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Ecological consequences of post-Columbian indigenous depopulation in the Andean–Amazonian corridor

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages12331236 (2018) | Download Citation


European colonization of South America instigated a continental-scale depopulation of its indigenous peoples. The impact of depopulation on the tropical forests of South America varied across the continent. Furthermore, the role that indigenous peoples played in transforming the biodiverse tropical forests of the Andean–Amazonian corridor before ad 1492 remains unknown. Here, we reconstruct the past 1,000 years of changing human impact on the cloud forest of Ecuador at a key trade route, which connected the Inkan Empire to the peoples of Amazonia. We compare this historical landscape with the pre-human arrival (around 44,000–42,000 years ago) and modern environments. We demonstrate that intensive land-use within the cloud forest before European arrival deforested the landscape to a greater extent than modern (post-ad 1950) cattle farming. Intensive indigenous land-use ended abruptly around ad 1588 following a catastrophic population decline. Forest succession then took around 130 years to establish a structurally intact forest—one comparable to that which occurred before the arrival of the first humans to the continent. We show that nineteenth-century descriptions of the Andean–Amazonian corridor as a pristine wilderness record a shifted ecological baseline—one that less than 250 years earlier had consisted of a heavily managed and cultivated landscape.

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This work was supported by the NERC and The Open University through a scholarship to N.J.D.L. (NE/L501888/1), and a NERC fellowship to E.M. (NE/J018562/1). Funding for preliminary radiocarbon dating was awarded by NERC (1881.0415). Permits for fieldwork in Ecuador were provided by the Ministry of Environment, Ecuador (14-2012-IC-FLO-DPAP-MA). X-ray fluorescence analysis was undertaken by the late J. Watson (The Open University). This work was improved by the comments of A. Coe (The Open University), C. McMichael (University of Amsterdam), J. Symonds (University of Amsterdam) and M. Bush (Florida Institute of Technology).

Author information


  1. School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems Sciences, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

    • Nicholas J. D. Loughlin
    • , William D. Gosling
    •  & Encarni Montoya
  2. Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Nicholas J. D. Loughlin
    •  & William D. Gosling
  3. Instituto Geofísico, Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Quito, Ecuador

    • Patricia Mothes
  4. Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera (CSIC), Barcelona, Spain

    • Encarni Montoya


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N.J.D.L., E.M. and W.D.G. determined the research objectives. P.M. located the sample site and secured permissions. Lake sampling was undertaken by N.J.D.L., E.M. and W.D.G. Sediment processing, data collection and analysis was performed by N.J.D.L. The manuscript was written by N.J.D.L., E.M. and W.D.G. with input from P.M. All authors read and approved the manuscript for submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicholas J. D. Loughlin.

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