Amazonia: Men and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise

by Dr. Betty Meggers

"The persistence of the myth of boundless productivity in spite of the ignominious failure of every large-scale effort to develop the region constitutes one of the most remarkable paradoxes of our time."

Thinking about the impact of the book

This book, originally published in 1971, and was considered at that time a pioneering work in the new field of cultural ecology. In understandable language, and logical prose Dr. Meggers explains why the pre-Columbian population never developed social complexity or the density that some anthropologists suggest. The main part of this book focuses on the adaptation of human cultures to the environment, but a clear understanding of the environment is necessary for any discussion of adaptation.

My notes here focus on what I learned about the physical environment from Dr. Megger's book. Her chapters on the Kayapo and the Camayura were helpful in understanding the tribe that she covers which is perhaps most similar to the Tapirape is the Camayura who are related to the Tapirape and the Kayapo who lived in the same area but have very different cultures. The sections in her book dealing with how the indigenous people have adapted to their environment are fascinating and I recommend that if you have time you at least read them through once.

We have seen the Amazon as a paradise. After all, trees grow on average 50% taller than trees in the temperate world. Spectacular flowers grow in profusion. Exotic fruits like pineapple, mango, papaya, and bananas came from this place. The number of species in the rain forest, both plant and animal, is astounding. An acre of forest may contain 300 species of tree alone, while an acre in a temperate forest contains only 6! So how can this not be paradise?

Some scientists estimate that the amazonian forest is home to as many as 23,000 distinct forms of life. Brazil has more primate species and in sheer numbers, more terrestrial vertebrate animals than any other nation on earth. So how can a forest rich enough to support all this be considered a counterfeit paradise? Dr. Meggers book makes clear that the relationships are complex and sometimes very fragile in this environment.

Understanding the differences between temperate and tropical ecology are essential to understanding why it is a counterfeit paradise. Dr. Megger's book made clear those contrasts. Things that I had taken for granted in the temperate world were set ajar. She disassembled my world view and then put the pieces back together in a way that makes clear the interaction that occurs in the tropics. From the first page she forces you to realize that Nothing happens in isolation. She does this by making the connections between the land forms, climate, equatorial location, animals, plants and people in a way that alters your understanding.

For those of us with only the perspective provided by the popular media or some of the superficial publications available for teachers and the general public the problems are often oversimplified. Most authors break down the entire problem of the rain forest into discrete units. So discrete, in fact, that we often miss the overarching concepts. These units are;

The interaction among people, plants, animals and earth over centuries of change developed a complex, and very successful means of reacting to this incredibly complex environment. Dr. Megger's book helped me understand some of the more basic concepts that make it possible to be an advocate for awareness of the problems and needs of this unique region of our world.

This understanding has prompted me to ask the same questions about our temperate world. After I complete this project I will seek answers to what the effects of deforestation of our temperate world have been. I will also have some issues to face related to our treatment of the indigenous people of North America.

Transformative information contained in the book:

"The combination of great geological antiquity, warm temperature, and heavy rainfall accounts for the remarkable infertility of Amazonian soil. In contrast to temperate regions, where physical weathering is the primary process of soil formation, chemical weathering predominates in the tropics." Meggers defines the Amazon by geologic formation and age, uniform climate, and equatorial location. The usual definition gives a geographical outline of the area. Dr. Meggers definition forces a deeper understanding. Her use of land form and age, climate and location immediately set up a new way of thinking about the Amazon. The three factors which she uses to define the Amazon interact to form what she calls a 'remarkably homogeneous environment.'


Dr. Meggers just established that most of the soil in the rain forest has been severely leached and eroded with only a small amount of deposit from the Andean tributaries (these are the rivers that carry a rich load of minerals and silt). She lists three determinants for soil quality.

  1. 1. The soil of Europe and North America were laid down in the Pleistocene era while the youngest rain forest soil dates from Tertiary. Remember that the Guayana and Brazilian shields are the oldest on earth, dating from the Precambrian and Paleozoic eras, and have endured millions of years of weathering. This means that the soil is clay and sand which are acid soils. Dr. Meggers points out that the soils are so poor that in the temperate world they would be barren.
  2. 2. Something I never thought about was the importance of humus. It increases the ability of soil to hold onto water and helps plants to absorb nutrients. Dr. Meggers points out that soil temperature must drop below 77 degree for formation of humus. At the higher temperatures bacterial activity rises to the point that humus decomposition exceeds the rate of formation. Higher soil temperature also encourages breakdown of the material that makes humus into carbon dioxide, nitrogen, ammonia, and nitrate, large proportions of which then escape into the air as gas.
  3. 3. The final determinant of soil quality is rainfall. Clearly it impacts soil by leaching out chemicals and through erosion, but another factor in the Amazon is the rate of flow. In a river the rate of flow determines the scouring capacity of the river. Meandering rivers like those in the Amazon basin are indicative of rivers where this kind of activity takes place. A doubled speed of flow quadruples the carrying capacity of the river and the size of the particles transported increases 64 times! Like so many things, once erosion begins it takes a life of its own. When you couple that with the small amount of organic material in the soil it adds exponentially to the problem. leading to the formation of laterite, an irreversible process which renders the soil completely unable to support plant life.

There are two primarily two ecosystems within Amazonia. The first is the Terra Firme. Here, according to Meggers, resources are thinly distributed but are available continuously. The second region is the Varzea which is the Amazon flood plain where life is determined by the rise and fall of the river. There are times of real scarcity and times of abundance. The Verzea is the narrow area where the floods deposit the soil from the Andes.

How the forest nourishes plants

If this is true how does anything grow in the tropical forest? Dr. Meggers suggests that is the ingenious adaptation of vegetation that captures, stores and recycles nutrients thus mitigating the impact of soil and climate. In temperate climates nutrients are stored and delivered via the soil. She lists several examples of the way the tropical environment compensates.