According to recent reports, a whopping 9,000 fires are raging in the Amazon rainforest. Many have described it as a crisis, and it is believed that the jungle may be in danger of eradication. However, while the situation is no doubt precarious, it is not unprecedented.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has responded to this crisis by announcing the deployment of military forces to combat the fires.
A Pattern of Fires
Although headlines have declared this a record number of blazes, it’s actually not much higher than the average. Despite the recent claims that there have never been as many fires in the Amazon as in 2019, the truth is that the current number is not much higher than the average. In 2005 there were a similar amount of fires in the Brazilian rainforest.
Most people accept that the tropical rainforests are genuinely ancient, perhaps millions of years old. While that may be true for some areas, it is not the case for large swaths of the Amazon. Fires and deforestation have uncovered earthworks and other signs of human settlement that were previously covered by the canopy. These ancient traces of humanity show that, only a few thousand years ago, humans lived in deforested areas that have since regrown. This surprising fact may explain why so many of the plants found in the jungle are horticultural and agricultural species. At one time, the Amazon may have been a giant garden.
Recently, scientists have used a type of laser technology (LiDAR) to “see” beneath the canopy of the jungle in Guatemala. Using this process, they have uncovered large Mayan cities. A similar LiDAR study has not yet been performed in the Amazon, but a team of scientists found that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people lived in an area covering only 7% of the Amazon basin. That is a shockingly high number of people, and it means that the tropical region could have been home to millions more in the past. The University of Exeter archaeologist who co-authored the study, José Iriarte, said that “we need to re-evaluate the history of the Amazon.”