In 1542 Spanish conquistador Fransisco de Orellana led a party deep into the Amazon in search of the lost city of Eldorado. Almost a year later, his men starving, more than half lost to disease, Orellana split his party. Cramming 60 men into the only boat, he promised to return with help and set off down river. It would be 2 weeks and 600 miles before his party found food, by then his men refused to paddle back to their unfortunate comrades. Orellana believed they would soon reach the ocean. Based on false assumption they carried on – oblivious to the 3000 miles and 8 month journey ahead.
Gaspar de Carvajal, a missionary along for the ride, kept meticulous records of Orellana’s trek. Accounts of large fortified cities, immaculately maintained roads, sophisticated social structure and dense population – swept aside as nothing more than fantasies of a half mad vagabond. Unpublished until 1895, even then discounted by mainstream science as fiction due to lack of physical evidence, understanding of annual floods and acceptance that Amazon basin soil was simply too acidic for crops capable of sustaining large populations – it was “show me a magnificent lost city or leave me alone”.
Nobody stopped to consider – there really wasn’t any stone in the Amazon basin. Starry eyed opportunists clung to whispers of hidden cities of gold. Expedition after doomed expedition met their jungle demise – misplaced presumption clouding any possibility of seeing the Terra Preta beneath their feet. Nothing less than temples of gold would lend credence to Carvajal’s claims of ancient jungle prosperity.
Terra preta is key to unlocking Amazon basin history – Portuguese translation being “black earth” or “black land”. Archeologists now believe the Amazon could have supported millions before the Spanish arrived with disease responsible for obliterating 90% of the defenseless indigenous population.
Terra preta is remarkable in that science still can’t figure out how to make it. A composite of fish and animal bones, pottery shards, manure and charcoal – Terra preta transformed useless Amazon soil into black gold. Terra preta sustained unimaginable indigenous populations through its magical properties. A thousand years later it marches on – still fertile as the day it was crafted.
Orellana and Carvajal survived the Amazon because they took what they needed to survive. They laid eyes on the black gold secret of Amazon prosperity yet failed to recognize something so ordinary. It’s not surprising Carvajal’s diaries fell victim to skeptical mistrust. Lacking explanation to support sustainable food sources, compounded by European points of reference unable to fathom thriving society without massive stone architecture – a classic “couldn’t see the forest for the trees” unfolds.
Carbon dated between 450 BC and 950 AD, terra preta appears in smallish plots, yet is estimated to cover 2,500 – 7,500 square miles of the Amazon basin. Terra preta was pre-Columbian gold – it alone explains “Amazon lost”.
Left – a nutrient-poor oxisol; right – an oxisol transformed into fertile terra preta