This week: jungle

Near Maya Centre in Belize. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Cephas.

According to the dictionary, it means simply ‘land covered with dense forest and tangled vegetation’. But in the context of our human story, the word ‘jungle’ – which derives from the Hindi jangal – has often taken on unfairly negative connotations.

In terms of evolution, it has long been portrayed as the place which our early ancestors left behind – forsaking the trials of life in the dense tropical forest for an easier existence, first on the African savannah, then among the coastal habitats of the Indian Ocean rim, as they began their inexorable spread around the world.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, such broad-brush narratives risk oversimplification, and the truth about the relationship between humans and the jungle from whence they came is more complex than is sometimes imagined.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology and on the latest edition of our PastCast podcast, Patrick Roberts, the author of Jungle: how tropical forests shaped the world, takes us on a fascinating journey through humanity’s interaction with this most misunderstood of environments, from pre-history to the present day.

In many cases, it turns out that as early human societies developed they apparently continued to live on in jungle habitats by choice – a finding that shatters the widespread preconception that these spaces were abandoned by all but a few hunter-gatherers. In New Guinea and across the Amazon, for instance, recent evidence suggests that tropical-forests were being prepared for cultivation from as far back as 7,000 years ago. In Cambodia and Central America, meanwhile, modern laser-imaging technology has revealed the traces of vast ancient cities beneath the rainforest canopy.

Today, the importance of jungles to the health of the planet has finally been recognised – not least, of course, the crucial role played by rainforests in delaying the disastrous effects of climate change. Perhaps the time has also now come to tell a more nuanced story about the part played by these environments throughout human history.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve also been exploring the archives in search of further insight into ancient jungle life: we journeyed to Guatemala’s dense rainforest looking for the lost wonders of the Mayan civilisation; we headed to Mexico to see how another Mayan marvel, the great pyramid at Calakmui, still towers above the surrounding canopy; and we travelled to Angkor Wat to discover how new technology is finally unlocking the secrets of Cambodia’s world-famous temple.

And finally, don’t forget also to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of the world’s rainforests. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you’re an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of November 2021 and pay just £49.99 by entering the code November21 at the checkout.