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Early Amazon Fish Stories


“I’ve always been interested in indigenous technology,” Dr. Clark Erickson was saying. As an anthropologist (associate professor of anthropology) and archaeologist (associate curator of the American section of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology), he describes his approach as one that studies “people in the past and how they were responsible for creating the landscape that we have today.”

Above: an artist’s rendition of the fishing weir in its pre-Hispanic heyday. Left: the outlines of the weir are barely discernible in this recent aerial photograph.

    Erickson recently discovered an impressive people-made landscape in the Amazon Basin of northeastern Bolivia: a massive, 500-square-kilometer series of zigzagging earthworks and ponds that appears to have been a pre-Hispanic fishing weir. It also appears to have been an effective means of “enhancing the environment to raise the bio-mass of fish.”
    “The native peoples used this technology to harvest sufficient animal protein to sustain large and dense populations in a savanna environment,” he wrote in an article in the November 9 issue of Nature. “Rather than domesticate the species that they exploited, the people of Baures domesticated the landscape.” Although he acknowledges that it is difficult to date the earthworks precisely, tests have suggested that the weirs date from at least as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish did not control that area until the early 18th century.
    Erickson had spent the early 1990s in that region examining other “massive earthwork transformations” that involved the draining and piling up of earth to make raised fields suitable for crops. But when he took a plane ride over the area in 1996, he didn’t know what to make of the zigzag patterns. It was only after walking and studying the area, he says, that he realized that the distinct v-shaped openings were, in fact, part of a fishing weir that was “much more massive than any system I’d read or heard about.”
    During the rainy season, from November to May, the grassy savanna would have been covered by more than a foot of water. The fish would have migrated to and spawned in that water, and would have been trapped there as the floodwaters receded. The zigzag structures, he wrote, would have “provided a means to manage and harvest these fish”—funneling them into a sort of chute where they would be caught in nets or baskets—while the artificial ponds “provided a way to store live fish and [edible] snails until needed.” Palm trees planted near the ponds also provided fruit, fronds and wood.
    Unlike the “ephemeral” contemporary fish weirs in the region, which are rebuilt each season, Erickson says that the zigzag weirs and large causeways “may have been used for water management,” extending the flooding period by “capturing the first rains and holding floodwaters into the dry season.”
    The discovery could have important implications for that region today, since fish is still a vital part of the diet.
    “This particular technology certainly needs to be studied before we can talk about implementing it again,” he acknowledges. “But it would be much more rational to look at how these people managed these models than to import models” from other parts of the world.

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