An artificial landscape-scale fishery in the Bolivian Amazon

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Historical ecologists working in the Neotropics argue that the present natural environment is an historical product of human intentionality and ingenuity, a creation that is imposed, built, managed and maintained by the collective multigenerational knowledge and experience of Native Americans1,2. In the past 12,000 years, indigenous peoples transformed the environment, creating what we now recognize as the rich ecological mosaic of the Neotropics3,4,5,6. The prehispanic savanna peoples of the Bolivian Amazon built an anthropogenic landscape through the construction of raised fields, large settlement mounds, and earthen causeways7,8. I have studied a complex artificial network of hydraulic earthworks covering 525 km2 in the Baures region of Bolivia. Here I identify a particular form of earthwork, the zigzag structure, as a fish weir, on the basis of form, orientation, location, association with other hydraulic works and ethnographic analogy. The native peoples used this technology to harvest sufficient animal protein to sustain large and dense populations in a savanna environment.

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Figure 1: Map of the Baures prehispanic hydraulic complex.
Figure 2: The fish weirs (zigzag structures and ponds).
Figure 3: Oblique photograph of a fish weir and artificial ponds between forest islands in the savannas of Baures.
Figure 4: Map of fish weirs (irregular lines) and causeways (straight lines) in Baures.
Figure 5: Plans of fish weirs (zigzag structures).


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Fieldwork and analysis were supported by the NSF, the Heinz Charitable Trust Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Research Funds of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and Corporación del Beni. K. Lee originally reported the earthworks of Baures in the late 1950s. A.Vranich, O. Saavedra and F. Bruckner did the first study of the Baures earthworks in 1995. I thank the Bolivian Dirección Nacional de Arqueología y Antropología, the Prefectura and Alcaldia of the Department of the Beni, authorities of Baures and Bella Vista, W. Winkler (project co-investigator), K. Lee, H. Schlink, R. Bottega, R. Pinto Parada, E. Bruckner, A. Bruckner, C. Bruckner, O. Rivera, R. Langstroth, W. Denevan, A. Vranich, P. Stahl, R. Dunn and D. Brinkmeier.

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Correspondence to Clark L. Erickson.

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