Prehistoric Amazonia

Most researchers agree that human occupation of the Amazon Basin began around 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, based on studies of ancient cave paintings near Monte Alegre, in Pará state. Around 6000 years ago, the Tapajoara people, living near present-day Santarém, started creating simple clay urns, the oldest known pottery in the Americas, and other indigenous Amazonians began mastering rudimentary agriculture.

By the last few centuries of the pre-Christian era, the Amazon was home to numerous cohesive communities, numbering in the thousands and led by chiefs. They produced good-quality pottery and cultivated maize and manioc intensively. It was during this time that the techniques of agriculture still used today were first developed, including selective burning, crop rotation and allowing the land periodic ‘rest periods’ to regenerate.

The Marajoara were among the most sophisticated pre-colonial Christian-era Amazonians, flourishing between AD 400 and 1350 on the wetlands of present-day Ilha de Marajó. They built massive earth platforms called aterros – the largest were 6m high and 250m long – to escape the annual floods. They buried their dead in elaborate urns, considered to be the most sophisticated ceramics produced in pre-colonial Brazil.

Interestingly, early human occupation of the Amazon has emerged as a proxy for today's environmental debates. Conservationists have long argued that large-scale occupation and development is incompatible with a healthy rainforest. However, recent research suggesting the early Amazon may have been far more populated than previously thought has been used by some to argue that greater exploitation of the rainforest is not only harmless, but has been part of its history for millennia.

The Buffaloes of Marajó

Ilha de Marajó is well known for it's large population of water buffalo. Legend has it the buffalo are descended from animals that swam ashore from a French ship that sank while en route from India to French Guiana. There aren't many facets of life that don't include a buffalo component, from buffalo cheese and steaks to the buffalo-mounted police force.