Human Contribution to Amazonian Plant Diversity: Legacy of Pre-Columbian Land Use in Modern Plant Communities

Montoya, Encarni; Lombardo, Umberto; Levis, Carolina; Aymard, Gerardo A.; Mayle, Francis E. (2020). Human Contribution to Amazonian Plant Diversity: Legacy of Pre-Columbian Land Use in Modern Plant Communities. In: Rull, Valentí; Carnaval, Ana Carolina (eds.) Neotropical Diversification: Patterns and Processes. Fascinating Life Sciences (pp. 495-520). Cham: Springer 10.1007/978-3-030-31167-4_19

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Amazonia is the world’s largest tropical forest and is globally important in terms of its ecosystem services and extraordinarily high levels of biodiversity. The origin of this biodiversity has long been attributed to purely natural drivers, with little consideration given to the legacy of millennia of human land use. Here, the potential contribution of pre-Columbian human activity (prior 1492 CE) to current patterns of plant diversity in Amazonia is explored via long-term (palaeoecology, archaeology) and short-term (botany, plant ecology) studies. The aim of the chapter is to examine the information available to date, and discuss recent advances and persisting shortcomings relevant to the extent to which pre-Columbian human societies influenced patterns of Amazonian plant diversity. This topic has been the subject of long-standing scientific debate over several decades, and among diverse disciplines. In recent years, this debate has intensified following the development of new techniques and data. The findings indicate that humans have had an impact upon Amazonian plant diversity for over 13,000 years. Late Pleistocene/early Holocene humans domesticated numerous plant species and may have inadvertently caused long-lasting ecosystem changes by contributing to Pleistocene megafauna extinction. Based on our literature review, we identify four key types of pre-Columbian anthropogenic impact, leaving a clear legacy upon current patterns of plant diversity: (1) construction of vast earthworks, which has altered forest and savannah cover through changes in micro-topography, fire use and hydrology, (2) widespread distribution and dispersal of domesticated plants, (3) the creation of exceptionally fertile, anthropogenic soils, which enabled continuous, intensive agro-forestry, and (4) the enrichment of plant communities with edible and useful species. We argue that knowledge of the degree to which humans have shaped plant diversity over the past several millennia has relevance for developing sustainable land use and improving our understanding of the likely responses of Amazonian ecosystems to environmental and anthropogenic disturbance.

Item Type:

Book Section (Book Chapter)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Physical Geography > Unit Paleo-Geoecology
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Physical Geography

UniBE Contributor:

Lombardo, Umberto


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology
500 Science > 570 Life sciences; biology
500 Science > 580 Plants (Botany)
900 History > 910 Geography & travel
900 History > 980 History of South America






Fascinating Life Sciences






Umberto Lombardo

Date Deposited:

14 May 2020 12:25

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:38

Publisher DOI:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Biogeography, Biodiversity, Neotropics, Species Distribution, Climate Change, Evolutionary Radiation, Speciation, Phylogeography, Paleoecology




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