Human Ecology

, Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 651–662 | Cite as

Caboclo Horticulture and Amazonian Dark Earths along the Middle Madeira River, Brazil

  • James A. FraserEmail author


This article examines the relationship between Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE) and Caboclo horticultural knowledge and practice along the middle Madeira River (the biggest whitewater tributary of the Amazon) in the municipality of Manicoré, Amazonas State, Brazil. ADE are fertile anthropogenic (human-made) soils that are found in many areas of the Amazon region. The formation of ADE is a legacy of Amerindian settlement patterns, mostly during the late pre-Columbian period (2000–500 bp). The primary users of ADE in the Central Amazon today are Caboclos, traditional Amazonian people of heterogeneous origins. The multi-sited ethnography presented here demonstrates that Caboclos have developed a repertoire of local knowledge surrounding the cultivation of their staple crop, bitter manioc, in these soils. This revolves around a local theory of “weakness” and “strength” used to describe different sets of bitter manioc landrace traits and their responses to planting in different kinds of soil and fallow ages. This local theory has developed in the context of a regional historical ecology that has enabled the conservation and generation of such horticultural knowledge. I conclude that these notions of strength and weakness shape divergent loci of bitter manioc genetic traits and co-evolutionary dynamics between people and plants in the cultivation of bitter manioc in different soil types.


Bitter manioc Swidden Shifting cultivation Historical ecology Brazil 



This paper draws on my doctoral research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant F/00 230/W), under the auspices of a scientific expedition (EXC 022/05) granted by the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPQ). This paper has benefited from discussions with Charles R. Clement and André B. Junqueira. I thank Evan Killick, Roy Ellen, Nick Kawa, Phillip Compton and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism of previous drafts.


  1. Adams, C., Murrieta, R., Neves, W., and Harris, M. (eds.) (2009a). Amazon Peasant Societies in a Changing Environment: Political Ecology, Invisibility and Modernity in the Rainforest. Springer, New York.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, C., Murrieta, R., Siqueira, A., Neves, W., and Sanches, R. (2009b). Bread of the land: the invisibility of manioc in the Amazon. In Adams, A., Murrieta, R., Neves, W., and Harris, M. (eds.), Amazon Peasant Societies in a Changing Environment: Political Ecology, Invisibility and Modernity in the Rainforest. Springer, Berlin, pp. 281–306.Google Scholar
  3. Arroyo-Kalin, M. (2010). The Amazonian Formative: Crop Domestication and Anthropogenic Soils. Diversity 2(4): 473–504. Scholar
  4. Balée, W. (2006). The Research Program of Historical Ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 75–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Balée, W. Ed. (2010). Long-Term Anthropic Influences on the Diversity of Amazonian Landscapes and Biota. Diversity, Special Issue. Basel, Switzerland, MDPI:
  6. Baleé, W., and Erickson, C. (eds.) (2006). Time and Complexity in Historical Ecology: Studies in the Neotropical lowlands. Columbia University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  7. Boster, J. S. (1984). Classification, Cultivation and Selection of Aguaruna Cultivars of Manihot esculenta (Euphorbiaceae). Advances in Economic Botany 1: 34–47.Google Scholar
  8. Boster, J. S. (1985). Selection for Perceptual Distinctiveness: Evidence from Aguaruna Cultivars of Manihot esculenta. Economic Botany 39(3): 310–325.Google Scholar
  9. Boster, J. S. (1986). Exchange of Varieties and Information Between Aguaruna Manioc Cultivators. American Anthropologist 88(2): 428–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brush, S. B. (2004). Farmer’s Bounty: Locating Crop Diversity in the Contemporary World. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.Google Scholar
  11. Buol, S. W., Southard, R. J., Graham, R. C., and McDaniel, P. A. (2003). Soil Genesis and Classification. Iowa State Press, Ames, Iowa.Google Scholar
  12. Cardoso, T. (2008). Etnoecologia, construção da diversidade agrícola e manejo da dinâmica espaço-temporal dos roçados indígenas no rio Cuieiras, baixo rio Negro, Amazonas. Ecology. Unpublished Masters Thesis. Manaus, INPA/UFAM.Google Scholar
  13. Carneiro, R. L. (1983). The cultivation of manioc among the Kuikuru of the Upper Xingú. In Hames, R. B., and Vickers, W. T. (eds.), Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians. Academic Press, New York, pp. 65–112.Google Scholar
  14. Cleveland, D. A., and Soleri, D. (2007). Extending Darwin’s Analogy: Bridging Differences in Concepts of Selection Between Farmers, Biologists, and Plant Breeders. Economic Botany 61(2): 121–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Doebley, J. F., Gaut, B. S., and Smith, B. D. (2006). The Molecular Genetics of Crop Domestication. Cell 127(7): 1309–1321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dufour, D. L. (1988). Cyanide Content of Cassava (Manihot esculenta, Euphorbiaceae) Cultivars Used by Tukanoan Indians in Northwest Amazonia. Economic Botany 42: 255–266.Google Scholar
  17. Elias, M., Rival, L., and McKey, D. (2000). Perception and Management of Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) Diversity among Makushi Amerindians of Guyana (South America). Journal of Ethnobiology 20: 239–265.Google Scholar
  18. Elias, M., Muhlen, G. S., McKey, D., Roa, A. C., and Tohme, J. (2004). Genetic Diversity of Traditional South American Landraces of Cassava (Manihot esculeatta Crantz): An Analysis Using Microsatellites. Economic Botany 58(2): 242–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Forline, L. C. (2008). Putting History Back into Historical Ecology: Some Perspectives on the Recent Human Ecology of the Amazon Basin. Journal of Ecological Anthropology 12: 69–74.Google Scholar
  20. Fraser, J. A. (2009). Amazonian Dark Earths and Caboclo Subsistence on the middle Madeira River, Brazil., University of Sussex. PhD: 236.Google Scholar
  21. Fraser, J. A. (2010). The Diversity of Bitter Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) Cultivation in a Whitewater Amazonian Landscape. Diversity 2(4): 586–609. Scholar
  22. Fraser, J. A., N. Peroni and C. R. Clement (n.d.). Divergent bitter manioc swidden systems are found on anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic soils at six locations along the middle Madeira River, Amazonas, Brazil. Submitted to Annals of the Association of American Geographers.Google Scholar
  23. Fraser, J. A., Cardoso, T., Junqueira, A. B., Falcão, N., and Clement, C. R. (2009). Historical ecology and dark earths in whitewater and blackwater landscapes: comparing the Middle Madeira and Lower Negro rivers. In Woods, W. I., Teixeira, W. G., Lehmann, J., Steiner, C., WinklerPrins, A. M. G. A., and Rebellato, L. (eds.), Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision. Springer, Berlin, pp. 229–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gade, D. W. (2002). Names for Manihot esculenta: Geographical Variations and Lexical Clarification. Journal of Latin American Geography 1(1): 55–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. German, L. A. (2001). The dynamics of Terra Preta: an integrated study of human-environmental interaction in a nutrient-poor Amazonian ecosystem. Unpublished Phd Thesis, University of Georgia.Google Scholar
  26. German, L. A. (2003a). Ethnoscientific understandings of Amazonian Dark Earths. In Lehmann, J., Kern, D., Glaser, B., and Woods, W. I. (eds.), Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties and Management. Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 179–201.Google Scholar
  27. German, L. A. (2003b). Historical Contingencies in the Coevolution of Environment and Livelihood: Contributions to the Debate on Amazonian Black Earth. Geoderma 111(3–4): 307–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. German, L. A. (2004). Ecological Praxis and Blackwater Ecosystems: A Case Study From the Brazilian Amazon. Human Ecology 32(6): 653–683.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Glaser, B., and Woods, W. I. (eds.) (2004). Amazonian Dark Earths: Explorations in Space and Time. Springer, Berlin.Google Scholar
  30. Harlan, J. (1992). Crops and Man. American Society of Agronomy Inc. Crop Science Society of America Inc, Madison, Wisconsin.Google Scholar
  31. Harris, M. (1998). ‘What It Means to be Caboclo’—Some Critical Notes on the Construction of Amazonian Caboclo Society as an Anthropological Object. Critique of Anthropology 18(1): 83–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Harris, M. (2000). Life on the Amazon: The Anthropology of a Brazilian Peasant Village. Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  33. Heckenberger, M., and Neves, E. G. (2009). Amazonian Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 38: 251–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Heckler, S., and Zent, S. (2008). Piaroa Manioc Varietals: Hyperdiversity or Social Currency? Human Ecology 36: 679–697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hiraoka, M., Yamamoto, S., Matsumoto, E., Nakamura, S., Falesi, I., and Baena, A. (2003). Contemporary use and management of Amazonian Dark Earths. In Lehmann, J., Kern, D., Glaser, B., and Woods, W. (eds.), Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, and Management. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp. 387–406.Google Scholar
  36. Junqueira, A. B., Clement, C. R., and Shepard, G. H. (2010). Secondary Forests on Anthropogenic Soils in Brazilian Amazonia Conserve Agrobiodiversity. Biodiversity and Conservation 19(7): 1933–1961.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lehmann, J., Kern, D. C., Glaser, B., and Woods, W. (eds.) (2003). Amazonian Dark Earths. Origins, Properties and Management. Kluwer Press, Dordrecht.Google Scholar
  38. Lima, D. (1992). The social category caboclo: history, social organisation and outsiders’ social classification of the rural population of an Amazonian region. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Cambridge.Google Scholar
  39. McCann, J. M. (2004). Subsidy from culture: anthropogenic soils and vegetation in Tapajônia, Brazilian Amazonia. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Madison.Google Scholar
  40. McKey, D., Rostain, S., Iriarte, J., Glaser, B., Birk, J. J., Holst, I., and Renard, D. (2010). Pre-Columbian Agricultural Landscapes, Ecosystem Engineers, and Self-organized Patchiness in Amazonia. PNAS 107(17): 7823–2828.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Murrieta, R. (2001). Dialética do sabor: alimentação, ecologia e vida cotidiana em comunidades ribeirinhas da Ilha de Ituqui, Baixo Amazonas, Pará. Revista de Antropologia 44: 39–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Neves, E. G., and Petersen, J. B. (2006). The political economy of pre-Columbian Amerindians: Landscape transformations in Central Amazonia. In Balée, W., and Erickson, C. L. (eds.), Time and Complexity in Historical Ecology: Studies in the Neotropical Lowlands. Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 279–309.Google Scholar
  43. Nugent, S. (1993). Amazonian Caboclo Society: An Essay on Invisibility and Peasant Economy. Berg Publishers, Providence, RI.Google Scholar
  44. Nugent, S., and Harris, M. (eds.) (2004). Some Other Amazonians. Institute for the Study of the Americas, London.Google Scholar
  45. Nye, P. H. and D. J. Greenland (1960). The soil under shifting cultivation. Harpenden, UK, Technical Communication 51, Commonwealth Bureaux of Soils.Google Scholar
  46. Olsen, K. (2002). Population History of Manihot esculenta (Euphorbiaceae) Inferred from Nuclear DNA Sequences. Molecular Ecology 11: 901–911.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Olsen, K. M., and Schaal, B. A. (2006). DNA Sequence data and inferences on cassava’s origin of domestication. In Olsen, K. M., and Schaal, B. A. (eds.), Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 123–132.Google Scholar
  48. Petersen, J. B., Neves, E. G., and Heckenberger, M. J. (2001). Gift from the past: terra preta and prehistoric occupation in Amazonia. In McEwan, C., Barreto, C., and Neves, E. G. (eds.), Unknown Amazon. Culture in Nature in Ancient Brazil. The British Museum Press, London, pp. 86–107.Google Scholar
  49. Pujol, B., Gigot, G., Laurent, G., Pinheiro-Kluppel, M., Elias, M., Hossaert-McKey, M., and McKey, D. (2002). Germination Ecology of Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz, Euphorriaceae) in Traditional Agroecosystems: Seed and Seedling Biology of a Vegetatively Propagated Domesticated Plant. Economic Botany 56(4): 366–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pujol, B., Renoux, F., Elias, M., Rival, L., and McKey, D. (2007). The Unappreciated Ecology of Landrace Populations: Conservation Consequences of Soil Seed Banks in Cassava. Biological Conservation 136(4): 541–551.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Raffles, H. (2003). In Amazonia, A Natural History. Princeton University Press, Princeton.Google Scholar
  52. Roosevelt, A. C. (1980). Parmana: Prehistoric Maize and Manioc Susbistence along the Amazon and Orinoco. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  53. Saillant, F., and Forline, L. (2000). Memória fugitiva, identidade flexível: caboclos na Amazônia. In Leibing, A., and Benninghoff-Luehl, S. (eds.), Devorando o tempo: Brasil, país sem memória. Mandarim, São Paulo, pp. 143–156.Google Scholar
  54. Sillitoe, P. (2006). Ethnobiology and applied anthropology: rapprochement of the academic with the practical. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12(1): 119–142.Google Scholar
  55. Slater, C. (1994). Dance of the Dolphin: Transformation and Disenchantment in the Amazonian Imagination. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.Google Scholar
  56. Smith, N. J. H. (1999). The Amazon River Forest: A Natural History of Plants, Animals, and People. Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  57. Stocker, P. (2006). Family Farmers and Manioc in Contemporary Brazil: The Management of Agrobiodiversity and Change. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh.Google Scholar
  58. Wilson, W. M. (2003). Cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz), Cyanogenic Potential, and Predation in Northwestern Amazonian: The Tukanoan Perspective. Human Ecology 31: 403–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wilson, W. M., and Dufour, D. L. (2002). Why “Bitter” Cassava? Productivity of “Bitter” and “Sweet” Cassava in a Tukanoan Indian Settlement in the Northwest Amazon. Economic Botany 56(1): 49–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wilson, W. M., and Dufour, D. L. (2006). Ethnobotanical Evidence for Cultivar Selection among the Tukanoans: Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) in the Northwest Amazon. Culture and Agriculture 28: 122–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Woods, W. I., Teixeira, W. G., Lehmann, J., Steiner, C., WinklerPrins, A. M. G. A., and Rebellato, L. (eds.) (2009). Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision. Dordrecht, Springer.Google Scholar
  62. Zeven, A. C. (1998). Landraces: A Review of Definitions and Classifications. Euphytica 104: 127–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of SussexBrightonUK

Personalised recommendations