A growing body of research shows that people have been shaping the planet for millennia — muddying the very idea of wilderness and prompting calls for a revolution in ecology and conservation
The Brazil nut is a wondrous thing. The tree can grow more than 150 feet tall — a titan even by Amazonian standards — and may live to 1,000 years. Giant bees pollinate its plump yellow flowers, and the softball-sized fruits take longer than a human fetus to mature. Each woody sphere contains dozens of the oblong seeds you find in a can of mixed nuts.
To sprout into a new tree, the seeds require help from animals like agoutis — long-legged relatives of guinea pigs. They gnaw open the fruit’s hard shell, eat what they like and bury the rest, the way squirrels accidentally plant acorns.
But rodents alone may not explain how the Brazil nut became one of the most common trees in the Amazon. Humans probably helped too. People appear to have spread and nurtured the Brazil nut, as well as other plants like cacao trees and edible palms. They likely dispersed seeds and hacked back competitors, which helps explain why useful species make up some 84 percent of all the trees and palms in the Amazon.
This history is well known to many Indigenous residents of the region, who carry on similar practices today. But Western scientists and writers often missed it. They saw the Amazon as a wild jungle in which humans could eke out a living, but just barely. Only recently have outsiders learned to recognize the intimate connection between people and the forest, says Carolina Levis, a historical ecologist at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianópolis, Brazil, who works closely with forest residents. “It’s impossible to separate these two components of the Amazon.”
Read the full story in Knowable Magazine.