Trees blanket Ecuador’s Quijos Valley, which was largely deforested before the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. Credit: Morley Read/Shutterstock

Ecology

Tropical forest tells a tale of ecological resilience and human tragedy

The sixteenth-century destruction of indigenous people left an imprint on an ecosystem.

Ecuador’s mountain forests are known as hotspots of biodiversity. A study of soil samples now suggests that this landscape was intensively cultivated for centuries — but became a rich ecosystem again after farming ended.

Nicholas Loughlin at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and his colleagues examined soil cores from a lake in Ecuador’s Quijos Valley. Pollen, charcoal and fungal spores in the cores indicate that indigenous peoples intensively farmed and burned the land for some 500 years before the first Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century.

The samples also suggest that this agricultural activity ended abruptly in around 1588, when an influx of Spanish colonists led to the death or dispersal of most of the local population. By roughly 1820, the structure of the Quijos Valley ‘cloud forest’ was similar to that of the forests that blanketed the region 40,000 years ago, well before humans first settled the area.