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Aerial view Brazilian Amazon Rainforest and River

People and the Amazon

People have been living in the Amazon rainforest for 13,000 years. Evidence of their ancient practices can help teach us how to manage the rainforest sustainably today. 

Rock art in the Colombian Amazon

Ancient societies

Once thought of as pristine forest, it has been discovered that much of the Amazon has been shaped by human practices that reach far back into history. Structures discovered in the earth suggest that the Amazon was home to large, complex societies who used the forest to produce food and shelter. Ancient peoples domesticated plants to grow crops, and these species are still widespread in the Amazon today. They also used systems of polyculture agroforestry, where a variety of crops are grown within the forest, which meant food could be grown as a part of a healthy ecosystem.

Rock art in the region depicts the relationship between people and ancient animals and plants, showing their importance for food, medicine and spiritual purposes. These early artworks highlight the close connection between people and the forest they lived in.

Normal vs Dark Earth soils

Fire in the Amazon

There is also evidence in the soil that points to the careful use of fire within these ancient societies. Certain regions of the rainforest are home to Amazonian Dark Earths – or Terra Preta. These soils were created thousands of years ago from small fires that were lit to partially clear areas of land to grow food or to dispose of waste by burning it underground. In doing so, charcoal was added to the soil, boosting its carbon content and fertility, which is still helping plants to grow today. 

More recently, the use of fire is very different in the Amazon. Deforestation and slash and burn are used to remove trees and clear large areas of land, primarily to make way for agriculture and cattle grazing. These unsustainable practices, combined with higher temperatures from climate change, are resulting in more severe fires at rates far greater than what is natural. 

Fire was historically used at a small scale in a managed and sustainable way. Now, it is growing in size and frequency, threatening the future of the rainforest and the 30 million people that live and work there. 

Burning charcoal
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Research for the future of the Amazon

Eden is working with scientists from the University of Exeter to share their research about ancient practices and historical fire use. Learning more about how the Amazon has been shaped by the past improves our knowledge of how to manage it in the future, highlighting which regions may be more susceptible to fire and which may benefit from its controlled use.

We can also apply the fertility of Terra Preta soils in new biochar initiatives – where organic waste is burned at low oxygen and transformed into carbon-rich charcoal. Once added to the soil, it stores away carbon and can increase food production.

These ancient practices highlight that a sustainable way of living with the rainforest is possible. Different indigenous peoples that live in the Amazon still act as stewards of the rainforest in a way that supports and protects the health of the ecosystem. By supporting them and pushing for recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights, we can work to make change for those living sustainably in the rainforest. 

Find out more about researchers' work in the Amazon


Professor Ted Feldpausch

Professor Ted Feldpausch

Professor Ted Feldpausch is a Professor in Terrestrial Ecology and Global Change at the University of Exeter. His work explores how both natural and human processes shape forests and vegetation, particularly in the Latin American tropics. Ted’s research has explored the legacy of fire and ancient growing practices in the composition of the Amazon rainforest today.  

Professor José Iriarte

Professor José Iriarte

Professor José Iriarte is a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter. He is an archaeologist and archaeobotanist whose research explores the influence of ancient peoples on the tropical regions of Latin America. José’s work has examined the impact of the historical use of fire, polyculture agroforestry and human-made settlements on the Amazon.  

What can you do?

We can all play a role in protecting the Amazon – no matter where we are in the world. 


  • Pick products that are certified to help look after the rainforest
  • Look for FSC and Rainforest Alliance logos


  • Write letters to your local MP on rainforest issues
  • Join campaigns pushing for the rights of indigenous peoples


  • Give to your chosen rainforest charity 


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