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The domestication of Amazonia by pre-Columbian societies

   School of Geography and Environmental Science

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  Dr F Mayle  Applications accepted all year round  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Background: The extent to which pre-Columbian (pre-AD1492) human societies transformed Amazonia from a virgin wilderness into a domesticated landscape is one of the most contentious debates in tropical ecology and archaeology. The old paradigm of Amazonia as a pristine wilderness, scarcely impacted by millennia of human occupation, has been challenged in recent years by remarkable discoveries of countless artificial earthworks revealing landscape engineering across much of southern Amazonia.  

The overall aim of this project: To better understand how indigenous peoples used their tropical forest and savanna resources to support populous, complex pre-Columbian societies – i.e. scale of deforestation, use of fire, crop cultivation, and forest enrichment with useful species.  

Approach and Methods: This project focuses on the Llanos de Moxos of Amazonian Bolivia – a vast mosaic of rainforests and seasonally-flooded savannas the size of England.  Fossil pollen and charcoal will be analysed from lake sediments to reconstruct pre-Columbian land use through the Holocene.  Palaeoecological data will be closely integrated with archaeological data from nearby earthworks to reveal human-environment relationships, within the wider context of the international HERCA project (  Fieldwork is not essential, although there are opportunities to visit the study area and receive training in relevant field skills.  Informal enquires are welcome. Please email Professor Frank Mayle: [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

Enquiries are encouraged from those who wish to prepare an application for a PhD studentship to the SWW AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership for a start date of October 2023.
Eligibility requirements: First degree at 2.1 (or overseas equivalent) in archaeology, geography or ecology, ideally with MSc degree in Palaeoecology or related subject area.


Whitney, B.S., Dickau, R., Mayle, F.E., Walker, J.H., Soto, J.D., and Iriarte, J. (2014). Pre-Columbian raised-field agriculture and land use in the Bolivian Amazon. The Holocene, 24, 231-241.
Carson, J.F., Whitney, B.S., Mayle, F.E., Iriarte, J., Prumers, H., Soto, J.D., and Watling, J. (2014). Environmental impact of geometric earthwork construction in pre-Columbian Amazonia. PNAS, 111(29), 10497-10502.
Whitney, B.S., Dickau, R., Mayle, F.E., Soto, J.D., and Iriarte, J. (2013). Pre-Columbian landscape impact and agriculture in the Monumental Mound Region of the Llanos de Moxos, lowland Bolivia. Quaternary Research, 80, 207-217.
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