Photo of Professor José Iriarte

Professor José Iriarte

Research interests

Coupled human and natural systems: the legacy of past human impact in Amazonia and the Rio de la Plata Basin

Were the tropical forests of Amazonia a pristine, virgin forest inhabited by small band of hunter-gatherers or slash and burn horticulturalists passively adapting to the environment with a minimal impact on it or was it a cultural parkland, a manufactured landscape supporting large regionally organized, hierarchical societies with a larger impact on the environment? José s international interdisciplinary projects, which bring together archaeologists, archaeobotanists, paleoecologists, soil scientists and biologists investigate this crucial question in several case studies across Amazonia including the raised-field agricultural landscapes in the tropical savannas French Guiana and Bolivia, the geoglyphs of SW Amazonia and the megaliths of Amapa, Brazil. These projects have been funded by ERC, AHRC, NERC, Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, CNRS-France and National Geographic Society. Find out more about  Fire-free pre-1492 land use in Amazonian savannas (PNAS 2012), Pre-Columbian agricultural landscapes  (PNAS 2010),  Phytolith and carbon isotopes from raised fields (JAS 2010), as well as its implications for a more sustainable future in Ecological Engineering.

Watch Unnatural Histories (BBC4), Voice of America and read Discovery Channel News and OGlobo (Brazil) to learn more about José’s research.


Pre-Columbian Amazon-Scale Transformations (PAST). ERC (2014-2017)

Je Landscapes of southern Brazil: Ecology, History and Power in a Transitional Landscape during the Late Holocene. AHRC (UK) - FAPESP (Sao Paulo, Brazil) (2014-2017).

The origins of plant domestication in the upper Madeira River basin in lowland South America. NERC (2015).

Climate and Culture: Environmental contextualisation of the development of human society in Western and Central India. UKIERI (2015-2016).


Pre-Columbian land use and impact in the Bolivian Amazon. Leverhulme Trust (2010-2013). 

Environmental impact of the Pre-Columbian 'geoglyph builders' in western Amazonia. National Geographic Society (2011).

Sacred places and funerary rites: the longue durée of southern Jê monumental landscapes. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2010-2011).

Investigating the Socio-Political Organization of Early Formative Taquara/Itararé Societies: Regional Survey and Excavations in the Piray Mini Basin, Interior Atlantic Forest, Argentina. National Geographic Society (2009-2010)

Ecology and archaeology of the coastal savannas of French Guiana: landscapes co-constructed by man and nature? CNRS-France (2007-2010) 


Plant Domestication and the dispersal of Agriculture

José is also interested in early plant domestication and the spread of agriculture in the Americas. He uses plant microfossils, including phytoliths, starch grains and pollen from archaeological sites and lake and wetlands to research these problems. You can read his new ideas about plant domestication and early dispersal of agriculture in his co-edited book Rethinking Agriculture. Also look for his and his colleagues articles on maize (Zea mays L.) domestication in Mexico (PNAS 2009) and about early maize dispersals in Peru (PNAS 2012) and Uruguay (Nature 2004). Jose’s ideas about the diversity of early food production systems in the Americas can be read in Current Anthropology. Read news about maize domestication at  NSF and ScienceDaily.



Dr Iriarte is happy to supervise postgraduate research students working in the following areas: phytolith analysis, human environmental interactions, plant domestication and the early dispersal of agriculture, landscape archaeology and Formative cultures of the Americas.

Find out more at his personal web-site.