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For millennia, Amazonian peoples have managed forest resources, modifying the natural environment in subtle and persistent ways. Legacies of past human occupation are striking near archaeological sites, yet we still lack a clear picture of how human management practices resulted in the domestication of Amazonian forests. The general view is that domesticated forests are recognizable by the presence of forest patches dominated by one or a few useful species favored by long-term human activities. Here, we used three complementary approaches to understand the long-term domestication of Amazonian forests. First, we compiled information from the literature about how indigenous and traditional Amazonian peoples manage forest resources to promote useful plant species that are mainly used as food resources. Then, we developed an interdisciplinary conceptual model of how interactions between these management practices across space and time may form domesticated forests. Finally, we collected field data from 30 contemporary villages located on and near archaeological sites, along four major Amazonian rivers, to compare with the management practices synthesized in our conceptual model. We identified eight distinct categories of management practices that contribute to form forest patches of useful plants: (1) removal of non-useful plants, (2) protection of useful plants, (3) attraction of non-human animal dispersers, (4) transportation of useful plants, (5) selection of phenotypes, (6) fire management, (7) planting of useful plants, and (8) soil improvement. Our conceptual model, when ethnographically projected into the past, reveals how the interaction of these multiple management practices interferes with natural ecological processes, resulting in the domestication of Amazonian forest patches dominated by useful species. Our model suggests that management practices became more frequent as human population increased during the Holocene. In the field, we found that useful perennial plants occur in multi-species patches around archaeological sites, and that the dominant species are still managed by local people, suggesting long-term persistence of ancient cultural practices. The management practices we identified have transformed plant species abundance and floristic composition through the creation of diverse forest patches rich in edible perennial plants that enhanced food production and food security in Amazonia.
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published: 17 January 2018
doi: 10.3389/fevo.2017.00171
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution | 1January 2018 | Volume 5 | Article 171
Edited by:
B. Mohan Kumar,
Nalanda University, India
Reviewed by:
Bharath Sundaram,
Nalanda University, India
Jean Kennedy,
Australian National University, Australia
Louis S. Santiago,
University of California, Riverside,
United States
Carolina Levis
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Agroecology and Land Use Systems,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Received: 31 July 2017
Accepted: 13 December 2017
Published: 17 January 2018
Levis C, Flores BM, Moreira PA,
Luize BG, Alves RP, Franco-Moraes J,
Lins J, Konings E, Peña-Claros M,
Bongers F, Costa FRC and
Clement CR (2018) How People
Domesticated Amazonian Forests.
Front. Ecol. Evol. 5:171.
doi: 10.3389/fevo.2017.00171
How People Domesticated
Amazonian Forests
Carolina Levis 1, 2
*, Bernardo M. Flores 3, Priscila A. Moreira 4, Bruno G. Luize 5,
Rubana P. Alves 1, Juliano Franco-Moraes 6, Juliana Lins 7, Evelien Konings 2,
Marielos Peña-Claros 2, Frans Bongers 2, Flavia R. C. Costa 8and Charles R. Clement 9
1Programa de Pós-graduação em Ecologia, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Manaus, Brazil, 2Forest Ecology
and Forest Management Group, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, Netherlands, 3Departamento de Biologia
Vegetal, Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, Brazil, 4Programa de Pós-graduação em
Botânica, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Manaus, Brazil, 5Programa de Pós-graduação em Ecologia e
Biodiversidade, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), Rio Claro, Brazil, 6Programa de
Pós-graduação em Ecologia, Instituto de Biociências, Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, 7Instituto
Socioambiental, São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Brazil, 8Coordenação de Pesquisas em Biodiversidade, Instituto Nacional de
Pesquisas da Amazônia, Manaus, Brazil, 9Coordenação de Tecnologia e Inovação, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da
Amazônia, Manaus, Brazil
For millennia, Amazonian peoples have managed forest resources, modifying the natural
environment in subtle and persistent ways. Legacies of past human occupation are
striking near archaeological sites, yet we still lack a clear picture of how human
management practices resulted in the domestication of Amazonian forests. The general
view is that domesticated forests are recognizable by the presence of forest patches
dominated by one or a few useful species favored by long-term human activities. Here,
we used three complementary approaches to understand the long-term domestication
of Amazonian forests. First, we compiled information from the literature about how
indigenous and traditional Amazonian peoples manage forest resources to promote
useful plant species that are mainly used as food resources. Then, we developed
an interdisciplinary conceptual model of how interactions between these management
practices across space and time may form domesticated forests. Finally, we collected
field data from 30 contemporary villages located on and near archaeological sites, along
four major Amazonian rivers, to compare with the management practices synthesized in
our conceptual model. We identified eight distinct categories of management practices
that contribute to form forest patches of useful plants: (1) removal of non-useful
plants, (2) protection of useful plants, (3) attraction of non-human animal dispersers,
(4) transportation of useful plants, (5) selection of phenotypes, (6) fire management,
(7) planting of useful plants, and (8) soil improvement. Our conceptual model, when
ethnographically projected into the past, reveals how the interaction of these multiple
management practices interferes with natural ecological processes, resulting in the
domestication of Amazonian forest patches dominated by useful species. Our model
suggests that management practices became more frequent as human population
increased during the Holocene. In the field, we found that useful perennial plants occur in
multi-species patches around archaeological sites, and that the dominant species are still
Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
managed by local people, suggesting long-term persistence of ancient cultural practices.
The management practices we identified have transformed plant species abundance and
floristic composition through the creation of diverse forest patches rich in edible perennial
plants that enhanced food production and food security in Amazonia.
Keywords: cultural forests, patch formation, dominance, Amazonian useful species, indigenous management,
landscape domestication, Terra Preta de Índio
The notion of pristine rainforests has been questioned by
increasing archaeological and ecological evidence suggesting
long-term human activities across even the most intact forests
worldwide (Denevan, 1992; Van Gemerden et al., 2003; Willis
et al., 2004; Ross, 2011; Boivin et al., 2016; Roberts et al., 2017).
Amazonia is no exception — over thousands of years with
humans living in the region, forest composition has been altered
significantly (Clement et al., 2015; Levis et al., 2017b). Many
dominant species in Amazonian forests are widely used as food
resources by native indigenous peoples (ter Steege et al., 2013),
and at least 85 tree and palm species were domesticated to
some degree during pre-Columbian times (Clement, 1999; Levis
et al., 2017b). Plant domestication is a long-term process that
results from the capacity of humans to overcome environmental
selection pressures with the purpose of managing and cultivating
useful plants (Kennedy, 2012; Boivin et al., 2016; Levis et al.,
2017b), leading to significant changes in natural ecosystems and
plant communities across landscapes (Clement, 1999; Terrell
et al., 2003). First, useful individuals are managed in situ
(Rindos, 1984; Wiersum, 1997a) and later humans select the
best varieties with more desirable morphological traits for
cultivation (Darwin, 1859; Rindos, 1984; Clement, 1999). Over
time, humans create a mosaic of domesticated landscapes to
favor numerous useful plant populations, each domesticated with
different intensities and outcomes (Wiersum, 1997b). In modern
Amazonian forests, legacies of past human societies are evident in
the surroundings of archaeological sites, where humans enriched
the forest with useful, especially edible, and domesticated plants
(Balée, 1989; Erickson and Balée, 2006; Junqueira et al., 2010;
Levis et al., 2017b). These pre-Columbian legacies suggest that
Native Amazonians interacted with natural ecological processes
and shaped the distribution of plants and entire forest landscapes
across the region (Balée, 2013).
In Amazonia, as in any other ecosystem, natural ecological
processes drive the formation of plant assemblages and
communities (Keddy, 1992; Zobel, 1997; Lortie et al., 2004; ter
Steege et al., 2006). The first ecological process described to
structure plant communities is the plant’s capacity to disperse its
seeds across landscapes (Ricklefs, 1987; Lortie et al., 2004), which
depends on the regional species pool and multiple dispersal
strategies, including occasional events of long distance dispersal
(Ricklefs, 1987; Nathan et al., 2008). In wet Neotropical forests,
animal dispersal is used by 75–98% of the tree species (Howe
and Smallwood, 1982; Muller-Landau et al., 2008) and mammals
disperse large-seeded species over long distances (Jordano, 2017).
Once a propagule arrives in a given location, the second
ecological process is related to how plants are able to overcome
local environmental filters to successfully germinate and survive
(Lortie et al., 2004). Plants compete with their neighbors for
limited amounts of resources, such as light, nutrients and water
(Moles and Westoby, 2006). The understory of a tropical forest is
typically light-limited, forcing trees to either grow tall or survive
in shady conditions (Poorter et al., 2003). Soils are also limited
in water and nutrients, and plants need to compete in the rooting
zone (Barberis and Tanner, 2005; Schnitzer et al., 2005). The third
ecological process structuring plant assemblages is interaction
with other organisms, such as herbivores and pathogens (Lortie
et al., 2004; Bagchi et al., 2014). These multiple environmental
and biological filters act simultaneously, resulting in trade-offs.
For instance, species that grow fast under high light conditions
tend to produce leaves that are less protected from herbivores,
compared to the tougher and more resistant leaves of shade-
tolerant species (Coley, 1983). In the long run, these ecological
processes result in the selection of numerous adaptive plant traits
(Reich et al., 2003), allowing species to thrive in complex and
highly diverse systems, such as Amazonian forests. The high
diversity of tropical ecosystems is in part maintained by natural
disturbances and local biotic interactions, sometimes promoted
by herbivores and pathogens that reduce the abundance of
the most effective competitors, creating space for other species
(Connell, 1978; LaManna et al., 2017).
Nonetheless, a few tree species often dominate plant
assemblages forming oligarchic forests in diverse tropical forests
(Connell and Lowman, 1989; Peh et al., 2011), including
Amazonia (Peters et al., 1989; Pitman et al., 2001, 2013; ter
Steege et al., 2013), Africa (Hart et al., 1989; Hart, 1990; Peh
et al., 2011), Mesoamerica (Campbell et al., 2006), and Asia
(Connell and Lowman, 1989; Peh et al., 2011). Natural and
anthropogenic origins for the hyperdominance of tree species in
Amazonian forests have been proposed. Aggregated patches of
a few pioneer species occur after human or natural disturbance,
while aggregated patches of a few shade-tolerant species may
occur due to dispersal limitations (Valencia et al., 2004). Other
hypotheses to explain why some species dominate large areas of
Amazonian forests include: the species’ ability to tolerate multiple
environmental conditions, and to disperse over long distances
(Pitman et al., 2001, 2013); and, in the case of useful species, the
intentional or non-intentional enrichment promoted by past and
contemporary human societies (Balée, 1989, 2013; Peters et al.,
1989; ter Steege et al., 2013; Levis et al., 2017b).
During the Holocene, useful plant populations benefited from
a new set of interactions when humans started to transform
landscapes (Denevan, 1995; Smith, 2011; Boivin et al., 2016),
and manage plant populations, consciously or not (Rindos,
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
1984; Wiersum, 1997a,b; Peters, 2000). Indigenous management
practices were formally defined by Wiersum (1997a, p. 7) as “the
process of making and effectuating decisions about the use and
conservation of forest resources within a local territory.” When
humans consciously manage forest resources, the underlying
intention of their actions is not to domesticate forests, but
to achieve certain short-term objectives, for instance to favor
individual plants in the forest and promote their regeneration.
Although changes in forest composition may not be the main
goal of human actions, management practices also modify forest
composition and structure beyond the targeted species in a
long-term process. In tropical and subtropical forests worldwide,
native societies have managed plants and landscapes, promoting
oligarchic forests dominated by useful plant species, also defined
as cultural or domesticated forests (Balée, 1989, 2013; Peters et al.,
1989; Campbell et al., 2006; Michon et al., 2007; Reis et al., 2014;
Morin-Rivat et al., 2017).
Today, many indigenous and traditional peoples recognize
the handprints of their ancestors in the landscape (Frikel,
1978). Indigenous people are defined here as the descendants
of native ethnic groups and members of an indigenous
community that retains historical and cultural connections
with the social organization of pre-Columbian indigenous
societies ( Traditional peoples
can be understood as culturally differentiated and recognizable
groups that have their own forms of social organization using
knowledge, innovations and practices generated and transmitted
by tradition, but they are not recognized as a member of
indigenous communities (Brazilian Federal Decree No. 6.040)2.
In Amazonia, traditional peoples are generally descendants of
migrants who intermarried with local indigenous peoples and
they often exchange practices, objects and knowledge with
members of indigenous communities. Although contemporary
indigenous and traditional societies both cultivate fruit trees in
their territory, they also take advantage of the aggregated patches
of fruit trees created by the practices of previous generations
(Frikel, 1978; Balée, 1989, 2013). These ancient cultivated
landscapes were probably created by integrated agroforestry
systems that included homegardens, swiddens and managed
fallows in which tree and non-tree crops were intertwined
(Denevan et al., 1984; Stahl, 2015). Such integrated systems
were likely more efficient, in terms of food production, than
long-fallow shifting cultivation systems when only stone axes
were used to clear the forest in the past (Denevan, 1992). This
is supported by the fact that past indigenous tree cultivation
(arboriculture) was a common and widespread practice covering
large areas of forest-savanna transition zones in Amazonia
(Frikel, 1978).
Because trees persist in the forest following management
(Levis et al., 2017b) and annual crops disappear after human
abandonment (Clement, 1999), contemporary indigenous
and traditional people commonly attribute the aggregated
distribution of useful perennial plants to the action of their
ancestors. Based on this knowledge, they sometimes select a
new place to settle in the forest (Frikel, 1978; Politis, 2007;
Rival, 2007; Zurita-Benavides et al., 2016). For instance, the
Nukak Indians in Colombian Amazonia prefer camping around
sororoca plants (Phenakospermum guyannense), because they
believe that these plants were brought by their ancestors to “their
living world,” and they discard a large quantity of seeds around
their temporary camps, contributing to form new patches
(Politis, 2007). Given that multiple human generations have
moved around through time, places like riverine settings and
archaeological sites were frequent dispersal routes of people
and their cultures, and consequently of useful plants in pre-
and post-Columbian times (Denevan, 1996; Hornborg, 2005;
Guix, 2009; Heckenberger and Neves, 2009; Clement et al.,
2010; Levis et al., 2017a,b). The intimate connections between
Native Amazonians, their ancestors and their plants can reveal
how persistent pre-Columbian forest management practices
(Balée, 2000) contributed to the large-scale vegetation patterns
we observe in modern forests (Pitman et al., 2011; Levis et al.,
Our study aimed to unravel how people interacted with
natural ecological processes to transform pristine forests
into domesticated forests with different degrees of human
intervention through unintentional and intentional management
practices. How indigenous and traditional peoples have used and
shaped Amazonian forests is described in ethnographical,
ethnobotanical, archaeological, paleoethnobotanical,
paleoecological, and ecological publications. Here we used
a historical-ecological perspective to evaluate the available
information about how Native Amazonians have affected the
distribution of plant species used mainly as food resources. Based
on the information gathered from the literature, we developed an
interdisciplinary conceptual model of how multiple management
practices transformed pristine forests into domesticated forests,
considering temporal and spatial contexts. In the field, we
collected data about management practices and the composition
of forest patches dominated by useful plants surrounding 30
contemporary villages, settled on or near archaeological sites.
We compared field and literature data by documenting the
multiple management practices known by 33 informants from
two villages along the lower Tapajós River, and by relating
these practices to the distribution and composition of the forest
patches surrounding all 30 villages.
Construction of the Conceptual Model of
Forest Domestication
We reviewed the scientific literature for evidence of management
practices of 22 useful perennial species (mainly used as food
resources) that occur in forest patches in different parts of the
Amazon basin (see Supplementary Table 1 for information about
the species). These species were also chosen because the authors
had previous field knowledge about them and they include a
variety of useful plants with wild, cultivated and domesticated
populations. Although our review focused on edible perennial
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
plants, we used the general concept of useful plants to define
plant species that are currently used for any purpose or
have been used by any human group in the past. Eighty-
one studies in ethnographical, ethnobotanical, archaeological,
paleoethnobotanical, paleoecological and ecological publications,
including books, scientific articles and dissertations, were
analyzed (Supplementary Data). The literature review was
conducted using the scientific name, English name and
Portuguese name of each species as keywords in Web of Science
and as title in Google Scholar.
Based on the information gathered for the 22 species, we
classified the multiple management practices into eight categories
that consist of a summary of all practices reported in the literature
(Table 1): (1) removal of non-useful plants, (2) protection
of useful plants, (3) attraction of non-human dispersers of
useful plants, (4) human transportation of useful plants, (5)
selection of phenotypes useful to humans, (6) fire management,
(7) planting, and (8) soil improvement. The literature review
provides examples to identify the role of—in many cases—
multiple management practices in the formation and persistence
of domesticated forests in Amazonia.
We combined different management practices into a category
depending on: (1) what people want to achieve; (2) whether
the effects of the practice are directional or not in the way
they fundamentally shape plant species assemblages; and (3)
whether the practices result in similarities in terms of forest
composition, abundance and distribution of useful species. For
instance, practices that remove non-useful plants in the forest,
such as opening the canopy, clearing the understory, weeding
and cutting lianas, are used to selectively benefit useful species
or enhance their growth rate by reducing the competition of
non-useful plants around the targeted plants. As a side effect,
humans increase light availability in the forest and tend to
favor light demanding species that may therefore be protected if
useful. More similarities are expected inside each category than
between them because each category leads to a unique type of
interference in natural ecological processes. Nonetheless, their
interactions may result in a diverse composition of useful species
with different or even contrasting adaptations. Below we detail
each of these eight categories, providing a definition, interaction
with ecological processes and some examples.
Removal of Non-useful Plants
The most common practices used to remove non-useful plants
in the forest are: opening the canopy; clearing the understory;
weeding; cutting lianas; and removing unproductive individuals
of useful species. These practices are used to selectively benefit
useful species by reducing the costs of competition, and are
expected to increase the performance of the selected useful plants.
Competition can be reduced either by controlling the abundance
of non-useful species (directly excluding them), or increasing
the amount of available resources (e.g., light or space). Practices
that reduce leaf and root density of lianas, for example, can
release the growth of some trees (Schnitzer et al., 2005), and
increase fruit production (Kainer et al., 2014). Similar to other
small-scale natural disturbances (Connell, 1978), these long-
term management practices may increase the diversity of plants
between plant communities at a regional scale (beta-diversity)
(Balée, 2006). The Hotï Indians from northern Amazonia act
as ecological disturbance agents by constantly creating and
managing gaps that increase the amount of light inside the forest
necessary to cultivate light-demanding useful plants (Zent and
Zent, 2004). In southern Amazonia, the Kayapó Indians create
forest islands by managing savanna landscapes, increasing the
heterogeneity of the landscape and the resource abundance for
humans, game animals and plants (Posey, 1985). The Nukak
Indians from western Amazonia constantly move between old
camps for hunting and gathering activities; when returning to old
camps, they selectively clear the understory and canopy, altering
plant composition and benefiting useful and domesticated plants
by promoting their growth and reproduction (Politis, 1996).
Protection of Useful Plants
Humans protect plant seedlings, juveniles, adults and their fruits
by keeping them alive through several practices: taking care of
fruits, seedlings and adult plants; using non-destructive extractive
practices; avoiding fire near useful trees; pruning; and repelling
leaf-cutting ant species. Protection can be targeted to individuals
with specific traits or to whole plant populations, by reducing
the abundance of herbivores, predators, and natural disturbances.
For instance, the Kayapó Indians in southern Amazonia use
Azteca ants to repel leaf-cutting ants that eat useful species’ leaves
(Posey, 1987). The Huaorani Indians in western Amazonia and
Hotï Indians in northern Amazonia increase the abundance of
several useful plant species by keeping fruit trees alive in their
territory (Rival, 1998; Zent and Zent, 2012). Aggregated patches
of many useful plants are spared when clearing the forest for crop
cultivation (Shanley et al., 2016), increasing the survival rates of
these plants. This practice protects useful plant populations of
Amazon nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa), uxí trees (Endopleura
uchi), tucumã palms (Astrocaryum aculeatum), and açaí palms
(Euterpe oleracea) in different parts of Amazonia (Shanley et al.,
2016). Babaçu palms (Attalea speciosa) with more inflorescences
are also protected in agroforestry systems of eastern Amazonia
(Anderson et al., 1991).
Attraction of Non-human Dispersers of Useful Plants
The natural process of seed dispersal can be enhanced by human
practices. Leaving some fruits under the mother tree for animals
in domesticated landscapes and cultivating large-seeded species
to attract game are common practices in traditional communities
of Amazonia (Shanley et al., 2010). Although humans were
responsible for population declines, and even local extinctions of
large vertebrates across Neotropical forests (Guimarães Jr. et al.,
2008), humans have also positively interacted with terrestrial
animals by increasing their food availability via cultivation and
protection of fruit trees in domesticated landscapes (Balée,
1993), thus increasing the dispersal capacity and distribution
of useful plant species. Dispersal strategies among large-seeded
species and their dispersers may result in aggregated distributions
of Amazonian plant species. For instance, forest patches of
inajá palm (Attalea maripa) are associated with tapir latrines,
suggesting that tapirs are partly responsible for the aggregated
distribution of this palm in Amazonian forests (Fragoso et al.,
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
TABLE 1 | Examples of all management practices classified into eight categories.
Examples of practices Useful species References
1. Removal of non-useful plants: people benefit useful species by reducing the costs of competition
Clearing the understory E. oleracea, B. excelsa, E. uchi 72
Weeding A. aculeatum, A. speciosa, C. villosum, E. oleracea, E.
precatoria, M. flexuosa, T. cacao
2, 3, 4, 12, 22, 37, 55, 74, 77
Liana cutting B. excelsa, C. villosum, E. oleracea 2, 24, 77
Cutting male individuals M. flexuosa 12
Cutting older individuals A. maripa, E. oleracea, O. bataua, O. bacaba 15, 43, 74, 80
Girdling neighboring large trees E. oleracea, M. flexuosa 4
Cutting other trees A. aculeatum, E. oleracea, E. precatoria, M. flexuosa, O.
bataua, P. sericea, T. cacao
3, 12, 27, 57, 77, 78
Cutting stems in a clump E. oleracea 12, 77
Cutting unproductive individuals A. aculeatum, E. uchi, E. oleracea 72
Opening forest canopy A. speciosa, B. excelsa, O. distichus, P. guyannense 5, 9, 65, 70
Opening forest paths H. brasiliensis 69
2. Protection of useful plants: people protect plant seedlings, juveniles, adults and their fruits by keeping them alive through several practices
Keeping plants alive during fruit harvest C. villosum 2
Rotating harvest A. aculeatum, E. precatoria, O. bacaba, O. bataua 12, 15
Keeping when clearing the land A. aculeatum, A. maripa, A. speciosa, B. excelsa, E.
precatoria, O. bacaba, O. bataua, O. distichus, P.
guyannense, P. sericea
5, 12, 21, 24, 37, 50, 65, 74, 81
Not cutting A. aculeatum, B. excelsa, C. villosum, E. uchi, E. oleracea 2, 58, 72
Protecting seedlings E. precatoria 74
Pruning A. maripa, A.speciosa, E. oleracea, M. flexuosa, O.
bacaba, O. bataua, T. cacao
3, 12
Selective harvesting of certain individuals based on age,
size or sex
E. oleracea, E. precatoria, M. flexuosa, O. bataua 12
Using other ants to repel leaf-cutting ant species T. cacao 60
Using non-destructive extractive practices to keep plants
alive during harvest activities
C. villosum, M. flexuosa, O. bataua, O. distichus 2, 12, 32, 36, 45, 56
3. Disperser attraction: people attract non-human dispersers of useful plants by promoting the natural process of seed dispersal
Attracting game by keeping fruits in the swiddens A. maripa, O. distichus 6, 8
Leaving some fruits for animals C. villosum 2
Protecting fruits for animals M. flexuosa 32
4. Human transportation: people disperse seeds and transplant seedlings intentionally or non-intentionally from one place to another increasing their
Accidental dropping of seeds A. aculeatum, B. excelsa, H. balsamifera, H. parvifolia,
M. flexuosa, O. bataua, O. distichus, P. guyannense,
T. cacao
6, 7, 8, 12 17, 59, 63, 74, 80
Dispersing seeds and/or collecting seedlings for
transplanting elsewhere
A. aculeatum, A. maripa, B. excelsa, C. villosum,
E. oleifera, E. oleracea, E. precatoria, E. uchi, H.
brasiliensis, H. balsamifera, M. carana, M. flexuosa, M.
saccifera, O. bacaba, O. bataua, O. distichus, P. sericea,
T. cacao
2, 3, 11, 12, 20, 29, 31, 47, 49,
58, 60, 61, 69, 72, 73, 74, 75, 77
5. Phenotypic selection: people select for specific phenotypes of useful plants promoting morphological and genetic divergence from the ancestral
population based on human criteria
Hybridization of the best individuals O. bacaba 10
Human selection and intervention in plant populations A. aculeatum, A. maripa, A. speciosa, B. excelsa,
C. villosum, E. speciosa, E. uchi, E. oleracea, E.
precatoria, H. brasiliensis, H. balsamifera, M. flexuosa,
O. bacaba, O. bataua, O. distichus, P. sericea, T. cacao
1, 2, 5, 16, 41, 49, 60, 66, 71, 76
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
TABLE 1 | Continued
Examples of practices Useful species References
6. Fire management: people manage fire as land management tool increasing availability of other resources, such as light and soil nutrients
Controlled burning A. aculeatum, T. cacao 60, 67
Selecting species through fire A. maripa, A. speciosa, H. balsamifera, M. flexuosa, M.
splendens, O. bacaba, P. guyannense
5, 9, 28, 29, 43, 52, 74, 80
7. Planting: people plant seeds and seedlings in cultivated landscapes intentionally increasing the plant’s performance, survival and reproduction
Intentional sowing and planting of seedlings A. aculeatum, A. maripa, B. excelsa, C. villosum, E.
oleifera, E. uchi, E. oleracea, E. precatoria, M. flexuosa,
M. carana, H. brasiliensis, H. balsamifera, O. bacaba, O.
bataua, O. distichus, M. saccifera, P. guyannense, P.
sericea, T. cacao
1, 2, 3, 5, 12, 11, 18, 19, 20, 22,
23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, 33,
34, 35, 39, 40, 47, 48, 49, 50,
51, 54, 57, 58, 60, 61,62, 68,
69, 72, 74, 75, 77, 79
8. Soil improvement: people improve soil structure and fertility creating a new environmental filter that favors plants of interest
Burning of refuse H. balsamifera 29
Adding organic material and mulch C. villosum, E. oleracea, T. cacao, M. flexuosa 2, 5, 12, 77
Combining termite and ant nests with mulch T. cacao 60
Spreading mulch fertilizers E. uchi, E. oleracea 72
Lines refer to the eight categories of management practices. Columns present examples of management practices from the literature for each category, the useful species that were
involved in each example of a practice and the references used in the literature review. See Supplementary Data for the complete reference list corresponding to each number and
Supplementary Table 1 for the complete scientific names of all species.
2003). Seeds of bacaba palm (Oenocarpus distichus) persist in
secondary forests of Ka’apor Indians after abandonment, because
game is attracted to these food resources and disperse even more
seeds within these forests (Balée, 1993, 2013). Attracting animals
to domesticated landscapes may indirectly contribute to form
and maintain multi-species patches of useful plants from ancient
homegardens and swiddens (Balée, 2013).
Human Transportation of Useful Plants
Human transportation is the intentional or non-intentional
movement of seeds and plants by humans from one place
to another, outside or within the geographical limits of the
plant population. For instance, planting seedlings or dispersing
seeds intentionally and non-intentionally along forest trails,
in swiddens and homegardens. During the Holocene, humans
may have acted as primary long-distance dispersal vectors
by transporting seeds of useful plants over long distances,
often surpassing natural evolutionary barriers (Hodkinson and
Thompson, 1997; Nathan et al., 2008). Past humans intentionally
transported seeds, seedlings and clones of useful plants over long
distances across the world (Boivin et al., 2016). As a consequence,
the expansion of sedentary farming populations in Amazonia is
associated with the dispersal of important native crops across
the basin, such as manioc (Manihot esculenta) (Arroyo-Kalin,
2012), Amazon nut trees (Shepard and Ramirez, 2011; Thomas
et al., 2015), and cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) (Thomas et al.,
2012). Over short distances, human seed dispersal occurs when
plants are exchanged among groups (Eloy and Emperaire, 2011),
during periodic movements of groups to new areas (Posey, 1993),
systematic movements between forests and settlements (Ribeiro
et al., 2014), and between temporary camps (Politis, 2007).
Short distance dispersal within a plant population’s range is also
reported, when seeds are scattered along trails during hunting
and gathering activities, often non-intentionally (Zent and Zent,
2004; Ribeiro et al., 2014). The Hotï spend days in the forest
to collect large quantities of umirí (Humiria balsamifera) fruits,
many of which drop from baskets on the way back to the village,
explaining its high abundance surrounding their villages (Zent
and Zent, 2004). Similarly, the Kayapó transport large amounts of
Amazon nut seeds, suggesting that the high density of seedlings
along trail margins results from seeds accidentally dropped
during transport (Ribeiro et al., 2014). Extensive trail systems
were described in the Kayapó territory where they intentionally
plant, transplant and spread useful species (Posey, 1993), forming
landscapes full of useful plant species.
Phenotypic Selection of Useful Plants
Trait selection practices are motivated by human preferences
for specific phenotypes, for instance, fruits with larger sizes or
larger contents of desirable properties, such as sugar, starch and
oil. Humans often protect individuals previously selected for
their preferred traits and they propagate these individuals outside
their original population (see section Human Transportation of
Useful Plants), resulting in plant domestication (Rindos, 1984;
Clement, 1999). Phenotypic selection promotes morphological
and genetic divergence from the ancestral population based on
human criteria (Clement, 1999). The set of phenotypic traits
that distinguish domesticated from wild plant populations is
called the domestication syndrome (Hammer, 1984; Harlan,
1992; Meyer et al., 2012). Selection does not necessarily
imply intentionality; however, if unconscious practices lead to
changes in plant traits, followed by selection and propagation,
these actions start to be systematically repeated (Rindos, 1984;
Zeder, 2006). Human criteria for selecting plant traits vary
across geographical regions, through time and with cultural
interests (Meyer et al., 2012), and depend on the availability
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
of useful populations in the landscape and the knowledge to
interpret and manage morphological variation (Terrell et al.,
2003). In Amazonia, some studies have described domestication
syndromes for useful plants: variation in the toxicity of manioc
roots that were selected for different soil types (McKey et al., 2010;
Fraser et al., 2012); peach palm (Bactris gasipaes) may have been
first selected for its small oily fruits or wood, and later for large
starchy fruits with better fermentation qualities (Clement et al.,
2009); the selection of annatto (Bixa orellana) with increased
pigment yield from its seeds, and changed fruit dehiscence
(Moreira et al., 2015); the high morphological variation of pequí
fruit (Caryocar brasiliense) varieties selected by the Kuikuro
Indians of the upper Xingu River (Smith and Fausto, 2016);
selection of varieties of Virola elongata with exudates of different
hallucinogenic qualities, and varieties of Cyperus articulatus
with rhizomes having different medicinal properties selected by
Yanomami groups in Northwestern Brazil (Albert and Milliken,
2009). Along the lower Tapajós River, traditional people selected
non-bitter fruits of Caryocar villosum, domesticating them
accidentally or intentionally (Alves et al., 2016). The importance
of selection for promoting agrobiodiversity in Amazonia is
underscored in ethnographies of cultivated plants, such as
manioc (Boster, 1984; Rival and McKey, 2008) and pequí (Smith
and Fausto, 2016).
Fire Management
Fire has been a land management tool since pre-historical times
(Pausas and Keeley, 2009). People have used prescribed fire
in forests or swiddens mainly for cultivation, and also highly
controlled fire for waste management near their houses. People
manage fire for hunting activities, group communication, rituals,
and to prevent uncontrollable fires (Mistry et al., 2016). Fire was
intensely managed by pre-Columbian peoples in homegardens
or settlement areas for domestic activities, such as cooking and
burning waste. This domestic use may have contributed in the
long run to fertilize the soil, producing the Terra Preta de Índio
(TPI or Amazonian Dark Earths – ADE) (Smith, 1980; Schmidt
et al., 2014) found throughout the Amazon basin (McMichael
et al., 2014). Fire was also managed in swiddens to improve soil
fertility with intensive cultivation techniques in ancient times,
forming fertile dark brown soils, a soil slightly less fertile than
TPI (Denevan, 2001; Woods et al., 2013). Management practices
involving fire also increase availability of other resources, such as
light, by reducing the abundance of competitors, and promoting
useful species that are more nutrient demanding, such as chili
peppers (Capsicum spp.) (Junqueira et al., 2016a). Patches of
burití palms (Mauritia flexuosa), for instance, are associated with
fire history in the Gran Savana, where people have used fire
to prevent forest re-expansion into savannas (Montoya et al.,
2011). When people manage fire to reduce competition for
cultivated plants, fire-adapted species are often selected (Jakovac
et al., 2016a). Many plants, useful or not, have evolved to
tolerate contact with fire, allowing them to persist through
time in frequently burnt places (Bond and Midgley, 2001).
Some examples are the light-demanding sororoca (P. guyanense)
that resprout after fire, cumatí trees (Myrcia splendens) that
form patches in gaps managed with fire (Elias et al., 2013)
and babaçu palms that persist in burnt sites due to cryptogeal
germination (Jackson, 1974). The ancient connection between
fire and humans (Bowman et al., 2011) and the intense fire history
in Amazonian forests is revealed by the high charcoal abundance
in forests around old settlements (Bush et al., 2015), which are
expected to be dominated by fire-adapted species.
Planting is defined here as the intentional planting, sowing and
transplanting of seeds and seedlings to cultivated landscapes. It is
important to note that when seeds and seedlings are transported
by humans (see section Human Transportation of Useful Plants)
with the intention of planting, these categories overlap. When
humans disperse seed without this intention (e.g., when gathering
fruits in the forest) the overlap between planting and human
transportation doesn’t exist, which justifies separating these
categories of practices. Planting practices may increase a useful
plant’s performance, survival and reproduction because people
usually take care of seedlings after planting. In Amazonia,
several tree and palm species are planted mostly in agroforestry
systems, forest gardens and forest gaps surrounding settlements
(Denevan et al., 1984; Balée, 1993; Zent and Zent, 2012). In the
past, indigenous groups also planted several perennial species,
originating patches of useful trees and palm species across the
basin (Frikel, 1978). Therefore, the presence and abundance of
edible trees and palms in Amazonian forests and their proximity
to ancient settlements may indicate past indigenous planting
activities (Balée, 2013; Levis et al., 2017b). Some examples in
Amazonia are forest patches of Poraqueiba sericea (Padoch and
De Jong, 1987; Franco-Moraes, 2016) in western Amazonia, C.
brasiliense in the upper Xingu River (Smith and Fausto, 2016),
C. villosum in the lower Tapajós River (Alves et al., 2016), and B.
excelsa in Amapá (Paiva et al., 2011) that are all associated with
past indigenous planting.
Soil Improvement
In some parts of the Amazon basin, terra-firme forests are poor
in nutrients, which selected for plants with efficient nutrient-
conservation mechanisms (Herrera et al., 1978). Amerindians,
however, interfered with these processes by changing soil
structure and increasing soil fertility (Kleinman et al., 1995).
Soil improvement involves several practices, such as the addition
of charcoal and ashes that release nutrients and carbon in the
soil; the use of organic additives, such as human and animal
wastes, ash, garbage, crop residues, leaves, compost, cleared
weeds, seaweed, mulch, urine, ant nest refuse, turf, muck, and
water; and also by building mounds in floodable landscapes
(Denevan, 1995, 2001). The improvement of soil conditions
was observed for piquiá trees inside the forest, in which local
people accumulate leaf litter under the trees (Alves et al., 2016),
and for açaí, uxí, and peach palm through organic additives
(Shanley et al., 2016). Also, extremely fertile TPI were probably
created in pre-Columbian refuse heaps in which ash and charcoal,
human and animal wastes, and ceramics accumulated (Woods
and McCann, 1999; Schmidt et al., 2014). Although TPI soils
were a product of sedentary human settlement and cannot be
classified as a management practice, modern people usually take
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
advantage of these fertile soils to cultivate crops (Junqueira et al.,
2016b). Brown soils were probably formed in cultivation zones
with ash and charcoal that originated from frequent burning,
and by composting and mulching the soil (Denevan, 1995).
Unintentional and sometimes intentional soil improvement
practices that resulted in the creation of TPI and brown soils
were probably common in the past, since anthropogenic soils
occur across most of the Amazon basin (Woods et al., 2013).
The improvement of soil structure and fertility creates a new
environmental filter that favors plants of interest and excludes
species not adapted to the new soil conditions. Species with
adaptations to resist or tolerate fire or to benefit from fertile
soils may become dominant in improved soils. As a consequence,
useful species adapted to fertile soils can form aggregated patches
in TPI sites across the basin (Balée, 1989). This is may be case
H. balsamifera trees, dominant in soils previously burned in the
upper Negro River (Franco-Moraes, 2016), and palm species,
such as Elaeis oleifera,Attalea phalerata, and Astrocaryum
murumuru, which are indicators of anthropogenic soils along the
Madeira River (Junqueira et al., 2011).
As a synthesis of the information obtained about these
eight management practices, their interactions and how each
practice affects natural ecological processes, we present a new
conceptual model that explains the process of Amazonian
forest domestication. Following Goldberg et al. (2016), we
describe a temporal continuum from the late Pleistocene until
today. We also present spatial gradients from settlements
through swiddens to domesticated forests, and from old-
growth forests to domesticated forests, illustrating at which
distances from settlements these different practices operate to
form domesticated forests with different degrees of human
intervention. Although Goldberg et al. (2016) modeled human
population dynamics during the Holocene without data from
Central Amazonia, this model is the only one available describing
a temporal continuum of past human population in South
America. We considered a temporal dynamic that starts in the
Pleistocene when humans arrived, and follows human population
growth rates during the Holocene (Goldberg et al., 2016). In
our conceptual model, we considered pristine forests to exist
when humans had not yet altered natural ecological processes
(Denevan, 1992). Pristine forests were the norm during the
Pleistocene and, with at least 13,000 years of growing human
populations across the Amazon basin, pristine forests gradually
disappeared (Clement et al., 2015) and old-growth forests—
mature forests without recent human interference, but not
necessarily pristine (Wirth et al., 2009)—cover most of the basin
Field Surveys
All authorizations to conduct the study were obtained before
field work. The study was approved by the Brazilian Ethics
Committee for Research with Human Beings (Process n
10926212.6.3001.5020, 2013), the Federation of the Indigenous
Organizations of the Negro River–FOIRN and the Regional
Coordinator of the Brazilian National Indigenous Foundation -
FUNAI, and the Brazilian System of Protected Areas (SISBIO,
process n47373-1, 2014). In each village, we obtained the
informed consent of each local traditional or indigenous
leadership at the beginning of the study.
In the field, we studied 30 contemporary villages settled on
river banks distributed in nine sub-basins of four major rivers
(Madeira, Solimões, Negro, Tapajós) across Brazilian Amazonia
(see Supplementary Table 2 for names of the villages visited
and their distances to archaeological sites). We visited from 2
to 10 villages in each sub-basin and selected villages located on
or near archaeological sites with TPI. Archaeological sites with
anthropogenic soils are ancient sedentary settlements (Neves
et al., 2003), and they were chosen for our study because they
indicate long-term human occupation, where rich soils, new
landforms and domesticated plants accumulated through time in
response to human agency (Clement et al., 2015). In each village,
from March 2013 until March 2015 (3 months per year during
the rainy season), we searched for indigenous and traditional
ecological knowledge about the forest patches dominated by
useful plant species in the surroundings of these villages.
Of the 30 contemporary villages along river banks, 27 are
currently inhabited by traditional peoples (ribeirinhos) that
have lived there for at least one generation; most of them are
descendants of migrants who intermarried with local indigenous
peoples. Their daily activities include farming, fishing, hunting,
timber, and non-timber forest product extraction, and two
villages are involved in community-based tourism. Three villages
in the upper Negro River are inhabited by members of the
Baré indigenous group, descendants of Arawak speaking groups,
who lost their original language and adopted the Tupi-based
Nheengatu, taught by the missionaries.
In each village, we searched for patches of native forest
species used mainly as food resources. We focused on edible
fruits because previous studies showed that these resources
accumulated around ancient indigenous villages (Frikel, 1978;
Balée, 1989, 1993). We interviewed 56 local people (on average
2 per village) regarding the occurrence and distribution of
these forest patches, and used participatory mapping techniques
(Gilmore and Young, 2012) to locate these patches around
the villages. We used the suffix “zal” or “al,” which means
abundance, aggregation or patches in Portuguese, and “tíwa
(in the Nheengatu language) to communicate with local people.
These terms are used by contemporary people that associate
the suffix with the name of the dominant species and identify
a forest patch of useful species based on their traditional
knowledge. For instance, a patch of bacaba palm (Oenocarpus
bacaba/O. distichus) is named a bacabal in Portuguese and a
iwakátíwa in Nheengatu. All patches of useful species were
mapped with participatory mapping and complemented with
the information collected during guided tour (Gilmore and
Young, 2012; Albuquerque et al., 2014). Participatory mapping
techniques are used to map local knowledge about the landscape,
and to translate indigenous and local representations into
techno-scientific language (Chapin et al., 2005; Heckenberger,
2009; Gilmore and Young, 2012). All local residents were invited
to participate in a participatory mapping workshop that occurred
during one morning or afternoon in each village. People were
encouraged to draw and identify first the main local rivers,
second TPI sites, and third different patches of useful species on
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
maps made with georeferenced grids on top of recent cloud-free
LANDSAT TM images of the area. With participatory mapping,
we obtained the approximate location and size of TPI sites,
and patches of useful species surrounding the villages. With
guided tour we validated the location of at least one TPI site
and/or one patch of useful species per village. Village members
chose one person to guide us and visit the most accessible
forest and TPI site. During the guided tour, we collected
geographical coordinates of TPI sites and useful forest patches,
and documented all useful species observed according to local
knowledge. The botanical species were pre-identified in the field
using some books of fruit trees and palms (Henderson, 1995;
Cavalcante, 2010), and when possible, botanical material was also
collected for final identification. The botanical identification was
confirmed by José Ramos, a parataxonomist at INPA (Instituto
Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia). Some plants were only
identified to genus level in the field due to logistical limitations.
The distribution of all forest patches identified around the villages
was documented during the interviews, participatory mapping
and guided tour. In total, we studied 21 patches visited with local
informants dominated by 14 different useful species, as some
patches visited concentrate the same dominant species. Forest
patches are located up to 5 km from archaeological sites, and we
documented a minimum of four useful species, a maximum of 21,
and median of seven useful species per patch. In each of the nine
sub-basins visited in the field, we documented a minimum of six
useful forest patches dominated by different species, a maximum
of 14 and a median of nine patches.
We compared our results obtained from field surveys
and the literature review with field data from two villages
along the right margin of the lower Tapajós River, where
we documented all management practices performed by local
people with the species that dominate local forest patches. This
comparison served as ground-truth for our conceptual model.
During free listing interviews and guided tour (Albuquerque
et al., 2014) local informants described practices with which
they benefit useful species found in patches of this sub-
basin. In January and February of 2015, we interviewed 33
informants who know and use forest species in Maguarí and
Jamaraquá villages in the Tapajós National Forest (FLONA).
We also walked approximately 80 km along trails in the
FLONA Tapajós with the seven most experienced informants
to identify useful species in the forest. During these guided
tour, the informants explained how they manage the useful
species found in forest patches. With information about
how local residents manage useful species, we compared
the number and frequency of the practices obtained in the
field with the same information obtained from the literature
We used ArcGis software to map the information collected
in the field with participatory mapping and GPS. The closest
(minimum distance) and longest (maximum distance) linear
distances from each patch of useful species to the closest TPI
were calculated manually using a digital ruler. We calculated the
frequency of forest patches that occur at intervals of a minimum
distance of 1 km to the nearest TPI. Using the minimum distance
from forest patches to the closest TPI sites, we compared the
spatial gradient of our conceptual model (settlements, swiddens
or old-growth forests) with the location of the forest patches
found in the field: patches on top of TPI sites were associated with
pre-Columbian settlements, those located in fallows close to TPI
sites were associated with past swiddens, and forest patches more
distant from TPI sites were associated with old-growth forests,
and confirmed by local knowledge and the presence of large
A Conceptual Model of Forest
Domestication in Amazonia
Our conceptual model shows how pristine forests were converted
into domesticated forests by a long-term process involving
the interaction between eight human management practices
(Figure 1). The conceptual model presents three general aspects
of the forest domestication process: (1) a time span since the
Pleistocene (Figure 1A); (2) interactions among human practices
(arrows in Figure 1B); and (3) a spatial zone of influence
for each management practice (arrows in Figure 1C). First,
our model proposes that the frequency of these management
practices increases with human population in South America
(Goldberg et al., 2016), resulting in more extensive domestication
of Amazonian forests through the Holocene (Figure 1A).
Second, each arrow presented in our conceptual model indicates
interactions among a pair of categories of management, showing
that one practice can positively affect others (Figure 1B). For
instance, humans remove non-useful plants (Practice 1–P1)
while often selectively protecting useful individuals with desirable
phenotypes (P5), or plant selected individuals (P5) in forest gaps
(natural or created by humans–P1), swiddens and homegardens
(P7). Native Amazonians protect plants (P2) as sources of seeds
for future planting (P7) and selection (P5), and also to attract
animal dispersers (P3). A gradual transformation of the forest
is expected to occur by the interaction between humans (P4)
and non-human dispersers (P3). Seeds and seedlings of selected
useful plants (P5) are transported by humans from natural
to domesticated landscapes (P4), guaranteeing their planting
and propagation (P7). Fire management (P6) is often used in
association with protection of species (P2) with plants previously
selected for traits of interest (P5). The combination of fire
management (P6) with the protection of certain species (P2)
in domesticated landscapes may allow even useful fire-sensitive
plants to form patches in ancient cultivated systems. Ancient
planting practices (P7) attract dispersers (humans and non-
humans; P3 and P4) and improve soil conditions (P8). The
planting of useful edible trees (P7) attracts game animals that may
disperse their seeds throughout the area (P3), thus increasing
the abundance of the species locally. Indigenous people disperse
seeds of plants (P4) and plant them in agroforestry systems
and along forest trails (P7) when they move from one place
to another, increasing food availability during long walks in
the forests. Trees planted in agroforestry systems (P7) may
enrich soil fertility (P8), reproducing the nutrient-conservation
mechanism observed in the forest. By improving naturally
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
FIGURE 1 | Conceptual model illustrating the interaction of eight management practices and their effects on the domestication of forests through time. (A) Expected
trends in human population growth rate in Amazonia from fourteen to two thousand years ago before present (kyBP) based on published data for South America
outside of Amazonia (adapted from Goldberg et al., 2016). (B) Management practices (1–8), their interactions and their effects on the forest domestication process
through time [from top (16 kyBP) to bottom (0 kyBP)]. Natural ecological processes operate during all moments in time and along a domestication gradient from
pristine to domesticated forests. Management practices may have a positive direct effect (dark arrows) or hypothetical positive effect (light arrow) on other practices
that intensify as human population increases (from light green to dark green). (C) The forest domestication process in a spatial context of human influence from
settlements, through swiddens, domesticated forests to old-growth forests, which may have been domesticated in the past, but lack recent human intervention.
Domesticated forests can originate (arrows) from settlements and swiddens, or from old-growth forests. Our model describes an open-ended process.
nutrient-poor soils (P8), pre-Columbian societies enhanced
food production in Amazonian landscapes, also allowing their
population expansion.
Third, the gradient of soil improvement is illustrated in the
spatial representation in our conceptual model (Figure 1C). Five
practices, removal of non-useful plants (P1), protection of useful
plants (P2), attraction of non-human dispersers of useful plants
(P3), human transportation of useful plants (P4), and selection
of phenotypes useful to humans (P5) occur across the entire
gradient of human influence from settlements, through swiddens,
to domesticated forests to old-growth forests. Fire management
(P6), direct planting (P7), and soil improvement (P8) are
practices mainly used in swidden/fallows and settlements, giving
rise to domesticated forests with useful plants related to these
Relationships among Management
Practices: Evidence from the Literature
and Field
We found that all eight categories of management practices
described in the literature (Table 1) are also known by traditional
people in the two villages along the lower Tapajós River that we
studied (Figure 2). Transportation of plants by humans, planting
of useful plants and selection of desirable phenotypes were the
most frequent practices in the literature, whereas clearing the
understory, cutting lianas and weeding (P1-removal of non-
useful plants) and not cutting useful plants (P2-protection of
the useful) were the most cited practices in field interviews
(Figure 2). Attraction of dispersers and soil improvement were
the least frequent practices in the literature and field interviews,
documented for less than 40% of the species investigated.
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
FIGURE 2 | Frequency of useful species involved in each management practice based on the literature (black bars) and field interviews (gray bars). Information for 22
species was obtained from the literature and for 13 species in the field in two villages.
More than half of the useful plant species investigated in
the literature and the field are managed with at least five
practices. Based on the literature, four species (A. maripa,C.
villosum,M. flexuosa,T. cacao) are managed with seven practices,
and for these species at least five different uses were reported
(Supplementary Table 1). Based on field data, two species (C.
villosum and E. uchi) are managed with seven practices and
used for several purposes, such as food, medicine and hunting
(Supplementary Table 1). Local people reported that they do not
clear the land or use fire in places where aggregated patches of
these species occur, with the purpose of protecting the whole
population. One species, M. splendens, with only two uses
reported in the literature (manufacturing and fuel), is managed
with only one practice (P6 - fire management) based on the
Multi-species Patches of Useful Plants
We found multiple forest patches of useful species surrounding
the 30 contemporary villages visited in Amazonia (Figure 3).
In total, people cited 35 patches with different names and
corresponding to 38 useful species (Supplementary Table 1). The
most common patches were açaízal (E. precatoria), babacal (O.
bacaba), castanhal (B. excelsa), piquiázal (C. villosum), patauázal
(O. bataua), and uxízal (E. uchi) (Figure 4). Most patches are
common in more than one sub-basin visited and a few patches
are only common in one sub-basin visited; some examples of
localized patches are cf. Neoxythece elegans in the lower Madeira
River basin, Duguetia stenantha in the upper Solimões River
basin, H. balsamifera in the upper Negro River basin, and
Hymenea parvifolia in the lower Tapajós River basin. Detailed
information of the regional differences of forest patches across
Amazonia is given in Supplementary Tables 1, 3. Of all species
that dominate the patches, 90% are used for more than one
purpose (Figure 3).
Although forest patches are dominated by one species after
which they are named, they concentrated multiple useful species
that dominate forest patches in different sub-basins of Brazilian
Amazonia (Table 2). We visited 21 patches that are dominated
by 14 out of 38 useful species that form patches across the
basin. Palm species of the genus Oenocarpus occur in 75% of
the 21 forest patches visited across the basin. We found regional
differences in the composition of useful palm species that occur
in the forest patches: A. maripa were found in most patches of
the Madeira River basin, E. precatoria of the Solimões River basin,
O. bataua of the Negro River basin and O. distichus of the Tapajós
River basin. Forest patches dominated by B. excelsa species are
the most common and the most diverse patches: they concentrate
5–8 useful species that also are dominant species in other forest
patches in different parts of the basin (Figure 4 and Table 2).
In total, 87 useful species were cited in the patches visited
(Supplementary Table 3) and the number of useful species cited
increases with the number of patches visited (Supplementary
Figure 1).
Most patches are small in size (less than 1 km2), and
occur at various distances from archaeological sites (0–40 km),
implying that they may have originated from all spatial contexts:
settlements, old swiddens, or old-growth forests (Figure 5). Few
patches are restricted to TPI sites and old villages. Half of all
patches are located up to 1 km from the archaeological sites,
although some patches can be found up to 40 km away from
these sites (Figure 5 and Supplementary Figure 2). As a common
pattern and according to local people, patches dominated by
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FIGURE 3 | Maps of examples of useful forest patches around archaeological sites in four sub-basins of Brazilian Amazonia. Different sizes and shapes of forest
patches presented in the figures are based on local knowledge descriptions and local drawings. See Supplementary Table 1 for more information about the forest
patches presented in this figure. Archaeological sites are ancient sedentary settlements with anthropogenic soils (TPI) and have been re-occupied by contemporary
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FIGURE 4 | Forest patches of useful species found in nine Amazonian sub-basins. Shades of gray indicate the frequency of citation in each sub-basin (very light
gray–1 to black–7 citations). The total number of uses was obtained from both the literature review and field interviews. See Supplementary Table 1 for more
information on the forest patches and uses attributed to each species.
useful palm species are more common in valley forests, whereas
patches dominated by tree species occur commonly in other
environmental settings, such as plateau forests and white-sand
forests (campinaranas).
Based on our multidisciplinary approach, we provide a
framework for understanding how human practices have led
to the formation of patches of useful perennial plant species
across Amazonian forests. Our conceptual model portrays
how Amazonian peoples manage forests in multiple ways
through eight categories of management practices that interfere
with natural ecological processes and promote domesticated
forests around human settlements. The similarities between
ethnographic descriptions of management practices across the
basin and our field observations of two villages indicate the
commonness of these practices, suggesting that pre-Columbian
and contemporary peoples transformed forest composition at
varying distances from their settlements by multiple management
practices. In the field, we confirmed that multiple diverse
patches of useful species, currently managed by indigenous and
traditional peoples, occur mainly near these settlements. Overall,
our results support the view that these diverse patches of useful
plant species were created and maintained by human actions.
Our conceptual model also reflects positive long-term
interactions between humans and plants (Smith, 2011), as
described in other tropical regions worldwide (Wiersum, 1997a;
Michon, 2005; Kennedy, 2012; Reis et al., 2014; Boivin et al.,
2016; Roberts et al., 2017). Previous models had suggested that
the plant and forest domestication processes are associated with
the cultivation of domesticated tree crops (Wiersum, 1997a,b).
Although our model is inspired by previous studies (Harris, 1989;
Wiersum, 1997a,b), we present a new framework to understand
the domestication of Amazonian forests that simplifies the
complex network of interactions between human actions and
natural ecological processes. Because these interactions cannot be
understood by separately assessing only individual management
practices or species, the intricate groups of management practices
shown in our model illustrate how multiple human actions
interact to shape Amazonian forests. Species-specific details
are scattered in the literature, and here we synthesized this
information into a single model that can be tested with individual
site-specific situations.
In our model, forest domestication is defined as an
open-ended process (Rival, 2007; Kennedy, 2012), in which
domesticated forests can originate through varying degrees
of human intervention from settlements and swiddens, and
also from old-growth forests. This perspective makes the
typical distinction between hunter-gatherers vs. farming groups
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
TABLE 2 | List of useful species that occur in the 21 forest patches visited during guided tour.
Local name Sub-basin Dominant species N
Uses* Management* Other useful species in the patches Spatial context
Caiuézal São Félix Middle Madeira Elaeis oleifera 10/0.5 F,C,T,M,Ma,Co,Fu,Af 4,5,7 A. aculeatum; A. phalerata Settlements
Babaçual São Felix Middle Madeira Attalea speciosa 68/
1,2,5,6 A. aculeatum; A. maripa; Copaifera sp.; cf
Neoxythece elegans; Couma sp.;
E. precatoria; O. bacaba; O. bataua;
O. mapora; H. parvifolia
Castanhal Terra Preta Middle Madeira Bertholletia excelsa 3/
1,2,4,5,7 A. speciosa; A. maripa Swiddens/Old-
Castanhal Mata Alta Lower Madeira Bertholletia excelsa 32/
1,2,4,5,7 A. aculeatum; A. maripa; A. speciosa;
C. villosum; E. precatoria; H. brasiliensis;
O. mapora
Castanhal Talento Lower Madeira Bertholletia excelsa 23/
1,2,4,5,7 A. maripa; C. villosum; E. precatoria;
E. uchi; O. bataua; O. mapora
Jabutipúzal da Ponta Upper Solimões Duguetia stenantha 10/0.1 F,Af Planted in the villages A. aculeatum; B. excelsa; E. precatoria;
O. mapora; P. sericea
Jabutipúzal da Terra
Upper Solimões Duguetia stenantha 10/0.1 F,Af Planted in the villages H. parvifolia Swiddens
Castanhal Boa Vista Middle
Bertholletia excelsa 3/
1,2,4,5,7 A. edulis; A. aculeatum; C. villosum;
Couma sp.; O. bacaba
Castanhal Finado
Bertholletia excelsa 10/2.27 F,C,M,
1,2,4,5,7 A. maripa; E. uchi; C. villosum; Couma
sp.; E. precatoria
Patauátíwa Upper Negro Oenocarpus bataua 7/0.05 F,C,T,M,Ma,Co,
1,2,4,5,7 E. precatoria; M. flexuosa Old-growth
Japuratíwa Upper Negro Erisma japura 17/0.13 F Protected in the village E. precatoria; Hevea sp.; O. bacaba;
O. bataua
Tucumtíwa Upper Negro cf Astrocaryum
6/0.05 F,Ma Protected in the villages E. precatoria; I. deltoidea; O. bataua;
P. sericea
Castanhal Tapuruquara Middle Negro Bertholletia excelsa 15/
1,2,4,5,7 Anacardium sp.; A. maripa; A. aculeatum;
C. villosum; E. uchi; E. precatoria;
O. bacaba; O. bataua
Inajázal Tapuruquara Middle Negro Attalea maripa 19/
1,2,3,4,5,6,7 A. aculeatum; O. bacaba Swiddens
Patauázal Sítio São
Lower Negro Oenocarpus bataua 9/0.5 F,C,T,M,Ma,
1,2,4,5,7 M. flexuosa; O. bacaba Old-growth
Picada do Buritízal Lower Negro Mauritia flexuosa 12/0.5 F, C, T, M, Ma,
Co, A, O
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 Couma sp.; O. bataua Old-growth
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution | 14 January 2018 | Volume 5 | Article 171
Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
TABLE 2 | Continued
Local name Sub-basin Dominant species N
Uses* Management* Other useful species in the patches Spatial context
Jutaízal Jamaraquá Lower Tapajos Hymenea parvifolia 10/0.39 F,M,Co,
4 Swiddens
Uxízal Prainha Lower Tapajos Endopleura uchi /
Duckesia verrucosa
11/0.73 F,C,M,Co,A,Af 1,2,4,5,7,8 Anacardium sp.; C. villosum; H. parvifolia;
O. bataua
Seringal Jamaraquá Lower Tapajos Hevea brasiliensis 100/0.1 F,C,Ma,
Planted in the swiddens
A. spectabilis; A. vulgare; A. aculeatum;
O. distichus
Piquiázal Jamaraquá Lower Tapajos Caryocar villosum 16/1.2 F,C,M,
Fu,Ma,Co,A, Af,O
1,2,3,4,5,7,8 A. aculeatum; A. spectabilis; Miconia sp.;
O. distichus
Bacabal Prainha Lower Tapajos Oenocarpus distichus 30/0.11 F,C,T,Ma 1,2,3,4,5,7 A. maripa; H. brasiliensis; Miconia sp. Swiddens
The name of the forest patches, sub-basins visited, dominant species, number of individuals of the dominant species per kilometer walked during the tours, uses of the dominant species (*information from the literature review),
management practices of the dominant species (*numbers from the literature review), botanical name of useful species that form patches and were found in the tour and spatial context according to our conceptual model (settlements,
swiddens or old-growth forests) are described in this table. Use category: (F) Food. (C) Construction, (T) Thatch, (Fu) Fuel, (M) Medicinal, (Ma) Manufacturing or Technology, (Co) Commerce, (A) Attractive for game, (Af) Animal food,
(R) Ritualistic, and (O) Other. Management practices: (1) removal of non-useful plants, (2) protection of useful plants, (3) attraction of non-human dispersers of useful plants, (4) human transportation of useful plants, (5) selection of
phenotypes useful to humans, (6) fire management, (7) planting, and (8) soil improvement. See Supplementary Table 3 for the complete scientific name of all species.
inappropriate for the Amazonian context (Terrell et al., 2003;
Kennedy, 2012), as most ancient Native Amazonians (often
characterized as hunter-gatherers) were actually practicing
many activities, including planting tree species (Frikel, 1978).
Amazonian forests that were once cultivated and domesticated
are often transformed into swiddens or settlements as a cyclic
pattern that has also been observed in Indonesian forests
(Michon, 2005). Because early successional species usually
depend on forest gaps for recruiting, they are maintained
with management practices, similar to fully domesticated
plant populations that require human care for survival and
reproduction (Clement, 1999).
Although it is likely that current management practices
maintain the legacy of past societies (Junqueira et al., 2017), the
effects of past forest domestication have been detected in forests
even without recent management activities (Van Gemerden et al.,
2003; Dambrine et al., 2007; Ross, 2011; Levis et al., 2017b).
The persistent effect of pre-Columbian plant domestication on
modern forest composition has been revealed in Amazonian
old-growth forests (Junqueira et al., 2017; Levis et al., 2017b),
secondary forests (Junqueira et al., 2010) and even in highly
dynamic homegardens growing in archaeological sites (Lins et al.,
2015). Domesticated species adapted to stable soil conditions
created by management practices, such as TPI, may persist for
a long time after abandonment (Quintero-Vallejo et al., 2015).
This may explain why domesticated palms dominate modern
forests growing on pre-Columbian mounds, anthropogenic soils
and geoglyphs abandoned more than 400 years ago (Erickson
and Balée, 2006; Quintero-Vallejo et al., 2015; Watling et al.,
2017b). Another possible explanation for this persistence is
the continuous recruitment of useful and domesticated plants
present in the forest seed bank (Lins et al., 2015). Pre-Columbian
peoples may also have played a major role in disseminating large
multi-seeded fruits within and across Neotropical biomes during
the Holocene, resulting in the spread of diverse patches of useful
plants associated with human settlements and trails (Guix, 2005).
Human-mediated dispersal of invasive plants is well-documented
(Hodkinson and Thompson, 1997; Nathan et al., 2008); however,
ecological studies frequently overlook this mechanism when
considering native species (Levis et al., 2017a).
Modern Amazonian peoples who live on pre-Columbian
settlements seem to have inherited indigenous knowledge,
including these management practices that benefit useful and
domesticated plant populations. Our field data show that most
useful species dominant in forest patches occur in more than one
sub-basin visited, suggesting a widespread use and management
of forest resources by past and contemporary peoples. The
forest domestication process was assimilated by contemporary
societies through the transmission of indigenous knowledge from
one generation to another, as described for indigenous groups
from Ecuadorian Amazonia (Zurita-Benavides et al., 2016) and
traditional people in Brazilian Amazonia (Alves et al., 2016).
Villages with homegardens that were occupied by several pre-
Columbian cultures contain a higher beta diversity of useful
plants compared to villages with homegardens occupied by a
single culture (Lins et al., 2015), suggesting that previously
existing useful plants were incorporated into new agroforestry
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Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
FIGURE 5 | Occurrences of patches of useful species along a distance gradient from archaeological sites. Median (dark line), first and third quartile (rectangles),
minimum and maximum distances (dotted line) from the forest patches to the closest archaeological site are presented. Archaeological sites are ancient sedentary
settlements with anthropogenic soils (TPI) and have been re-occupied by contemporary peoples. Black dots are extreme values (outliers). No data is available for three
species because people couldn’t determine the location of these patches in the maps we used.
systems when old villages are re-occupied (Miller and Nair,
2006). Some practices, however, have changed in intensity
and extension through time. Slash-and-burn agriculture, for
instance, has increased since the arrival of European societies
that introduced metal tools to cut down the forest (Denevan,
2001). In pre-Columbian times, sedentary societies frequently
improved soil conditions by managing fire in their habitation
and cultivation zones (Denevan, 2001; Neves et al., 2003;
Woods et al., 2013). Sedentary societies with high human
population densities were responsible for the formation of
anthropogenic soils that are no longer being created on a
broad scale (Neves et al., 2003). These same anthropogenic
soils, however, are widely used by modern societies to cultivate
crops, allowing the diversification and intensification of food
production in Amazonia (Woods et al., 2013; Junqueira et al.,
Amazonian societies managed fire, planted useful species
and improved soils that resulted in substantial transformation
in forests close to their homes. Although some scholars argue
for a localized impact involving these three practices in pre-
Columbian Amazonia, associating them with the margins of the
main rivers (McMichael et al., 2012, 2014; Bush et al., 2015;
Piperno et al., 2015), the impact of long-term management
practices has been detected in the forests of interfluvial areas
(Levis et al., 2012; Franco-Moraes, 2016; Watling et al., 2017b)
and across the Amazon basin (Levis et al., 2017b). These
findings suggest that even in remote areas, far from known
archaeological sites, contemporary people also manage the forest,
protecting useful species and removing the non-useful, which
are the most frequent practices reported by contemporary
societies. Logistical limitations constrain our ability to detect
the long-term effects of these practices away from current
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution | 16 January 2018 | Volume 5 | Article 171
Levis et al. Amazonian Forest Domestication
human settlements (Stahl, 2015), and even the participatory
techniques used in this study are based on current knowledge
about the forest, requiring ethnographic projection to infer the
impact of past peoples. For instance, patches of rubber tree
(Hevea brasiliensis) have been managed by modern societies
driven by economic interest since the mid-nineteenth century
(Schroth et al., 2003), but were probably managed differently
before that time. Although several socio-economic factors
push contemporary peoples to concentrate their activities on
market-oriented forest resources (Jakovac et al., 2016b), they
occasionally use and manage forest patches located up to 40
km from their villages for hunting animals and gathering fruits
(Figure 5;Franco-Moraes, 2016). As an alternative approach,
the abundance and richness of useful plants, especially of
domesticated species, might be used to predict the location of
ancient human settlements in these remote Amazonian areas
(Levis et al., 2017b).
Future multidisciplinary studies that combine alternative
methods may help to reconstruct forest composition dynamics
(Stahl, 2015), as Watling et al. (2017b) did in the geoglyph
region of Acre, revealing more details of the influence of past
peoples in Amazonian forests. The integration of paleoecology,
archaeology, archaeobotany and forest ecology is a promising
combination (Mayle and Iriarte, 2014; Iriarte, 2016; Watling
et al., 2017a,b). In southwestern Amazonia, archaeobotanical
remains have revealed that past peoples consumed a rich
diet, including many palm fruits (Dickau et al., 2012). The
increase in palm abundance is also visible in soil profiles of
archaeological sites across the region (McMichael et al., 2015;
Watling et al., 2017b), suggesting that past societies enriched the
forest with useful palms to improve food production. Today,
useful and domesticated palms are dominant in southwestern
Amazonian forests (Levis et al., 2017b), growing on abandoned
pre-Columbian mounds, anthropogenic soils and geoglyphs
created by past management practices (Erickson and Balée,
2006; Quintero-Vallejo et al., 2015; Levis et al., 2017b; Watling
et al., 2017b). Many palm species were found in most of the
forest patches investigated here, suggesting long-term human
management. Regional contrasts in palm and other plant species
composition across Amazonia may reveal different human
practices or specific environmental conditions that should be
investigated in detail.
We conclude that our literature review, conceptual model
and field results contribute to explain how domesticated forests
were formed in Amazonia, in part by revealing how integrated
categories of management practices interfere with natural
ecological processes that shape plant communities in tropical
forests. Different degrees and types of management, cultural
preferences and environmental conditions may lead to a wide
variety of outcomes and explain why diverse combinations
of useful species were found in Amazonian forest patches.
Insights from agroforestry systems in tropical and sub-tropical
regions confirm that indigenous management practices have
been used worldwide to domesticate plant species and entire
forest landscapes (Wiersum, 1997a,b; Michon, 2005; Kennedy,
2012; Reis et al., 2014). Learning about indigenous knowledge
of forest management is important not only to understand the
plant and landscape domestication processes, but also to guide
policies for forest conservation, local people’s empowerment,
and food production (Michon et al., 2007; Roberts et al.,
2017). In Amazonia today, millions of people live in rural
landscapes, with partial dependence on forest resources for their
well-being, and with profound local knowledge that should be
incorporated in environmental conservation and management
CL conceived the study; CL, BF, PM, BL, RA, JF-M, JL, and EK
collected data; CL, BF, PM, BL, RA, JF-M, JL, EK, FB, MP-C, FC,
and CC designed the analyses; CL, BF, PM, BL, RA, JF-M, JL, and
EK performed the analyses; CL, BF, PM, BL, RA, JF-M, JL, EK,
FB, MP-C, FC, and CC discussed further analyses; CL, BF, PM,
BL, RA, JF-M, JL, FB, MP-C, FC, and CC wrote the manuscript.
Fundação de Amparo a Pesquisa do Estado do Amazonas -
FAPEAM Universal proc. no. 3137/2012 and 062.03137/2012;
Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e
Tecnológico - CNPq Universal proc. no. 473422/2012-3
and 458210/2014-5.
We thank local residents for their participation, the Instituto
de Desenvolvimento Agropecuário e Florestal do Amazonas, the
Centro Estadual de Unidades de Conservação do Amazonas,
the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade,
the Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá, the
Instituto Socioambiental de São Gabriel da Cachoeira, the
Cooperativa Mista da Flona do Tapajós and the Federação
das Organizações Indígenas do Rio Negro for field assistance,
and Sara Deambrozi Coelho for information about the uses of
species. CL thanks CNPq for a doctoral scholarship, RA and JL
thank INPA and CNPq for research scholarships, JF-M thanks
CNPq for a master’s scholarship, FC and CC thank CNPq for
research fellowships, BF thanks São Paulo Research Foundation
(FAPESP) for grant #2016/25086-3. BL thanks FAPEAM for
research fellowship and FAPESP for grant #2015/24554-0.
The Supplementary Material for this article can be found
online at:
Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution | 17 January 2018 | Volume 5 | Article 171
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
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be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
The reviewer BS and handling Editor declared their shared affiliation.
Copyright © 2018 Levis, Flores, Moreira, Luize, Alves, Franco-Moraes,Lins, Konings,
Peña-Claros, Bongers, Costa and Clement. This is an open-access article distributed
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Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution | 21 January 2018 | Volume 5 | Article 171
... Desenvolvimentos disciplinares e transdisciplinares recentes, pelo contrário, apresentam evidências de persistentes e significativos legados físicos deixados nas paisagens por atividades de manejo e cultivo (e.g. CRUZ et al., 2020;ERICKSON, 2000ERICKSON, , 2008LEVIS et al., 2017LEVIS et al., , 2018REIS et al., 2014). ...
... Práticas como remoção de plantas não-úteis, proteção, transporte e cultivo de plantas úteis, atração de dispersores animais não-humanos, seleção de fenótipos, manejo do fogo e melhoramento do solo podem resultar em fortes marcas nas paisagens. Criadas por ações humanas milenares, algumas dessas marcas são percebidas até hoje, mesmo em áreas sem atividades recentes, indicando que as criações e transformações paisagísticas oriundas de práticas de manejo e cultivo são bastante persistentes (LEVIS et al., 2018). ...
... Eles incluem aterros, montículos, redes de transporte e comunicação, terra preta de índio (TPI), manejo através do fogo, manejo de corpos d'água, ilhas de florestas antropogênicas e concentrações de plantas úteis e domesticadas ao redor de antigos assentamentos. Através dessas práticas, os grupos amazônicos modificaram a composição da floresta (ERICKSON, 2008;LEVIS et al., 2018). ...