Repository logo

Fields and Forests: A Stable Isotope Perspective on the Subsistence Strategies of Past Amazonian Peoples



Change log


Hermenegildo, Tiago 


The subsistence strategies employed by the ancient peoples of the Amazon have been a fundamental and extensively debated topic since the inception of archaeological research in the region. Despite a general disagreement regarding carrying capacity and human development in past Amazonia, the initial subsistence debate converged upon strategies based on manioc cultivation and fish protein and the functional division of the Amazon territory between productive (várzea) and unproductive (terra firme) areas. These early remarks, however, were based mainly on limited ethnographic analogy supported by scarce archaeological evidence, highly compromising the validity of the proposed theories. Only in recent years, with the improvement of archaeological science techniques, researchers were able to give a new direction to understanding subsistence practices in ancient Amazonia. Yet, very little is known about the life ways of past Amazonian peoples. This thesis contributes to the debate by presenting newly generated bone collagen-derived carbon and nitrogen stable isotope data from populations occupying three different Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon areas – the Llanos de Mojos, the Central and Lower Amazon basin – between around 2000 to 500 years BP. This study also compares the generated data with published stable isotope evidence from populations in other areas of the Amazon as well as other Neotropical lowland forests to build a larger picture of human subsistence practices in the Amazon under the known Neotropical context. Interpretations focus on a multiproxy perspective, relying on extensive contextual fauna and plant remains evidence recovered throughout the Amazon. The results show marked differences between the three areas. In the Lower Amazon, the data from the Maracá population indicate diets based on a combination of unknown C3 plants, supplemented by riverine protein and a potential small maize contribution. In the Central Amazon basin, the evidence from the Hatahara site shows a significant contribution of riverine fauna, as well as mixed plant sources including maize and C3 plants. Lastly, the results from Loma Salvatierra and Mendoza in the Llanos de Mojos display an exceptionally high contribution of maize, potentially a staple between 1300 and 1200 BP, and evidence of maize consumption amongst potentially domesticated muscovy duck (Cairina moschata). The combined stable isotope evidence from the Amazon shows that consumption of maize was more of a norm than an exception, providing a substantial dietary contribution even in the typical várzea context of Hatahara. Furthermore, the combined dietary evidence shows a diversity of subsistence strategies in the Amazon, centred on the cultivation of maize, root crops, and potentially several palm species, indicating that there was not a single adaptive strategy nor a single staple crop employed by all populations throughout the Amazon. The findings in this study significantly improve our understanding of human dietary patterns in Amazonia over the last two millennia, particularly regarding maize cultivation and animal management strategies, and are a fundamental stepping-stone for future stable isotope studies in the Amazon and the lowlands of South America.





O'Connell, Tamsin


Stable Isotopes, Subsistence Strategies, Amazon, Archaeology, Carbon and nitrogen


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq)