Orellana’s Robots

Robot: n.; a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.

In 2009, the New Scientist interviewed James Lovelock, the originator, with Lynn Margulis, of the Gaia Hypothesis, that all Earth was a great living organism. At 90, Lovelock’s outlook for the human future was dim.

Do you think we will survive?
I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2°C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4°C, we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population.
What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?
That is a waste of time. It’s a crazy idea — and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.
Do you still advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change?
It is a way for the UK to solve its energy problems, but it is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reduction measures.
So are we doomed?
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste — which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering — into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine percent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes, and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then plows into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few percent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

In 2010, New Society released a book I had been laboring on for several years, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change. I can’t claim that the central theme of reversing climate change with biochar was original, and indeed, I hastened to give credit to key scientists, many of whom I had the honor of meeting on my trips to Brazil. Their light was hidden under a bushel, however, and I saw my role as turning the bushel over and letting that light out.

In compiling The Biochar Solution, I searched the earliest sources for the observation of terra preta do Indios (the dark earths of the Indians), and in that process discovered, stored for safekeeping in the library of Seville, Spain, the journal of Francesco de Orellana’s scribe, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal — Relación del Nuevo Descubrimiento del Famoso Río Grande que Descubrió por Muy Gran Ventura el Capitán Francisco de Orellana (“The Account of the Recent Discovery of the Famous Grand River which was Discovered by Great Good Fortune by Captain Francisco de Orellana”).

Carvajal’s history of the journey had remained in the Archivo de Indias and largely forgotten for 353 years until the Chilean historian, José Toribio Medina, compiled an abridged version in Spanish in 1895. A translation of Medina’s account by Bertram T. Lee and edited by H.C. Heaton is in Stanford University Library as The discovery of the Amazon according to the account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal and other documents as published with an introduction by José Toribio Medina (New York, American Geographical Society, 1934).

In The Biochar Solution, I related the expedition that began in February 1541 when, by various accounts, Gonzalo Pizzaro (1502–1548) left coastal Ecuador to travel inland in search of cinnamon and gold, then fell on hard going, with hundreds (mostly slaves) starving and dying. Pizzaro, desperate, dispatched a trusted lieutenant, Orellana (1511–1546), to take 50 men and descend a newly discovered river in search of food. Historian Ed Hart explained what happened next:

Having traveled 200 leagues (a league equates to 2.6 miles) down fast-flowing rivers through inhospitable country where food was scarce, in the end his party hadn’t the food, the capacity, the support or the means to alleviate Pizarro’s predicament. There was no way back. They were both in the same famished predicament only in different places.

By improvisation and his unique skills, especially in languages, Orellana and his men escaped being swallowed by the jungle, eaten by crocodiles or strung up on poles by headhunters, and managed to find their way across the uncharted continent to the Atlantic Ocean, where they navigated the coast to Venezuela and returned from there to Spain. To Emperor Carlos V, Orellana’s tale seemed fantastic and contrived, and so it was that Carvajal’s Jornadas languished four centuries on a dusty library shelf, unpublished.

In recent days we have seen ramped-up interest both in the terra preta soils, which, as Lovelock said, are essential to any plan to escape the juggernaut of rapid climate change, and in the history of ancient civilizations. All around the planet, LIDAR imaging has rolled back the forest cover and, in the Amazon, revealed vast city complexes, validating Carvajal’s account. While slow to understand what soil scientists like Sombroek, et al, were telling them, climate scientists are now connecting the dots and starting to glimpse how a terra preta therapy might heal our atmosphere and oceans.

Explorers and scientists who arrived after Orellana found no trace of the great civilizations Orellana claimed to have discovered. Since the interest of the conquerors was best served by relegating the history of the Americas to Stone Age isolated bands of hunter-gatherers until their Christian redemption in service to the monarchs of Europe, calling Orellana and Carvajal fabricators suited the times. Hart wrote in 2013:

Some, like American archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921–2012), didn’t believe that the nutrient-poor, acidic oxisols (soils) could support more than the minimum recycling of nutrients required to sustain an unchanging fetid equilibrium. In Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, published in 1971, she was unequivocal: there just wasn’t enough resources to sustain agriculture, significant population densities or social organization beyond that of the “pop-up” hunter-gatherer village.

But by the 1960s, soil scientists and geographers had already begun to unravel the popular myth and replace it with hard evidence of an entirely different story.

In January 1542, nearly a year into his expedition, Orellana captured two Yagua chiefs named Aparia and Dirimara, whose names likely came from the Yagua words (j)ápiiryá (‘red macaw clan’) and rimyurá {‘shaman’), linguistically similar to the language of Peru, Quechua. Today the Yagua live in some 30 subsistence communities scattered throughout a 70,000 sq. mi. section of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon basin, still speak Yagua and still wear a traditional clothing made of palm fiber. Carvajal described them as pale-skinned Indians with fine hair to their waists, who stood “a span taller than the tallest Christian.” They spoke of wealthy cities in the hinterland, part of a confederation which included Aparia the Lesser and Aparia the Great, part of which extended 80 leagues (208 miles) from the Rio Caracuray to the Rio Javari. This corresponds closely to Yagua land today, extending southward from the second to the fifth parallel and westward from the 70th to the 75th meridian west. Carvajal observed that the settlements were so close to each other they were separated by “less than a crossbow shot.” Similarly, the Machiparo territory, a neighboring confederation, extended 190 leagues (494 miles) from Rio Juruá to the Rio Japurá/Caquetá.

Traveling further down river, Orellana next encountered the Omagua, who had the custom of flattening their children’s heads by binding a piece of wood to the forehead soon after birth. Omagua women would jeer at the women from other tribes, saying that their heads were “round like those of forest savages.” The Omaguas considered their flattened foreheads a sign of cultural superiority over their neighbors, and for a long time they resisted abandoning this custom, even under missionary pressure. Los Llanos, modern home of the famous Gaviotas ecovillage, is in former Omagua territory. Carvajal, estimating their army at 50,000 men between 30–70 years of age under arms (younger men were exempt from military service), noted the Omagua had a hereditary aristocracy, a sign of sedentary, agrarian culture. The territory was described as having roads (“royal highways”) into the interior. A single settlement, with an overlord named Ica, was 5 leagues long (13 miles) and rich in gold and silver.

At the point where Omagua territory ended, the people were described as “stocky,” (in contrast to the tall Yagua), bore wooden shields and lived in stockades “fortified with walls of heavy timber.” Inside these gated fortresses were large plazas in which 10-foot carved wooden reliefs stood. In The Biochar Solution, I translated Carvajal’s entry from the medieval Spanish:

In this town were houses of pleasing interiors with much stoneware of diverse forms. There were enormous pitchers and vases, and many other smaller containers, plates, silverware, and candlesticks. This stoneware is of the best quality that has ever been seen in the world, and even that of Malaga does not equal it. It is all enameled with glass, of all colors and the brightest hues. Some are drawn to frighten, but on others, the drawings and paintings are delicate depictions of nature. They craft and they draw everything like the Romans. There were ornaments of gold and silver, and in this house were two idols woven of feathers of intricate design, and designed to frighten. There were giant statuary and in one there were working arms and knees, run by gears and wheels. The statues’ heads had very great ears, with ornate earrings. And also in this town were much gold and silver, but our intention was not to look for wealth but to eat and to try to discover how we might save our lives.
From this village there went out many roads, fine highways to the inland country. The Captain wished to find out where they led to. For this purpose, he took with him Cristóbal Maldonado and the Lieutenant and some other companions and started to follow the roads. He had not gone half a league when the roads became more like royal highways, and wider. When the Captain perceived this, he decided to turn back, because he saw it was not prudent to go any farther.

A few days later, Carvajal described making port at a medium-sized village and being astonished by its feats of architecture.

In this village was a very large public square, and in the center of the square . . . were two towers, very tall and having windows, and each tower had a door, the two facing each other, and at each door were two columns; and this entire structure that I am telling about rested upon two very fierce lions, which turned their glances backward as though suspicious of each other, holding between their forepaws and claws the entire structure.

The “fierce lions,” were most probably jaguars, which would have been a concern to herders. Paguana, a land of villages two leagues (5 miles) long, was described as having many “sheep like Peru” (llamas) and being rich in silver, pineapples, avocados, plums, cherimoya (passion fruit). It had wide roads and stood over a bluff at a point where the river was so wide the Spaniards couldn’t see the opposite bank.

The expedition then passes 70 leagues downriver through the “Provincia de Picotas” (headhunters) before Orellana came upon two white women and “many Christians” with Indian wives, possibly survivors of the ill-fated Diego de Ordaz Rio Orinoco expedition of 1531–1532. One of the ships, under the command of Lt. General Juan Cornejo, was wrecked just north of the Amazon and the entire party “lost to the jungle.”

“There are very large cities that glistened white and besides this land is as good, as fertile, and as normal in appearance as our Spain…. [A]ccording to the disposition of what we saw, the interior must be populated much as what we had seen, and thus, this area … we must say is “grandísimo.”

Carvajal’s experience in Spanish cities like Seville and the royal capital, Valladolid, provided some reference for “very large cities,” but the sheer scale of these 13-mile long, wealthy “glistening white” cities, and what he witnessed passing down the river dwarfed even those. For some 200 miles, “the farthest separation less than an average league, and at least five cities lasted entire leagues without separation from house to house.”

Passing into Provincia de San Juan, which extended 150 leagues (390 miles) into the Amazon delta, Carvajal says it was ruled over by the overlord, Couyuco/Quenyuc, who had an elaborate tribute (tax) system. The region was said to be densely populated (according to their Indian guides) and had roads and stone houses with doors. In these tidal reaches, dominated by Carib tribes, the chief Arripuna was “the overlord of white men and Christians.” Carvajal describes Tinamostón, chief of La Provincia de los Negros (they covered themselves in black body paint) and the chiefdom of Nurandaluguaburabara-Ichipayo, guarded by fortresses built on hills stripped of vegetation.

Of the Amazon women warriors, Carvajal describes their bravery, mores, and customs. Was Father Gaspar going for accurate detail or was he writing for the prurient delight of other monks? He wrote:

These women are very white and tall, and have very long hair, bound and shaken wildly at the top, and are very bold and walk naked, but for leathers over their shames. They carry scimitar knives and bows and even if you shoot them with arrows in their arms, they still fight as much as ten men; and these women put so many arrows into one of our brigs, that it looked like a porcupine.

Fearing for their lives, the travelers bypassed large population centers, occasionally got into skirmishes with armies numbered in the thousands, and looked for small towns into which they could land a raiding party, steal whatever food they could lay their hands on quickly, and resume their journey downriver. Father Gaspar observed and recorded fine colored clothes of cotton and wool, wealthy port cities, ceremonial buildings with roofs clad in macaw feathers, woven tapestries that narrated historical events, elaborately carved furnishings, and even machinery.

Meggars and others who said no large population centers could have been possible in the Amazon were disproven by the Orellana expedition, although it has taken almost 500 years to confirm. Thanks to LIDAR, there is now little doubt that “very large cities” existed and were supplied by an advanced form of agriculture that the Spanish, and many later, failed to comprehend.

In 1661, Santarém was founded by Father João Felipe Bettendorf with the name “Aldeia do Tapajós” (Tapajós village) in the divide where the Amazon and Tapajós rivers run along many miles, side by side, without mixing. Today Santarém is the seventh largest city in the north region of Brazil. Bettendorf was an educated man and could not help but observe the difference in the color of the soils. He named them terra preta do Indios.

The first published mention of dark earths in Amazonia, “black and very fertile,” was in 1870 by the American geologist and explorer James Orton, a professor at Vassar, in his book The Andes and the Amazon, dedicated to Charles Darwin. In 1865–66, Louis Agassiz put together an expedition to the Amazon that included the young Canadian geologist Charles Hartt. Later named the first professor of geology at Cornell University, Hartt published studies of this soil (1874), as did his assistant Herbert Smith (1879), and the British geologists Brown and Lidstone (1878). Ballard S. Dunn’s book, Brazil: Home for Southerners (1867), described the post-civil war emigration to slavery-legal Brazil of 10,000 to 20,000 former Confederate soldiers and plantation owners. Descendants of Confederados now comprise a tenth of the municipal population of Santarem. Former First Lady Roslynn Carter had a relative among the originals. But well before this period, R.L. Allen wrote in American Agriculture (1846):

“Charcoal dust applied in the same way has been found to increase the early growth from four to ten-fold.”

It is therefore no surprise that the Confederados chose terra preta lands for their new plantations. They had plenty to chose from — terra preta soils cover an area in Brazil the size of Great Britain. It’s also no surprise that Henry Ford chose to site Fordlandia and his “Dearborn in the Jungle,” the Belterra rubber plantation, on a terra preta bluff outside Santarem.

The oldest written record of charcoal use in agriculture may be the “Nogyo Zensho,” a Japanese agricultural encyclopedia written in 1697 during the Edo period by the wandering samurai-turned-peasant Yasusada Miyazaki. The earliest chemical description linking terra preta to carbon came in 1903 from the German geologist Friedrich Katzer, who identified the high organic matter content in the soil, the fine carbon biochar giving the dark hue, and suggested a cultural origin. His library and samples were destroyed in the siege of Sarajevo in 1992–1996.

From the 1920s into the 1970s, much time was wasted debating whether terra preta was formed by the accumulation of organic material in former lakes and ponds that attracted Indian settlement or by organized manufacture as Katzer had said. Wim Sombroek showed terra preta “obtained its specific properties from long-lasting cultivation” and, while questioning whether it was “economically justifiable” (in 1966), proposed developing new dark earths as carbon sinks and for food security, a strategy he named, “Terra Preta Nova.”

According to historian William Denevan, after 1980, groups of terra preta researchers can be identified, particularly in Germany, Brazil, and Colombia, but “in the US these Amazonian dark earth studies elsewhere initially aroused little interest.” It was not until the mid-1990s that geographers, archaeologists and soil scientists began to find common cause, and today we can start to add climate scientists to that mix.

Terra Preta Nova may have finally found its calling.

But before we leave, let us stop and ponder one more piece of Father Gaspar’s narrative that we brushed by perhaps a bit too quickly. Carvajal reported, “There were giant statuary and in one there were working arms and knees, run by gears and wheels. The statues’ heads had very great ears, with ornate earrings.”

Giant robots — in a place where almost all of the monumental architecture was carved from wood because stone was scarce. To make these giant robots, society would need either to have developed sophisticated metallurgy or elaborate woodworking. These androids would have required gears as precisely tuned as time-pieces. Since no machines of this type have since been discovered in the Amazon, one might surmise they were not widespread, although in the tropical climate even durable hardwoods like teak and mahogany would have eventually degraded. Nonetheless, to be able to make a giant statue with working arms and knees requires considerable engineering skill. Could that have come from a survivor of the Cornejo shipwreck? Chinese merchants? Or, was it a skill developed over the course of many millennia, along with astronomy, agronomy, and architecture? We may never know.

All that we can say now is that Orellana was not lying. It was those who came later that were wrong.


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