In 1986, during a flight over southwest Amazonia, the geographer Alceu Ranzi noticed a huge geometric earthwork cut through the middle of a vast tract of deforested land. From the ground, the structure was nearly imperceptible, as it mingled with the environment like a natural topographic feature, but from the vantage point of the aircraft, its precise architectural plan was clearly distinguishable as an engineered inscription on the surface of the earth. Ranzi recognized that the “geoglyph” was a pre-Colombian construction, and since then satellite-based surveys are showing that his striking finding is just one piece of a much larger archaeological complex formed by at least four hundred geoglyphs spread across a territory nearly the same size as the Netherlands. It is still uncertain whether this extensive network of monumental structures served military, religious or resource-management purposes, but through carbon dating it is possible to infer that they were occupied between the years 900 and 1500 of the current era, demonstrating that before the European colonial invasion this region of Amazonia was inhabited by Amerindian societies whose spatial designs produced remarkable transformations in the forest landscape.
The geoglyphs remained unknown because after they were no longer occupied, the earthworks became covered by forest vegetation, and there probably exists hundreds more beneath the trees that still stand. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Brazil was ruled by a modernizing military dictatorship, this region was subjected to an aggressive project of colonization that unleashed rapid deforestation. This project was part of a macro-planning strategy to “occupy and integrate” the entire portion of the Amazon basin that fell within Brazilian sovereignty, nearly sixty percent of the total basin area. Its modern territorial schemes and spatial designs were based on the conception that the forest was an empty and homogenous terra nullius/tabula rasa that could be rationally domesticated, planned, and re-engineered as a whole. On the ground, the impacts of this militarized, masculine ideology of total control and exploitation of nature were extremely violent. Frontier modernization was accompanied by what the Brazilian Truth Commission described as a “politics of erasure” of indigenous peoples, which left on its wake thousands of disappeared persons, countless communities displaced, and caused severe, long-term and widespread damage to the forest ecosystem.
The geoglyphs became visible in the middle of the devastated, savannah-like landscape inherited from the military dictatorship. Two monumental ruins of distant eras—the scorched lands of late modernity and pre-colonial earthworks—overlapping in space as complementary evidences of a continued, five hundred years-long genocide. More than historical documents of violence, the discovery of these structures shattered the colonial imaginary about the nature of the forest that animated frontier expansionism. Figurations of the pristine, wilderness, the “green desert” and many other images of de-humanized nature employed to describe the forest constituted other means by which the politics of erasure was perpetrated, displacing indigenous peoples and eliminating their histories in language as to veil the bodily violence of evictions, massacres and land grabs on the ground. This colonial imaginary had its complement and legitimation in scientific models that considered Amazonia to be a primeval environment that changed little since the Pleistocene, and over which native peoples exerted no meaningful impact. One of the central arguments supporting this view was the apparent lack of evidence that indigenous societies had domesticated and transformed their environs in any meaningful way, which was most clearly expressed by the conspicuous absence of archaeological complexes in the forest landscape. The lack of human design conformed to the pristine nature of the forest, inasmuch as the forest represented a negative image against which the concepts of both design and the human could be defined.
The modern concept of design is directly associated with categories used to describe the environment in terms of dialectical oppositions, which in themselves contain relations of dominion, between domesticated and wild, cultivated and uncultivated, artificial and natural spaces. Forests—a term whose etymology in Romance languages, silva, is at the roots of the word savage—were particularly important in the historical process by which these cognitive schemes were crafted.
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