Development of Civilizations along the Amazon?by Rit Nosotro
Why didn't the early Amazon River develop great civilizations as did the Tigris, Nile, Huang He, and Indus Rivers? Focus on geo-political, migratory, and biological reasons for cultural development.
Three explanations could be offered as to why the Amazon River in South America never developed any great civilizations along its banks as did the Tigris, Nile, Huang He, and Indus rivers. First, the Amazon River discourages the building of cites along its banks since the surrounding rainforests flood during the rainy season creating marshy, and otherwise inhospitable conditions to settlers. Second, migration was too difficult and too far for large groups of people to travel. Lastly, the few cultures and tribes who did settle on the Amazon River found no urgent needs to unite for political, economic, and religious reasons since they had all essential resources, especially food and wood, in abundance right at their fingertips. Although there are some similarities between all of these rivers, there are also key differences between the Amazon and its Mesopotamian and Asian counterparts.
Definition of Civilization
Before understanding why the Amazon River did not develop any great civilizations, we must understand the definition of civilization. World Civilizations describes the conditions for a civilization this way: "Civilizations, unlike some other societies, generate surpluses beyond basic survival needs. This in turn promotes a variety of specialized occupations and heightened social differentiation, as well as regional and long-distance trading networks. Surplus production also spurs the growth of cities and the development of formal states, with some bureaucracy, in contrast to more informal methods of governing. Most civilizations also developed systems of writing."1 Although the Amazon Basin did develop several villages, wandering tribes, and agricultural communities, none of these met the conditions for a true civilization since they did not develop any formal systems of government, writing, or people with specialized occupations other than food gathering. "If one thinks of large rivers as the cradle of civilizations (the Nile, the Indus, the Euphrates and Tigris), the obvious location in South America would be the Amazon. But the rainforests of the Amazon and its tributaries are so tropical that there is little need for irrigation-based agriculture. While recent archaeological research (Heckenberger et al., 2003) uncovered complex regional settlement patterns with large central plazas, wide curbed roads and patches of cultivated or otherwise altered land dated to 1200 - 1600 in the Brazilian Amazon region, there was little need for an administration to look after public works, and the Amazon settlement pattern cannot be called a civilization."2 However, many of the city-states, cultures, and empires along the rivers in Mesopotamia and Asia did meet these requirements to be considered a civilization.
The Inhospitably of the Amazon to Settlers
One reason why the Amazon River Basin did not develop any great civilizations could be the inhospitable environment compared to the rivers in the midst of desert regions of Asia and Mesopotamia. Although the Amazon River overflows in its flood season, washing the islands and surrounding rainforests with rich nutrients, it overflows too much. The surrounding rainforests become too wet, marshy, and otherwise too harsh for civilization. In the Amazon's flood season, the river can widen up to 50 miles wider than normal. Shifting channels and lakes, marshy islands, and swamps surround the river. These conditions would make it very difficult if not impossible for any cities to be built along the banks of the Amazon. Also, the thick rainforest surrounding the river could seriously hinder city-building. Cities are an essential ingredient for a civilization since there must be a central place holding political and economic power and a place for learning and arts to thrive. "The ideal place for a civilization to develop is a place where life is not an everyday struggle, but it requires some effort to make it comfortable. Such a place is often a river valley in a subtropical latitude (e.g., about 30 degrees N) with desert or semi-desert conditions around it. The latitude keeps temperatures moderate, the river insures a steady supply of water all year round, and the dry environment will make the people gather around the river."3 The Nile, Indus, Huang He, and Tigris river valleys all are located in the ideal locations of 30 degrees north of the equator, unlike the Amazon River Basin which lies directly on the equator. The Asian and Mesopotamian rivers overflow in a flood season either flooding the surrounding farmlands with rich nutrients or filling irrigation ditches to moisten the parched ground of the surrounding arid farmlands. This soil would provide ideal farming conditions each year. Although all of these rivers overflow in a flood season potentially bringing soil enriching nutrients, the harsh conditions of the Amazon River drive potential settlers away, while the Tigris, Nile, Yellow, and Indus rivers welcomed people from the desert environment.4
Secondly, migration could have been too difficult for people to travel in large enough numbers to have a necessity for uniting and building civilization. After the Fall of Babel, those who ended up in the Americas (probably descendents of Shem)5 would have had to travel across Mesopotamia, through all of Asia, and then either go south to Polynesia and Australia and cross the Pacific Ocean by boat or north and cross the hypothetical ice bridge connecting the peninsulas of Russia and Alaska. Even then, the settlers would not be finished with their journey! As some settlers wandered and some wanderers settled, they may have crossed the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Andes Mountains before arriving in the Amazon Basin. This arduous journey undertaken over the course of several generations led to the spiritual degeneration of monotheism into polytheism. The superstitions compounded with each confrontation with the unfamiliar and hostile environment. "Climate was the most important factor in determining where civilization would begin again. Most of the world is too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry for people to live comfortably in. In deserts, Arctic regions, and other inhospitable places, the people living there have to spend most of their time struggling against nature just to stay alive. Little culture can develop under these conditions, and since most people in an unfriendly environment live by a nomadic lifestyle, the art, architecture, literature, and other things which we define as 'culture' are limited to what they can carry when it is time to move on."6 Since the Amazon Basin was a hard place to settle in because city development was difficult, these people did not have the technology due to degenerating knowledge after the Fall of Babel to settle the harsh Amazonian environment. "The great American civilizations were confronted with much harder conditions than the ancient civilizations of the Indus valley, Mesopotamia and Egypt, which developed in parallel with each other and established contacts between each other at a very early stage. The exchange of knowledge, particularly in the form of transfer of inventions, was an important ingredient of their development. The American civilizations arose on an isolated continent and had to be much more self-sufficient."7
Abundance as a Detriment to Production
Another possible reason is that the surrounding tribes simply became lazy and found no need to unite. Since resources, especially food resources, were abundant in the rainforest, people had no need to set up extensive agricultural system therefore decreasing the people's reliance on each other and the need to unite. The few tribes and cultures who did settle on the Amazon could easily fish from the river, find fruits in the jungle, or hunt for the abundant animals in the rainforest. Some of the cultures did, however, develop small independent agricultural food sources. "And then there are places with the opposite problem, where it is very easy to live; they are not likely to develop a civilization, either. Under tropical paradise conditions, like on the islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean, food can be gathered from trees and the ocean with almost no effort, and the constantly-warm temperature means that clothing and shelter are only necessary to keep off the rain. People who live under these conditions are not motivated to achieve much."8 The Bible warns against laziness in Proverbs: "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth" (Proverbs 10:4). "Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor" (Proverbs 12:24). Also, since the settlers had degenerated into polytheistic animism, the people did not see have the motivation to unite to worship the one true God. Instead the small tribes worshiped a multitude of individual nature spirits. In other words, "they worshiped the creation instead of the Creator" (Romans 1: 25).
In conclusion, there are three possible reasons as to why the Amazon River was never settled by any major civilizations. First, the Amazon overflows a tremendous amount in the flood season which discouraged the building of permanent cities. Second, the people had difficulty migrating in large enough numbers all the way from Mesopotamia to the Amazon and did not retain the knowledge to establish huge colonies in the Americas. Lastly, perhaps the people who did finally reach the Amazon found no reason to unite because they had all the essential resources right at their fingertips. Perhaps, in God's sovereignty, He had a divine reason for isolating the American cultures from the civilizations surrounding the fallen Tower of Babel.
1 Peter N. Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, Marc Jason Gilbert, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, AP Edition, Pearson Education, Inc., New York., 2003, page xxx.
2Matthias Tomczak, "Science, Civilization, and Society," Science in pre-Columbian America. The South Pacific," 2004, http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/~mattom/science+society/lectures/lecture18.html, October 1, 2004
3Charles Kimball, "A Biblical Interpretation of World History, Chapter 2," A Biblical Interpretation of World History: Chapter 2: Before 3000 B.C.," 1998, http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/worldhis/Hist02.html, October1, 2004.
4n/a, "Amazon River - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia," Amazon River, October 1 2004, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_River, October 3, 2004.
5Charles Kimball, "A Biblical Interpretation of World History, Chapter 2," A Biblical Interpretation of World History: Chapter 2: Before 3000 B.C.," 1998, http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/worldhis/Hist02.html, October1, 2004.
6Charles Kimball, "A Biblical Interpretation of World History, Chapter 2," A Biblical Interpretation of World History: Chapter 2: Before 3000 B.C.," 1998, http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/worldhis/Hist02.html, October1, 2004.
7Matthias Tomczak, "Science, Civilization, and Society," Science in pre-Columbian America. The South Pacific," 2004, http://www.es.flinders.edu.au/~mattom/science+society/lectures/lecture18.html, October 1, 2004
8Charles Kimball, "A Biblical Interpretation of World History, Chapter 2," A Biblical Interpretation of World History: Chapter 2: Before 3000 B.C.," 1998, http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/worldhis/Hist02.html, October1, 2004.
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