Research Article

Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition

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Science  03 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6328, pp. 925-931
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal0157

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  • Insufficient evidence of a “domesticated Amazonia”
    • Crystal McMichael, Assistant Professor, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam
    • Other Contributors:
      • Dolores Piperno, Scientist Emerita, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
      • Mark Bush, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology

    Methodological biases predispose Levis et al. (1) to conclude that ancient domestication has shaped Amazonia. Their analysis fails to consider four centuries of European influence, native population recovery in the 1600s, and the Rubber Boom (ca. 1850 - 1920 AD) that followed the pre-Columbian era. Ancient occupation sites have higher likelihoods of subsequent settlement (2); people today still cultivate on Amazonian Dark Earths formed in ancient times (3). The analysis also ignores that Amazonian plant distributions are patchy (4), and the domesticates are native species that were naturally abundant in some areas without human intervention. Levis et al. consider all occurrences of trees identified as domesticates as human-induced. Also, many domesticated species in the study have evidence of cultivation only in the modern era or in geographic regions outside Amazonia, with little to no evidence for their pre-Columbian use in Amazonia.
    Their results, furthermore, did not support their conclusions. Environmental conditions and unknown factors explained a significantly higher proportion of the variance in the dataset compared with the ‘human’ metric (c. 20%)(1, Fig. 5). Domesticates significantly decreased at distances over 20 km from archaeological sites (1, Figs. S7-S8, S10). When forests sitting atop archaeological sites were excluded from the analyses, no relationship existed between humans and domesticates for the entirety of Amazonia, and it remained significant...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • Do multiple origins of domestication matter for Amazon Forest?

    In their Research Article Levis et al (1) provide important new evidence to resolve the controversial debate as to the extent humans, specifically pre-Columbian Societies have influenced tropical forest across the Amazon Basin. Levis et al. demonstrate that domesticated forest tree species are five times more likely to be hyperdominant in forests on or around known archaeological sites. To substantiation their findings Levis et al highlight that “species domesticated in one particular environmental setting had wide geographical distributions and tended to be more abundant in locations not associated with their known or hypothetical origins of domestication”. While we agree that a disassociation of domesticated species hyperdominance with putative origins of domestication is one potentially important signal, it is important to highlight that for many hyperdominant species multiple origins of domestication may well be the case. This has been documented in economically and ecologically important forest tree species such as the Brazil nut and cacao, for which there are at least two independent origins of domestication (2, 3).

    Evidence suggests that two of the three traditional cacao cultivars in the Amazon (the Ecuadorian Nacional cacao and the Amelonado from eastern Brazil), are likely to have been domesticated from different source populations in Western and Central Amazonia, respectively (2, 4, 5). Levis et al (2017) only identify one origin of domestication i...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.

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