that long ago.

    2. veti Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Surprise?

      It's not so much "arrogant" as "feeling like they have a right to survive". Most people don't want humans to be the subject of one of those extinctions.

      Most people, I suspect although I don't really want to try the experiment just in case I'm wrong, would also be fairly resistant to the idea that several billion people should be wiped out in order to make room for the rest. And that's what "raising the sea levels back to the levels of the distant past" would mean.

      Just because the earth, life and humanity (for values of "humanity") would all survive, doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about.

      1. Fluffy Bunny
        Devil

        Re: Surprise?

        In the last ice age, so much of the ocean had frozen in glaciers on Europe, North America, etc that it was possible to walk right across the Bering Sea. Since the, the ocean level has risen significantly. So much that it is unlikely to rise any more before the next ice age.

        Yes, you can point to places on land where there were beaches 35 metres up, but that is because the land has risen. Sometimes the simple act of removing the ice has allowed the land to bounce back, for example in Scotland and the midwest of America.

        So I don't quite understand why you want to nuke the economies of the entire developed world to protect us from something that just won't happen. There is no just in case. IT WON'T HAPPEN !!!!

  8. Uncle Slacky Silver badge
    Holmes

    Old news

    I remember reading about this (and seeing photos of the earthworks etc.) about 5 years ago - maybe that was when it was still only specualtion, though?

  9. Daggerchild Silver badge

    What did Gaia ever do for us anyway?

    "It's generally assumed that it would mean a disaster for the planet if the rainforests of the Amazon were to be replaced with farmland"

    Well, yes, it would be - you'd lose a significant percentage of the remaining biodiversity on the planet. Isn't that bad? Have I missed a memo?

    1. Fluffy Bunny
      Angel

      Re: What did Gaia ever do for us anyway?

      Bad, yes in the sense that there might be something of value in those species being lost.

      Disastrous, no.

  10. Bunbury

    Reading too much into this Lewis

    The abstract says the area was savannah, and is now rain forest. It doesn't seem to mention anything about whether or not there'd be an impact of removing the forest. It seems very likely that there would be a major impact of such a significant change.

    Climate does fluctuate naturally. There are well documented examples of this happening. Glacial periods are evident. The post classical collapse in the Maya areas of central America, the later increasing aridity in Northern Mexico around 1300AD, the change of the Sahara from savannah to desert circa 3000BC.

    But all that says is that there is an underlying pattern of natural change. It doesn't mean that that pattern will persist no matter what we do. Perhaps had humanity not have existed the rain forest would continue to spread.

    We clearly modulate the natural pattern by our activities. But what is the extent to which we do so - are we just noise or are we obliterating the pattern or somewhere in between? And if the impact is major, what is the appropriate response? A cessation of the activities that caused the modulation will be painful and require an unlikely level of international co-operation. Or do you go for a deliberate modulation despite having poor models and so a hard to predict effect?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's early, yet most of the comments so far seem to be quite reasonable and measured.

    Not your typical "The world is going to end" or "nothing is happening" polar opposites that we usually see.

    Refreshing.

    1. Fluffy Bunny
      Devil

      "Not your typical... polar opposites that we usually see."

      Problem fixed.

  12. Stuart Halliday

    So the hundred of thousands of species of animals, plants, fungi and insects just came from where exactly?

    1. Marshalltown

      That, Stuart, is the question

      The fact that the Amazon rain forest as far less extensive than at present has been known for some time. The kinds of earthworks described in the story appear in many other parts of the Amazon, notably in the north, Venezuela for instance. The simplest conclusion is that the rainforest was patchier. That patchiness would tend to increase diversity through isolation and "founder's effects," if the patches are large enough. If the rainforest were only metastable - varying between periods such as the present and periods of patchy, separated islands, the shifting between states might tend to pump selection, increasing diversity much more rapidly than we expected based on commonly held assumptions about speciation rates. Results from evolutionary algorithm implementations in computing suggest that such changes might be very rapid. The reality, is we are profoundly ignorant regarding all complex environmental systems on the planet.

      1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

        Re: That, Stuart, is the question

        I'm going to call it here. I would not be at all surprised if "diversity" changes and appears much quicker than most "scientists" realise. Faster than they could imagine. We've only had what, 100 or 200 years of current observation? Has there been much change since then? How do we know if any species are "new" or "existing, but just recently found"?

      2. NeilPost

        World Population 0Bc

        Considering that the entire world population is estimated as being 200m around 0 BC, I think the author's of this article are hugely over-egging and over-extrapolating the massive population center's in South America, and the supporting agricultural infrastructure. Perhaps they have been watching too much of the excellent, if completely preposterous, Da Vinci's Demon's, or have they found the Book of Leaves on expedition.

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  14. Fink-Nottle

    > the land was used for farms instead - without any associated eco-disaster.

    There was no eco-disaster because pre-Columbian agriculture was associated with intentional soil improvement (see terra preta). This is in stark contrast to 'modern' slash and burn agricultural practices which are highly destructive.

  15. Scott Broukell
    Meh

    OMG!

    So it's like right now we're soo lucky to have like a choice between living in like harmony with the planet or like living in harmony with our shareholders. Short term gain versus like long term aim, sort'va thing. It's, like, kinda wow, I never really realized that was like a thing until now. And, like, because there's soo much less of everything right now we really should, like, go with the shareholder thing because it's all gonna be messed up anyway so let's, like, make the profits whilst we can, sort'va thing. I get it now, I really, really, do, like wow!

  16. Terry Cloth
    Facepalm

    ``There have been times....''

    "Plainly there have been times even just within recorded human history when large chunks of the current jungle simply weren't there, and the land was used for farms instead - without any associated eco-disaster."

    Would that have anything to do with the lack of industrial carbon-dioxide emissions at those times?

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That's the second time

    I have had Lewis Page wave PNAS in my face

  18. Charles Manning

    The Lungs of the Earth

    Rainforests are often given nice emotive names like this.

    Sure, it would be a shame to see such wilderness trashed, but that is prely an emotional response.

    From a CO2 absorbtion POV, that is perhaps not valid though.

    CO2 is absorbed in direct proportion to the amount of photosynthesis that is happening, which is governed by:

    * The availability of water, CO2 and other nutrients.

    * The type of plant.

    * The amount of light.

    * Other conditions such as temperature etc.

    The size of the plants does not matter. Wheat, grass, soy etc can photosythesise as well as, and often better than, rain forest plants, soaking upo that CO2.

    What is a bigger concern is the change of water vapour (though our CO2-fixated greenies are ignoring this). In areas where I used to live there were lush pastures that were lightly grazed. Farmers then increased the stocking levels and grazed harder (but put on more fertilisers too). Result: shorter grass which holds soil moisture less, leasing to a change in the valley microclimate.

    Cutting down rain forests would do the same.

  19. herman Silver badge

    Central European abandoned farms

    Huge areas in Central Europe were abandoned after the fall of communism and trees literally sprouted like weeds in the farmland. After 30 years they are huge and difficult to remove.

  20. St3n

    The BBC's Unnatural Histories documentary covered all this, and they had first hand accounts from early explorers describing the Amazon supporting millions of people....

    I guess someone wanted a holiday in the rain forests..

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not fields as we know them

    They were eating Maize which has a seed to yield ratio of 350:1, compared to European grains which, at the time, were having a spectacular harvest if you got 10:1.

    So, if you're imaging English countryside you're imaging the wrong thing and wide open fields imply weren't needed to support the population.

    1. NeilPost

      Re: Not fields as we know them

      For farmers of the time, Maize was not an easy crop to get an end food product out of. The BBC's excellent History of the World in 100 Objects covered this beautifully

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/Hvi54RDiQym6Pgd3_IsRKA

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not fields as we know them

        "Grains of corn boiled with lime and water are easily milled to obtain a nutritionally rich dough or ‘masa’."

        I'm not sure why you think they had any major trouble based on the linked article, and they didn't.

  22. Jim Birch

    Pageism, again.

    Right. All we have to do is revert a couple of thousand years - destroy modern industrial civilisation and reafforest the rest of the world world - then it won't matter if the Amazon rainforest is cleared.

    Ha ha. This is serious news or some kind of weird ritual incantation of sacred truths?

  23. JCitizen
    Headmaster

    I've read of several studies...

    where paleontologists realized the predecessors of the Maya,Inca, and the Aztecs were actually so numerous in population that much of the land of that period was under heavy agriculture. The great extinction that ended that period is of great interest to several sciences, and we should well pay attention, or we will be next!

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: I've read of several studies...

      Yes, the summaries I've seen say that the extinction is generally believed to be due to the Western diseases brought over by the first few visitors.

      A massive epidemic of several previously unknown diseases like smallpox, flu etc could and probably did wipe out most of the locals between "First Contact" and the first boat to pop over full of Conquistadors.

      More or less the opposite of War of the Worlds, I suppose.

      1. JCitizen
        Headmaster

        Re: I've read of several studies...

        From what I understand this was prehistoric to Western contact - but you could still be right, as archaeologists were shocked to find paper art of wars that depicted men with beards, blue eyes, and red hair! This was a tip off that Europeans may have visited much earlier than was admitted by history.

        When I saw these studies in the Smithsonian as a young man, I was gob smacked! They had photos of the actual papers that were found preserved somewhere on a Pre-Columbian site(I believe, if my memory serves me correctly) At least I'm pretty sure it was paper, as that was an eye opener to me as well, as I thought at the time it predated paper, and stone work was the norm.

  24. NeilPost

    paleo-boffinry community

    Why does The Register continually denigrate scientists with pig-ignorant descriptions of them as Boffins - this is the same clap-trap demeaning of science and categorizing it as as too hard to understand and making it dismissable by people with agenda's to push- perhaps you need to get some better Journo's, as some of your current lot need to sod off to the Daily Mail, CBS Interactive or Fox News where this sort of nonsense is the order of the day.

    Experts say The Register Journo's need to buck their damn idea's up.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: paleo-boffinry community

      If you know they continually do it, then you'll know it's el Reg's house style to *celebrate* real scientists with the term Boffin and denigrate pseudo scientists with the term Trick Cyclist.

      And don't criticise anyone's writing style until you know when to use apostrophes. Idiot.

    2. Teiwaz Silver badge

      Re: paleo-boffinry community

      Hear, hear.

      Some article titles have Waaaay.. too much illiteration. Usually they are indecipherable

      'Blunky boffins blah blah bitspin tribal cuckoo lohan.'

      Huh???

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: paleo-boffinry community

        Illiteration - were you being ironic?

  25. lforsley

    Terraforming the Amazon

    I'm surprised this article is coming out now, as this has been known for over a decade beginning with ground penetrating radar identifying the "berms" along the Amazon, and teams digging into them finding what is now referred to at "terapreta", or a soil composed of pyrolytic carbon, fish bones, etc., that can double the agricultural yield. It is believed that the terapreta traps nutrients that would otherwise wash away, leaving traditionally bare-thin, acidic jungle soils. I would add to this, the likely microbial and fungal colonization of the same, likely resulting in nitrogen fixing bacteria as well.

    Consequently, in 1491 (and a book on this subject by the same name) the Amazon may have supported 10 million people!

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    there is a difference

    If the climate in the Amazon region was different a few thousand years ago so it didn't support jungle, then most likely other areas of the world which now do not support jungle were wetter and previously did. North Africa springs to mind, quite possibly other parts of South America which are presently drier plains and possibly even desert.

    This is quite different to human beings tearing down jungle from the areas that do presently support it.

    I think the Reg doesn't help its credibility as a source of technical and scientific coverage by letting Lewis constantly write these twisted articles. Scouring technical journals for any nugget of information that sticks out from the overwhelming evidence, disregarding any qualifications scientists put in and then presenting it as some kind of growing body of evidence against climate change makes the Reg look a bit bonkers,

  27. John PM Chappell
    Boffin

    Old news, surely?

    As other commenters have noted, this is not really new, although more study is A Good Thing (TM).

    Also, no, clearing it wouldn't be disastrous, only those with no real understanding of the topic and some fairly naive 'new age / green' notions of 'Mother Earth' have tended to suggest so, usually with the totally incorrect assertion about supplying massive amounts of world oxygen. It would, however be utterly tragic, the moreso because we would really have no idea what we had lost (admittedly, if anything had been lost at all). This seems like a stupid thing to allow to happen for the sake of some education and economic inducements and Big Pharma actually agrees, on the whole, as they have seen interesting stuff come out of plants found primarily or exclusively in this habitat.

    Of course, 'not disastrous' is by no means the same as 'no effect' and might well be disastrous for some in ways that are effectively impossible to model right now and thus, literally, unpredictable.

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