Book Review

STÉPHEN ROSTAIN. Islands in the rainforest. Landscape management in pre-Columbian Amazonia. 277 pages, 70 b&w illustrations. 2013. Walnut Creek (CA): Left Coast; 978-1-59874-634-1 hardback $89.

Review by Manuel Arroyo-Kalin
Institute of Archaeology, UCL, London, UK
(Email: m.arroyo-kalin@ucl.ac.uk)

Arroyo image

Long awaited by those who know Stéphen Rostain's research, the publication of Islands in the rainforest is an unquestionably important milestone in the recent scholarship on Amazonian archaeology. This volume offers an insightful, erudite and well-integrated account of the archaeology of the Guianas, one that elaborates conclusively the position of this broad region as part of pre-Columbian Amazonia. Graced by Phillipe Descola's ethnological opening note, the volume consists of an introduction, five engaging chapters that convincingly build up the book's argument, and an epilogue that takes stock of broader issues in Amazonian studies. A small number of involuntary typos and gaffes, which might have been caught by the proof-readers of Left Coast Press, in no way affects the volume's merits.

The introduction succinctly sets out the book's research aims. First, it questions the premise that pre-Columbian Amazonian populations were non-sedentary, lacked food and lacked social hierarchies; next, it sets out in comparative perspective how agricultural techniques based on water management were used by pre-Columbian populations to colonise open landscapes, especially seasonally-flooded savannahs. The balance between these two strands—a critical appraisal of the ethnographic record and the presentation of evidence of pre-Columbian agricultural engineering—frames the broad outline of the book. Chapter 1 provides a comprehensive overview of different forms of landscape modification in pre-Columbian times, as well as a review of different agricultural techniques used in Amazonia today. The chapter is dotted with excellent information and pulls together some of the most intriguing case studies from a wide-ranging literature (albeit occasionally reporting received opinion instead of established fact, e.g. pre-Columbian cultivation of terras pretas). Chapter 2 prepares the stage for subsequent chapters by providing a geographical overview of the Guianas, that is, the broad region encompassing the Venezuelan Guayana region, the nation-states of Guyana and Suriname, the French overseas region known as Guyane (French Guiana), and the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amapá. Placed at the forefront of this review are questions about the landscape's suitability for human inhabitation, especially as seen from ethnographic and ethnohistorical evidence. The chapter, which then unpacks for the reader different aspects of pre-Columbian raised fields, eventually pops the question of whether the patterned landscape features observed in the savannah areas of the Guianas are natural phenomena or can be interpreted as pre-Columbian agricultural features. In line with this discussion, the chapter evaluates the case for the widespread distribution of 'cultural forests' (those that show anthropic influence on their species composition) in Amazonia. Noting that the region's pre-Columbian human populations were not homogenously distributed in space or time, Rostain trims to size suggestions that much of the Amazon rainforest can be said to be a cultural product.

Chapter 3 examines the Guianas' broad human history—from the terminal Pleistocene to European colonisation—in the broader context of Amazonia. While Rostain's reading of archaeological evidence for the first half of the Holocene occasionally takes for granted suggestions that still require more robust demonstration (e.g. the Palaeoindian classification of the undated Sipaliwini complex; the early Holocene domestication of Bactris gasipaes; the systematic burning of interior savannahs), it is his analysis of the later Holocene that will leave no student of Amazonian archaeology indifferent. Here, Rostain reports unpublished studies of artefacts from museums, offers an authoritative and panoramic overview of some of the most important ceramic traditions of the lowlands, and elaborates the suggestion that the rise of larger and more complex populations in regions adjacent to cultivable floodplains resulted in the displacement of existing small-scale cultivators into the interfluvial regions that they inhabit today. The reader will also find in this chapter a neat summary of the main techniques of agricultural subsistence used in the Amazon basin.

For the reader now familiar with the branching paths that build up to Rostain's argument, it is Chapter 4 that offers the breath-taking view from a tepui table-top. Here Rostain provides by far the most comprehensive overview in print of the cultural, historical and landscape dimensions of raised field agriculture in the coastal savannahs of the Guianas, drawing both on his own research in French Guiana and comparative and difficult-to-access data from Suriname. Like the whole book, it is carefully illustrated with excellent greyscale photographs, figures and maps (alas, some printed far too small). This chapter provides one of the most detailed archaeological analyses of pre-Columbian raised fields in lowland South America. It is also here where Rostain's in-depth knowledge of the archaeological sequence of the Guianas serves as the foundation for stimulating archaeological hypotheses. In particular, he offers an important and sophisticated set of archaeological inferences about the nature of settlement hierarchies in the Guianas, one that will no doubt inspire future research in the region. The chapter ends by reporting recent research on the plants cultivated in raised fields and cautious estimates of the population size they could have supported. Chapter 5 offers a second and unexpected summit. It revisits evidence for pre-Columbian raised fields from the comparative perspective of colonial period landscape management in the Guianas. Aside from strengthening the substantive case for considering raised field remnants as evidence for pre-Columbian engineering, the chapter is an excellent account of seldom noticed aspects of the colonial history of Suriname and French Guiana; as Rostain contends, his narrative is a counterpoint to historiographies of the region marked by post-colonial shame. Consistent with its focus on recent times, this chapter provides a final summary of the results of recent interdisciplinary research into the particular factors that explain the preservation of pre-Columbian raised fields.

The concluding chapter summarises the argument of the book, highlighting that both romantic and infernal images of Amazonia must give way to the growing archaeological picture that the landscape was creatively modified for agricultural purposes, and adding empirical weight to arguments suggesting higher population densities existed prior to European colonisation. Rostain, an advocate of interdisciplinary research, reminds us that the empirical evidence for raised field agriculture in the coastal zone of the Guianas was met with widespread scepticism only 20 years ago. The publication of Islands in the rainforest offers his substantive case against this scepticism, one that provides a comprehensive account of the extent and characteristics of raised fields as well as an insightfully argued reconstruction of the historical trajectory of pre-Columbian village life in north-eastern South America. By virtue of extending Amazonian enquiry to encompass the Guianas—based on archaeological, ethnographic and geographical arguments—Rostain's book certainly deserves to feature as essential reading for university courses on Amazonian archaeology. For those engaged in research in the tropical lowlands of South America, Rostain's book is no doubt a worthy addition to specialist libraries, to be placed either alongside classic works on pre-Columbian agricultural engineering, or among archaeological studies of the Orinoco, the Guianas and Marajó Island. Whether placed on one shelf or another, it is no exaggeration to state that the publication of this book constitutes a major leap forward in the field, one that conclusively demonstrates that agricultural engineering was a key aspect of pre-Columbian livelihoods in the flooding savannahs of north-eastern Amazonia.