The Amazonian rainforest is one of the most significant and largely intact ecosystems left on earth. It is often characterised as an essentially untouched natural environment in which man’s presence is merely incidental. However, the vast reaches of the rainforest have been lived in and shaped by human hands for thousands of years. A new exhibition ‘Unknown Amazon’ at the British Museum brings to life the cultures of the tropical forest both past and present, and invites comparison with the rise of civilization along major river systems elsewhere in the world.
The Amazon Basin boasts the largest river system on Earth and harbours an ecosystem of unrivalled complexity. Early European travellers were awed by their first encounters. In 1531, Francisco Pizarro overthrew the Inca emperor Atahualpa, and a decade later his younger brother Gonzalo ventured east from Quito in the Andean highlands in pursuit of the legendary cities of gold and cinnamon thought to be hidden in the jungle fastness. Forging downriver along the Rio Napo, the expedition soon exhausted its supplies and, at Pizarro’s behest, his second-in-command Francisco de Orellana led a group sent ahead to reconnoitre for food. Eight months later Orellana emerged at the mouth of the Amazon, having made what would prove to be the first descent of the length of the river.