Most of the general public knows about the collapse of the Maya. They are aware that Maya cities in the tropical forest were abandoned and the ruling elite disappeared centuries before the Spanish conquest. We felt, however, that the overall perception was different in the case of Amazonia, especially with the number of recent publications reappraising the size and complexity of pre-Columbian populations. Many people imagined that Amazonia was becoming gradually more populated, with growing impacts on the environment, and societies becoming increasingly more complex until the arrival of Europeans caused their demise.

A challenge for that scenario was the fact that the archaeological data from various parts of Amazonia showed abrupt changes and abandonment of settlements before 1492. This was clear, for example, in the disappearance of the Eastern Amazonian Marajoara culture – famous for its beautiful painted pottery. In the Bolivian Llanos de Moxos, the pollen record showed changes in land use about a century prior to the Columbian encounter, coinciding with the abandonment of the large habitation mounds in the region.

By 2015, the palaeoecological data collected by the Leverhulme project “Pre-Columbian human land-use in Amazonia” were showing ubiquitous transformations in the Amazon long before the arrival of Europeans. The trend was too evident to be ignored, and author José Iriarte decided to present the results in the XIX INQUA Congress in Nagoya, Japan. Palaeoecologist Henry Hooghiemstra was in the audience that day. As José and Henry talked over a cup of coffee after the presentation, the idea for this project was born. Read more.