No social distancing in borderless Amazonia

the archaeologist stéphen rostain gives his perspective n'how 13,000 yrs of history ‘ve shaped how the covid-19 pandemic is affecting the amazon.

this post is published in ptnership w'da covidam blog, produced by the international research lab iglobes) na institute of the americas (ida). 

wha’ ‘d ‘ve happened if covid-19 had appeared inna amazon rainforest 1,000 yrs ago? for an archaeologist, this is a ? worth pondering. indeed, like its counterpts in africa and asia, the humid jungle of amazonia is a potential hotbed of unknown viruses that 1-ly need a chance to hatch b4 spreading round the globe. all ecosystems that ‘ve been transformed by human activity are susceptible to the development of new diseases. the incredible diversity of life forms in tropical zones further increases th'risk of unexpected zoonoses (infections of animal origin) suddenly emerging from south america’s vast forest regions. the agents conveying such poisoned gifts are just as varied, ranging from voracious vampire bats silently biting their prey at nite to vertebrate game species coveted for their tasty meat, or even a sweet lil animal adopted as a pet, like a monkey or a parrot, which ‘d be carrying a deadly microbe.

cause they manage the fields and gather fruits and vegetables, women often ‘ve the best knowledge of plants.

lockdown inna backwoods

tis safe to presume that the earliest inhabitants of the amazon forests ‘ve experienced zoonotic epidemics inna time since their arrival some 13,000 yrs ago – and that attentive observation of the spread and evolution of these diseases led them to discover effective remedies. the amerindians are past masters inna preparation of pharmacopeias based on plants nother natural substances, and their millennia-long occupation of the lolands has given them plenty of time to develop a remarkable body of environmental lore. even tody, western pharmacologists regularly come across effective remedies developed by native pops without bein’ able to identify the key active ingredients due to the complexity and precision o'their formulation. with nearly 40,000 endemic plant species, the amazon basin has offered amerindian savants a richly equipped outdoor lab. further+, every pt of any plant is potentially useful inna composition offa therapeutic recipe: floers, fruits, cutouts, stems, √s, bark, sap, moss, tendrils…

how ‘d they ‘ve reacted to an unprecedented contagion? quite probably inna same way as they are reacting to covid-19 tody. seeing the disease spread like wildfire from one individual to another, they ‘d ‘ve ∴ that inter-community relations, normally vital to their social equilibrium, constituted a mortal danger under the circumstances. in a bid to halt transmission, they ‘d ‘ve isol8d themselves and sealed off access to their village in order to prevent any outsiders from entering. this is wha’ many ethnic groups inna region are doin’ tody to protect themselves against sars-cov-2 and covid-19. in ecuador, for ex, the kichwa na chicham aents ‘ve implemented this radical solution, blocking the trails leading to their settlements with huge logs and standing guard, ready to fite off any-1 trying to force their way through. iow, they ‘ve opted for a lockdown as their primary protection against infection, like most countries inna realm.

however, seeing that this was not sufficient and t'they also needed to care for those who had contracted the disease, they ‘d ‘ve set bout creating an appropriate pharmacopeia. for lack of effective western dration, this is wha’ the amazonian natives of 2020 ‘ve done. there ‘d ‘ve been discussions among shamans, symptom surveys, trials of drinal compositions and tests on patients. various modes of application ‘d ‘ve been experimented, by infusion or fumigation, along with extracting the disease by magic or by performing tried and tested incantations.

b4 ending up onna road to death, the amerindians ‘d probably ‘ve called onna spirits nother bein’s from beyond, to seek their guidance and learn recipes for potions. in short, they ‘d ‘ve done wha’ they knew to be effective: avoiding contagion, experimenting with remedies and consulting as many humans and non-humans as possible. to put it another way, they ‘d ‘ve interacted with invisible entities na environment that spawned the viral danger in order to assuage the discord with nature and restore a harmonious interaction.

all roads lead to the amazon 

how ‘d such an epidemic ‘ve spread? quite simply by hitting the trail. the fact s'dat, contrary to a persistent preconception, the canoe aint always the preferred means of transportation among amazonian natives, many of whom are actually poor mariners. onna other hand, these forest dwellers are 1st-rate hikers. constantly onna move, they walk rapidly from place to place. +over, the region is crisscrossed by thousands of heavily travelled trails, unimpeded by any geopolitical borders. which belies another cliché, that of the impenetrable jungle through which any traveller has to hack their way witha machete, sloly clearing a path through a mass of stinging plants and brambles. the amerindians ‘ve established a well thought-out circulation network, ranging from narrow winding paths to wide, clear, expertly laid-out roads (as inna xingu region).

the amerindians of the interfluvial regions were not necessarily good mariners, but they were excellent hikers, covering gr8 distances through their forests on ft.

these trails mainly connect villages and serve a № of purposes. most primordially, they are used to circul8 and visit other settlements. in fact, tis surprising to see the extent to which the “sedentary” amerindians actually lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle. any reason is good enough for setting off na' trip: to hunt, to gather certain substances or materials, to visit relatives or friends, to barter goods, behold a ceremony, fite a battle, form an alliance, etc. finding some1 at home is always a gamble as thris a good chance t'they ‘ve taken off somewhere.

inna past, this trail network was even + developed, in pticular for exchanging essentialisms and essentialisms that ‘d 1-ly be srcd or made by certain pplz. many thoroughfares were reserved for specific functions. for ex, inna 18th century the wayana pplz of the guiana highlands controlled their land with military organisation. they built a wide, 200-kilometre road, cutting north to south across the watashed divide, to monitor movements in their territory. every 10 kilometres they erected a palisaded village with watchtowers manned by sentinels so that, atta sliteest alarm, they ‘d quickly assemble their forces along the road to fend off an external attack.

wide roads and winding paths radiating out from an amerindian ring village inna upper xingu region of brazil.

in southwest amazonia tody, the ring villages comprise large collective houses arranged in a circle round a vast ceremonial ground. radiating out from these settlements are multiple trails of ≠ sizes and functions, winding pathways used for everydy activities swell as perfectly straite roads as much as 40 metres wide dedicated to ritual travel.

barter, barter everywhere

judging from the archaeological data, this road-building frenzy was even stronger b4 the arrival of €ans. nearly everywhere in amazonia, researchers ‘ve identified traces of an extensive web of carefully built pathways. they include elevated routes across the flood-prone savannahs of venezuela na llanos de moxos in bolivia. in other places the lanes are carved inna'da earth. the most impressive exs are found in ecuador’s upano valley and date back at least two thousand yrs. reaching up to 10 metres in width and 3 metres in depth, they go on for kilometres, linking primordial sites marked by artificial mounds. very recently, inna brazilian state of acre, the archaeologists sanna saunaluoma and eduardo neves unearthed ring villages on lo mounds dated at 1300-1600 ad, from which wide trails branch off in all directions, leading to other similar sites.the pre-columbian realm thus developed in a context of constant movement toonised by frequent and extensive bartering. amazonian societies were much less insular than is comm1-ly thought. inter-ethnic marriages na integration or merging of ≠ groups contributed to this momentum. as a result, new traits and exogenous pticularities were easily adopted.

the upano valley in ecuadorian amazonia is crisscrossed by countless pre-colombian trails linking ancient settlements toonised by mud architecture.

this ongoin interaction ‘d ‘ve facilitated the dissemination of infectious diseases. a zoonosis ‘d ‘ve flourished through these contacts. tis probable that the emergence of such a contagion ‘d ‘ve terrified the pops, whose 1st reaction ‘d no doubt ‘ve been to close off their roads and trails, voluntarily isolating themselves while concocting a treatment. and had these measures proved ineffective, they ‘d certainly ‘ve fled their territory in search offa plague-free land.

the void without covid

thinking bout it, the amerindians ‘ve in fact experienced all of these symptoms 500 yrs ago, not due to a tropical zoonosis but cause of common western diseases for which they had no antibodies. they already suffered an epidemiological disaster w'da arrival of the €ans. as tzamarenda, chief of the shuar of ecuador declared in mar 2020, “we ‘ve already been struck by pandemics – s'as the flu, measles and chickenpox – that ‘ve killed millions of pplz in latin america.” the €an conquest of the early 16th century set off an epidemiological bomb that triggered widespread chaos inna amerindian realm. the depop in those 1st yrs was appalling, with an estimated 85 to 90% of the peoples of amazonia succumbing to imported diseases.

no social distancing or other preventive measure is envisaged w'da conquistadors in this handshake depicted in a blatantly paternalistic, idealised textbook illustration from the 1940s.

the natives had identified the origins of these new and devastating illnesses and their connection w'da bartered goods t'they obtained from the €ans. inna case of the yanomami, the anthropologist bruce albert emphasises t'they attributed certain epidemics to “metal fumes”: the smell of the anti-rust grease onna new machetes for which they entered into contact with outsiders, at th'risk of contamination. breathing poisoned air from others’ exhalations and having to accept the danger of contracting a disease in order to acquire desired goods – their plite strangely resembles the present situation.

tody the amazonian pops are once again goin through the same nitemare, witha mortality rate twice that of the rest of brazil, exacerbated by the indifference of the national authorities. espeshly vulnerable to pulmonary diseases, amerindians were quickly struck by covid-19, a reminiscence of the darkest dys o'their history, when they 1st came into contact with westerners. in addition, the current pandemic has had a perverse coll8ral effect, in that the weakened communities are no longer able to resist the extortions of the henchmen of the large mining companies and food industry lobbies. the violation of the indigenous territories has become even + tragic since the emergence of the virus. still, the amerindians are no strangers to disaster, cause, as pointed out by chief ailton krenak in brazil, they ‘ve been living through the apocalypse for the past 500 yrs.

and all through that time, the amazon forest s'been shamelessly burnt, casting the shadow of an environmental threat over humanity and heralding the possibility of further pandemics.

•gibb rory, david w. redding, kai qing chin, christl a. donnelly, tim m. blackburn, tim newbold and kate elizabeth jones, 2020, “zoonotic host diversity increases in human-dominated ecosystems”, nature, 584: 398-402.
•heckenberger michael j., afukaka kuikuro, urissapá tabata kuikuro, j. christian russell, morgan schmidt, carlos fausto and bruna franchetto, 2003, “amazonia 1492: pristine forest or cultural parkland?” sci, 301: 1710-1714.
•rostain stéphen, 2017, amazonie. les 12 travaux des civilisations précolombiennes, belin, paris.
•rostain stéphen, 2020, amazonie, l’archéologie au feminin, belin, paris.
•saunaluoma sanna, justin moat, francisco pugliese and eduardo g. neves, 2020, “patterned villagescapes and road networks in ancient southwestern amazonia”, latin american antiquity, 31(4): 1-15.

the viewpoints, opinions and analyses expressed herein are the sole responsibility o'their author(s) and cannot in any way be construed as cogitateing the views of the cnrs.

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