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Early Holocene crop cultivation and landscape modification in Amazonia


The onset of plant cultivation is one of the most important cultural transitions in human history1,2,3,4. Southwestern Amazonia has previously been proposed as an early centre of plant domestication, on the basis of molecular markers that show genetic similarities between domesticated plants and wild relatives4,5,6. However, the nature of the early human occupation of southwestern Amazonia, and the history of plant cultivation in this region, are poorly understood. Here we document the cultivation of squash (Cucurbita sp.) at about 10,250 calibrated years before present (cal. yr bp), manioc (Manihot sp.) at about 10,350 cal. yr bp and maize (Zea mays) at about 6,850 cal. yr bp, in the Llanos de Moxos (Bolivia). We show that, starting at around 10,850 cal. yr bp, inhabitants of this region began to create a landscape that ultimately comprised approximately 4,700 artificial forest islands within a treeless, seasonally flooded savannah. Our results confirm that the Llanos de Moxos is a hotspot for early plant cultivation and demonstrate that—ever since their arrival in Amazonia—humans have markedly altered the landscape, with lasting repercussions for habitat heterogeneity and species conservation.

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Fig. 1: Forest islands mapped in the Llanos de Moxos.
Fig. 2: Diagram showing the percentage of the most relevant phytolith groups from anthropic forest islands.
Fig. 3: Photomicrographs of phytolith morphotypes recovered from Isla del Tesoro, La Chacra and Isla Manechi.

Data availability

All relevant data, including Source Data for Figs. 1, 2, are provided with the paper.

Code availability

Code used for the calibration of the 14C dates in OxCal is available in the Supplementary Information.


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We acknowledge the support of the Bolivian Ministerio de Culturas y Turismo, the Gobierno Autónomo Departamental del Beni and the owners of the properties on which the study sites are located: J. P. Llapiz, F. Boheme, J. Rivero, O. Sikuajara, F. Velasco and T. Boorsma from the Barba Azul Natural Reserve. We thank L. Rodrigues, N. Zihlmann, G. P. Fernández and L. M. Ortega for participation during fieldwork, as well as E. Canal-Beeby, M. Madella, D. Mckey, J. Carson, M. González and S. Tin for their support at different stages of this work. This work was supported by Swiss National Science Foundation grant numbers 200020-141277/1 and P300P2_158459/1; Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions EU Project 703045; PAST project funded by the European Research Council (ERC), grant agreement number ERC_Cog 616179; National Geographic Society grant HJ-074ER-17; TerraSAR-X/TanDEM-X mission, grant number DEM_OTHER1040; and AHRC-FAPESP MoU research grant HERCA, reference AH/S001662/1.

Author information




U.L. designed the research. U.L., J.M.C., J.R.-P. and H.V. conducted the fieldwork. J.M.C. and J.R.-P. conducted the archaeological excavations, U.L. conducted the GIS mapping and analyses. U.L., L.H., J.R.-P. and J.I. carried out the phytolith analyses. U.L. and J.I. wrote the paper with the help of all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Umberto Lombardo.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Maarten Blaauw, Francis Mayle and Deborah M. Pearsall for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Estimated number of anthropic forest islands.

The number was estimated by extending the proportion of anthropic forest islands in the surveyed areas (in green) to the portion of the Llanos de Moxos with similar physical geography and land cover (polygons). Background image represents the density of forest islands, calculated using the kernel density tool in Esri ArcGIS.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Detailed percentage phytolith diagram for all of the samples analysed from anthropic forest islands.

Asterisks denote nondomesticated edible plants. Phytolith percentages are based on a minimum of 200 diagnostic phytoliths counted per slide.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Map of all of the forest islands and platform fields in a northwestern subset of the Llanos de Moxos.

Platform fields are mostly built along palaeochannels. The Omi and Yruyañez Rivers flow inside old channels of the Beni River. Most forest islands are located in interfluvial areas. The region contains a total of 2,428 patches of forest, 955 of which are forest islands. Once all of the patches of forest within a 2-km buffer of a river, palaeoriver and lake are removed, forest islands account for 60% of the remaining 1,191 patches.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Characteristics of forest islands.

a, Photograph of the anthropic landscape dotted with forest islands in the Barba Azul nature reserve. b, Histogram showing the distribution of the diameter of forest islands. The left side of the distribution is truncated at 25 m because smaller forest islands have not been mapped. c, Photograph taken at site 579, a natural forest island. Samples are taken every 10 cm, from top left (highest sample) to bottom right (deepest sample). Material is silt with no organic matter. d, Photograph taken at site 425, an anthropogenic forest island. The depth from which the sample was taken is 140 cm. e, Photograph taken at site 430, an anthropogenic forest island. The depth from which the sample was taken is 160 cm. Samples in d, e are representative of the whole profiles of sites 425 and 430, respectively (Extended Data Fig. 7). We obtained one core for each forest island that we visited.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Examples of surveyed forest islands as seen in high-resolution satellite imagery from the Esri ArcGIS base map.

af, Forest islands classified as anthropic (a, Isla San Pablo (SM4); b, Isla Manechi; c, site 575; d, Isla La Chacra (SM3); e, site FIN12; and f, Isla del Tesoro (SM1)). gi, Forest islands classified as natural (g, site FIN2; h, site FIN11; and i, site 529). Source for the maps, ESRI, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Earthstar Georaphics and CNES/Airbus DS.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Stratigraphic profile and sampling sites at Isla Manechi.

Charcoal fragments for accelerated mass spectrometry 14C dating were collected during the excavation; yellow triangles indicate their depth. Yellow squares indicate the locations of sediment samples that were analysed for phytoliths; these were sampled after the excavation from the vertical profile. The dashed line indicates the transition from the ceramic phase to the pre-ceramic phase. This transition is characterized by a sharp increase in the compactness of sediments and amount of burnt earth. Values in parentheses are median cal. yr bp. A chronological gap of almost 4,500 years exists between the two phases (Extended Data Table 1). All of these differences make it possible to exclude any contamination of the pre-ceramic contexts with phytoliths that come from the ceramic contexts. Descriptions of the archaeological excavations at Isla del Tesoro (SM1), La Chacra (SM3) and San Pablo (SM4) have previously been published13.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Stratigraphic descriptions of cored sites.

Radiocarbon dates are included in ovals as median cal. yr bp.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Age–depth models of the modelled profiles.

a, b, Isla del Tesoro (SM1). c, Isla Manechi. d, e, Isla La Chacra (SM3). The age–depth models have been produced using OxCal v.4.3; code is available in the Supplementary Information.

Extended Data Table 1 Radiocarbon ages of all of the dated sites cited in the text, including provenience and calibrations
Extended Data Table 2 Length and thickness range and average size of scalloped-sphere phytoliths identified in this study

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Lombardo, U., Iriarte, J., Hilbert, L. et al. Early Holocene crop cultivation and landscape modification in Amazonia. Nature 581, 190–193 (2020).

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