Anthropologist pens an artful natural history of the Amazon

With his new book In Amazonia: A Natural History, anthropologist Hugh Raffles has set a new standard for the genre of natural history, artfully bringing to life the people, history, and science of this highly romanticized region.

In engaging prose, Raffles traces the mystique of the Amazon back to 16th-century explorers and describes how it captivated Europeans' imagination as "a paradise full of riches" and simultaneously became the target of European anxiety about disease and the horror of unbridled nature.

"Since the 1540s, people have described Amazonian nature as overwhelming and mysterious, yet it's also portrayed as a place of wealth and incredible natural resources," said Raffles, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of In Amazonia: A Natural History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

In Amazonia has been hailed as a breakthrough natural history and celebrated for its "lively and witty prose." Central to Raffles's story is his contention that although the Amazon has long been considered a place of unparalleled wildness, the river's landscape has actually been dramatically transformed by hundreds of years of human intervention.

"People talk about the Amazon as a natural landscape, but the people who live there have been transforming it forever," said Raffles. "It's much more appropriate to think of the Amazon as a managed landscape, as people are beginning to think about the American West."

The Amazon continues to draw explorers of all sorts, and Raffles raises ethical questions for scientists and anthropologists. "For centuries, the Amazon has been a place of discovery. Even with bioprospecting today, the hope is that it holds the secrets of life," said Raffles.

But In Amazonia was written for a broad audience, and Raffles writes for those who love to read, telling historical and contemporary stories about life on the river as he explores notions of place, nature, and science. He devotes one section of the book to the history of a small community established in 1958 by a landlord whose indentured laborers steadily remade the river to improve access to timber and other resources. Over the years, the residents cut through a waterfall at the mouth of the Amazon and established a network of water routes that runs three to four miles into the forest.

The remote community, which Raffles calls Igarapé Guariba, is a "classic remote Amazonian village" that is home to about 150 people who live without running water, electricity, or sanitation. Located a four-hour boat trip from the nearest city, residents nevertheless make forays to the city two or three times a week.

"They have dramatically changed the size of what was a narrow, shallow creek into a waterway that is now 800 meters across," said Raffles, who spent 15 months living in Igarapé Guariba. "They completely reengineered the landscape." Ultimately, opening up the land ushered in changes that helped residents displace the landlord in what Raffles calls a "mini revolution."

Conservationists who portray the Amazon as a "natural landscape" may unwittingly jeopardize the lifestyles of the residents of hundreds of similar communities that are located along the Amazon's shores, said Raffles. "People on the river have changed it, and not just in the ways we've been hearing about since the 1970s," said Raffles, referring to the massive clear-cutting of rainforests. "There really isn't any left that's pristine."


Note to Journalists: Hugh Raffles may be reached at (831) 459-3614 or via e-mail at