6. Looking into the palaeo-economic origin of Terra Preta

The abundance and high fertility of Terra Preta suggests that native populations were dense and characterized by sedentary settlement before the arrival of Europeans. Large sedentary populations indicate an extraordinary food production capacity. Building and maintaining Terra Preta must also have absorbed a substantial amount of labour.

  1. Explore the socio-economic and biophysical (presence of nutrient sources) conditions that gave rise to the development of Terra Preta and validate these through archaeological studies;
  2. Use geo-information tools (GIS) to understand the spatial extent of Terra Preta over different scale levels; and
  3. To derive implications for current efforts to invest in new fertile soils that allow sustainable and productive agriculture (Terra Preta Nova). The socio-economic underpinnings will be analyzed with aid of dynamic simulation models that integrate human behaviour and technological innovations, population dynamics, and environmental change. Starting from micro-foundations (individual decision-making), such models indicate under what conditions societies are likely able to coordinate their efforts and overcome incentives of individuals to ‘free ride’. Understanding past human impacts could help predict results of current changes and propose new policy directions. The insights of this project will not only allow comparison of the implications of competing theories on the origins of Terra Preta, and guide the search for new archaeological evidence, but also assist contemporary initiatives to invest in soil improvement. Together with research topic #7 it will study the quantities of inputs to reconstruct 3-D models of Terra Preta (spatial extent, depth).