The seemingly pristine cloud forests of Ecuador hide a centuries - long history of human occupation - one cut short by European colonialism in the sixteenth century, reports a paper published online this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Travellers in the nineteenth century remarked that the cloud forests of Ecuador's Quijos Valley appeared ‘unpeopled by the human race’. However, by examining soil cores from a lake within the valley, Nicholas Loughlin and colleagues found that this was not always true. The authors discovered charcoal, fungi and pollen in the cores, indicating that the valley was inhabited for more than 500 years by people cultivating crops, making pottery and burning fires.
Evidence for habitation ceases around 1588, with charcoal deposits that indicate there were widespread fires co-incident with historical records of open warfare in the region following European invasion. The authors believe that the site was abandoned after this, as indicated by the dominance of weed pollen in the sediments. By 1718, pollen species characteristic of cloud forests had taken over, explaining why the nineteenth century European travellers believed the landscape to be pristine.
The study suggests that the catastrophic impact of colonial expansion on indigenous peoples has a visible ecological dimension, and that evidence for human occupation of neo-tropical forests can be quickly obscured by rapid regrowth. Palaeoecological studies, the authors argue, are needed to inform historical baselines for environmental restoration efforts.