The quest for El Dorado, the ghost province of the Spanish empire, ended in lunacy and death. Yet it now turns out that the gold the conquistadors sought lay plainly in their sight. Archaeologists have now determined that up to an eighth of the Amazon rainforest is anthropogenic — shaped by human hands — and that the early reports of thriving civilizations in the depths of the rainforest were true. Populations of millions were supported by a method of soil creation now known as terra preta. So successful was this method, that the Amazon rainforest hosted the only advanced civilizations in the history of the planet to leave the Earth more fertile and rich than when they arrived.
Knowledge of terra preta was lost with the collapse of these high Amazonian cultures, primarily from introduced European diseases (which wiped out up to 99% of the population). As the gleaming white cities reported by Friar Carvajal in Orellana’s 1541 expedition down the Amazon river were swallowed up by the jungle, the surviving indigenous peoples were either enslaved or resorted to slash and burn methods of cultivation. Memory faded of the sacred soil and was mostly lost.
Yet traditions continued, and recently archaeologists have resoundingly vindicated not only Carvajal’s account, but the profound ecological wisdom of the Amazonian method of soil cultivation — a wisdom and technique that is now being reintroduced to native communities by anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin at her center for biocultural regeneration, Sachamama, located in the Peruvian high Amazon in the town of Lamas.
This discovery is of global significance, for the key ingredient of terra preta, bio-char, not only fixes nutrients in the ground but also takes carbon out of the atmosphere. In short, the widespread adoption of this pre-Colombian method of the soil creation can significantly offset global climate change — along with creating permanently fertile soil.
Please see this recent interview with Frédérique Apffel-Marglin on her work at her Sachamama center in the video above.