Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Amazonian Civilization?

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

Amazonian Civilization?

Article excerpt

Amazon Civilization

Before the arrival of Iberian explorers, conquerors and colonists, was there in the Amazon River basin of South America a civilization, properly so called, and separate from, not merely an outcropping of the Andean civilization? Opposing viewpoints, based on documentary and physical evidence and probabilistic reasoning have been vigorously asserted.

The period in question is the pre-Columbian (or for Brazilians pre-Cabralian) era before and up to 16th and 17th century contact with Amazonia by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, missionaries, conquistadors, colonists, and bandeirantes (gold-seekers and slave-raiders).

The space in question, the Amazon River basin, is an area of about 2 and ½ million square miles, nearly 7 million km2, mostly having a humid semi-hot equatorial climate and covered by vegetation of a tropical wet evergreen forest or tropical rain forest type (FAO-UNESCO 1971, 15-17, 22-24).

The key question for civilizationists is: were there Amazonian cities before European contact? "Civilizations" require "cities," and "cities" are the defining feature of "civilizations." (Wilkinson, 1992, 1993, 2008) And by "cities," we mean 4th magnitude settlements, i.e. settlements with a population of not less than the order of 10^4 (~10,000; see Appendix A for detail). If there were "cities" in the Amazon basin when European explorers first examined it, there was "civilization" there, and perhaps a distinct and separate civilization-or more than one.

Did Amazonian cities exist? If we were to go only by the earliest reports of Spanish and Portuguese expeditions-the expeditions of Francisco do Orellana (1541-1542), Pedro de Ursúa (aka Orsúa; 1560-1561), and Pedro Teixeira (1637-1639), the answer would certainly have been in the affirmative.

The first reports of Amazonia derive from the Orellana expedition of 1541-1542. Francisco de Orellana (1511-1546) became the leader of a Spanish detachment that followed the Coca River (now in eastern Ecuador) downstream to its confluence with the Napo, and the Napo to its own confluence with the Amazon. The Orellana expedition then navigated the Amazon to its estuary at Marajó Island, and then followed the Atlantic coast northward to Venezuela, terminating there after many observations and vicissitudes.

The "observations" noted settlements and peoples, among them "Amazons," i.e. women warriors. The "vicissitudes" included gifting, trading and robbery by the expeditionaries and gifting, flight and resistance by the riverbank dwellers.

The next Amazon expedition downriver was that of Pedro de Ursúa (1526-1561), which departed Quito in 1560. Ursúa was assassinated by the infamous Lope de Aguirre (?-1561). Ursúa was succeeded by Fernando de Guzmán, likewise assassinated by Aguirre, who replaced him, rebelled against Spain, proclaimed himself a traitor and the "Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme," and was at last put down and killed while attempting to conquer northern South America. There followed a long interval until the far more placid upriver-and-back Portuguese expedition (1637-1639) of Pedro Teixeira (d. 1641), which avoided drama and acquired knowledge.

The three expeditions differed from one another in significant ways. Orellana's expedition was unprepared, impromptu and arguably mutinous. It had been detached from a larger expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, and tasked with foraging and resupply of food, but instead set off on its own. Ursúa's was better prepared, but distracted by its high drama, murders, wanderings and rebellion. Teixeira's was best prepared, with 47 canoes sent upriver filled with 1200 men, women and boys, plus arms, ammunition, food and trade goods (Acuña 1859, 55; Hemming, 230).

Each of the expeditions had its chronicler, and each chronicler had his own outlook, disposition and competence. The observations of the Orellana expedition were reported by its Dominican chaplain, Fray Gaspar de Carvajal (c. …

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