The Amazon is a Man-Made Food Forest, Researchers Discover

Most of the edible plants in the rainforest were planted by humans over 4500 years ago, new study finds. Modern farmers should look to these ancient forest gardeners for the key to sustainable food production.

Ancient humans were practicing a form of agriculture known as horticulture or permaculture in the Amazonian rainforest 4500 years ago, which researchers have concluded is responsible for the overwhelming abundance of edible plants we now find there.

The dense abundance of fruit trees in the rainforest didn’t plant themselves, humans spread them.

They say the long-term success of the “forest-gardening” method of food production serves as a model of sustainability for modern farmers.

The study is the first detailed history of long-term human land use in the region conducted by archaeologists, paleoecologists, botanists and ecologists from the University of Exeter in England.

It shows that humans had a more profound effect on the supposedly “untouched” rainforest than previously thought, introducing crops to new areas, boosting the number of edible tree species and using fire to improve the nutrient content of soil,

The researchers found evidence of maize, sweet potato, manioc and squash farming as early as 4,500 years ago in Eastern Brazil.

While the “farmers” practice some clearing of the under-story of the the rainforest, it was nothing like the clear-cutting of forests the Americas have seen since the arrival of the Europeans. The canopy of the forest remained intact, as a protector of the soil and crops.

“Ancient communities likely did clear some understory trees and weeds for farming, but they maintained a closed canopy forest, enriched in edible plants which could bring them food,” said Amazonian paleoecologist Yoshi Maezumi, who led the study.

Rather than depleting the soil and moving on to clear the next section of land, ancient horticulturalists reused the same soil again and again, improving it by adding manure and food waste (aka composting).

“People thousands of years ago developed a nutrient-rich soil called Amazonian Dark Earths,” Maezumi said. “They farmed in a way which involved continuous enrichment and reusing of the soil, rather than expanding the amount of land they clear-cut for farming. This was a much more sustainable way of farming.”

“This is a very different use of the land to that of today, where large areas of land in the Amazon is cleared and planted for industrial scale grain, soya bean farming and cattle grazing. We hope modern conservationists can learn lessons from indigenous land use in the Amazon to inform management decisions about how to safeguard modern forests.”

Permaculturist and author of Gaia’s Garden Toby Hemenway hypothesized the Amazon rainforest was a man-made forest garden years ago. He also believed much of North America was covered in human-made food forests before the Europeans got here.

“The trees were loaded with walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, beech nuts and acorns, and the rivers with “salmon so thick you couldn’t walk across,” he said. “Unfortunately, the people who tended those food forests were exterminated.”

Learn more about forest gardening, as a sustainable alternative to agriculture, in Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden:

RELATED: Why Permaculture is the Future of Food if There is a Future of Food

RELATED: How to Build a 100-Year-Old Food Forest in Your Backyard in 10 Years





31 responses to “The Amazon is a Man-Made Food Forest, Researchers Discover”

  1. Camille Avatar

    Where is the voting for this information and research?

  2. Anthony Anderson Avatar

    The use of biochar was also instrumental in providing soil nourishment and preventing the rain water from washing out minerals. Great article! Food forests for the future

  3. Petru Avatar

    The human want so much to compeet with the nature that he is ready to win in his mind a performance competition with the nature, starting from past, as a way to do it in the present.

    1. Avatar


    2. YaBher Avatar

      I understand what you’re saying. Humans really do think too much of themselves. …but they may indeed have facilitated an edible forest, none the less.

  4. jb Avatar

    the soil is called ‘terra preta’, black soil.

  5. Maha shuayb Avatar

    Like the article but can the title be humans instead of man. Im sure women and children helped too.

    1. B Flat Avatar

      it was meant to mean “homo sapien” and you know that….this mamby-pamby PC crap makes me puke…

      1. Thomas Danton Avatar
        Thomas Danton

        There is much confusion in the english language about when to use “man” for “male” and “man” for “humans”. So I will use “man” only for “male”, while for humans I use “homos”.

        1. Anonymous coward Avatar
          Anonymous coward

          top kek

        2. Stuart Saunders Avatar
          Stuart Saunders

          That is also confusing.
          Better we adopt the Mandarin ‘ren’.
          e.g. ‘businessren’, ‘renkind’
          P.S. Some of my best friends ……

    2. Cheryl Avatar

      Agreed. The idea that the default for ‘human’ is ‘man’ is sexist and anyone who can’t see that is sexist as well. I do not feel included in ‘man.’

      1. Samuel medina Avatar

        That you don’t feel included just means YOU are too sexist to realize that Man refers to us all.

        BTW, no one cares about your feelings. Grow up.

      2. Roland Deschain Avatar
        Roland Deschain

        That’s because you’re illiterate and stupid.

    3. Jay Avatar

      Hana you are annoying. MAn made means all human kind. Should we take the ”man” out of ”woman” too while we are at it?

    4. Taiji guy Avatar

      Man = Human: including men, women, children (both boys and girls), young people, old people etc.

      1. Deanna Avatar

        I agree with Ceryl. I’m sure you would feel funny about someone using woman to include all people. Why don’t we just do that? Using “man” denies half of the human race. It makes women & their contributions invisible. Words do matter.

    5. Paul Avatar

      Hahaha another beaten down pc female gender

    6. no body Avatar
      no body

      “Man” was originally gender-neutral, with Werman to refer to male humans, and Wyfman referring to female humans (Later contracting to “Women” in middle-english).

    7. Roland Deschain Avatar
      Roland Deschain

      Peoplekind. Vaginafication.

    8. Bret Cohen Avatar

      The word man used to mean human, or the thinker, similar to the word mean as in what do you mean. It didn’t indicate male or female until more recently around the thirteen hundreds.

  6. Carlos Avatar

    Any references?

    1. Koen Avatar

      There is a link in the article, linking to the research paper. I can acces the full article through my university and can confirm it’s legit.

  7. Avatar


  8. Peter T Robinson Avatar
    Peter T Robinson

    I am a man but I intentionally use the word “people” wherever I see other people use the word “man”.
    All of the important persons in my life have been women including my blessed mother, my first wife and my two daughters that I raised as a single parent after their mother died.

    1. damein Avatar

      yep .. excellent reminder .. mother earth as well

  9. Robert Mathieson Avatar
    Robert Mathieson

    We as Humans lost our sense of Dominion and connection to the relationships between all things natural when we developed power structures devised to take resources and elevate certain individuals against the well being and prosperity of others. We made the mistake of looking up to these aberrations and giving them control.

    1. Killian Avatar


      Any livable future, any regenerative nee sustainable future, will be local and egalitarian.

  10. Noel Calvert Avatar

    Terra Preta or Black Soil is an amazing feat of human ingenuity using nature to improve itself. The biochar used actually allows the soil to grow a centimeter to 3 centimeters annually. Repeating this process is not a mystery either which makes our current system of agriculture a sad picture indeed.

    To repeat this process, all human & animal wastes need to be processed into compost, leguminous trees need to be grown alongside our crops allowing for organic mulch (pruned leaves) & organically produced biochar from anaerobic burning (limbs). These materials including the mulch produced from the wastes all go into the soil where your crops are grown. This will build up the rich soil & bacterial & fungal content improving how nutrients are processed & made available to the plants being cultivated.

    I have a write up of steps to make this process work even on land that has previously been stripped of nutrients via “Modern” farming methods. Check it out on my facebook page at “Aroid Cultivation Guidance Planet”

    You can also look up Inga Alley Cropping to read more about at least 1 facet of this growing method. Vermiculture & Bokashi are other facets to look at.

  11. John Button Avatar

    Ummmm, the comments of this article seem to have been side-tracked into a debate on the semantics of generic or gender terms. Fair enough, but I won’t weigh into that theme, and instead comment on the content of the article.
    I don’t believe that the research ‘uncovers’ anything to suggest that people were consciously ‘forest-gardeners’ designing their edible system.
    Rather, I suggest that they were practising the landuse that had evolved through seeing the fertility depleted with time as they focused on supporting themselves in limited areas in the great forest that had been opened up by lightning strike or tree-fall. As their productivity dropped, they moved on to other openings in the forest, to repeat the process.
    As this process of movement continued, of course they ate their favoured forest foods where they lived and cultivated, and the seedlings resulting gradually became more and more dominant; a ‘forest garden’, by natural movement rather than by conscious design.
    And yes their use of terra preta certainly prolonged the time they were able to use, or reuse in shorter resting cycles, the same land.

  12. Maria Avatar

    They havent been extermined. There are still tribes that follow these procedures and there is a lot of work into preserving their culture.