The Origins and Spread of “Greater Amazonia”

The term “Greater Amazonia” now yields hundreds of hits with your average search engine — but it was not always so. Indeed, this term has only gained widespread currency in the last decade. In this post I report on what I have learned about its earliest attestation, and the route by which it came to be a widely used term

But first, a personal note — my involvement with this term began some time in 2000-2001, when I was writing a review article with Chris Beier and Joel Sherzer on dicourse in lowland South America. As it turns out, when you begin to look at the distribution of particular discourse phenomena associated with Amazonia, say, dialogic chanting or dialogic ritual discourse, you find that the phenomena tend to be distrubed in a roughly contiguous area encompassing the Amazon Basin proper, but also — in the north — the Guyanas, the Orinoco Basin, and the Darien and nearby parts of Columbia and Panama. In the south, the region extends through the central Brazilian highlands to encompass the headwaters of the rivers running south from the southern limits of the Amazon Basin proper. This contiguous region is also spanned by several language families (Arawak, Carib, Gê, Tupí) and by cultural patterns, suggesting the existence of a long-standing linguistic-cultural area.

At the time we were writing that article, at any rate, we were in need of a handy term to describe this area and so I coined — or so I though — the term “Greater Amazonia”. I proposed it to my co-authors, and they liked it, but were concerned that we might be being too onomastically daring in introducing the term. But it was just so well-suited to our need that we decided to use it anyway. Naturally, I checked to see if anyone else had used the term before, but using the search tools of the time — remember, this was before Google Scholar and Google Books, and just at the time when scholarly resources were being digitized en masse — I found nothing. Recently, however, I had reason to repeat this search and discovered that I was very, very far from being the first to use the term “Greater Amazonia”.

The earliest attestation of the term that I have discovered so far is in Clarence Fielden Jones’ 1930 volume South America, a geography text devoted to South America as a whole. However, after this one early outlier, I have found almost no uses of the term until William Denevan’s 1976 book The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, which seems to have been the point at which the term began to spread into the scholarly community.

There is one caveat here: I have found a few attestations of “greater Amazon area” from the 1940s. It should be recalled that use of the term “Amazonia” only really took off in the English speaking world starting in the 1970s, and that “The Amazon” or “Amazon basin” was more commonly used before that point. In any event, we find use of the “the greater Amazon area” in Prehistoric settlement patterns in the New World, a 1943 Wenner Grenn volume edited by Willey Gordon, as well as in Alice Galligan James’ 1949 Village arrangement and social organization among some Amazon tribes.

But as I said, these scattered outliers do not seem to have had much impact, and we can trace the current spread of the term back to Denevan’s 1976 volume. This book, which significantly increased estimates of the indigenous population in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans, had a significant impact when it was published. Among other reasons, the larger population estimates put the effects of the European colonization of the Americas in an entirely new light, and made respectable the use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the actions taken by Europeans and their descendants against indigenous American peoples. Denevan’s work was widely reviews and cited, and I believe that it was this work that served to introduce “Greater Amazonia” to the scholarly community — especially to cultural anthropologists and archeologists.

Until about 1985, most uses of “Greater Amazonia” occurred in reviews or citations of Denevan’s work, but starting in about 1987, the term began to gain wider currency. We find it, for example, in Chiefdoms in the Americas, a 1987 voume edited by Robert Drennan and Carlos Uribe, and in Comparative Farming Systems, of the same year, edited by B.L. Turner and Stephen Brush. An increasing trickle of uses is attested through the 1990s, and then in 2000 we see a sudden jump in its use and the term then began to spread rapidly through the scholarly community.

The first use of the term that I have been able to locate in a journal article not directly connected with Denevan’s work is in a 1990 article by Darna L Dufour, Use of Tropical Rainforests by Native Americans.

So, it’s very clear that I did not coin the term “Greater Amazonia”, although I had no memory at the time of having heard it before. Note, however, that my supposed coining of the term coincided almost perfectly with the point at which the term began to gain great academic currency, suggesting to me that unconsciously picked it up. It does, however, seem that I may have been an early adopter, at least in my neck of the academic woods: it looks like ours was the first language-related journal article to use “Greater Amazonia”. But I’ve learned my lesson, and I expect earlier attestations await only further progress in the digitization of the scholarly record.


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