The University

New honorary doctor at Faculty of Arts

21 September 2012

Williams I. Woods, professor of geography at the University of Kansas, has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the Faculty of Arts for his pioneering research on terra preta, a fertile type of soil in the Amazon basin that was formed by the land use of prehistoric Indian cultures.

Wood’s researching findings about terra preta are crucial to the emergence of a new understanding of the Amazonian rainforest landscape in recent years, from having been regarded as an untouched wilderness to being best understood as a cultural landscape. The revised historico-ecological view of the Amazon basin — to many the very epitome of nature — is helping to provide a deeper understanding of the concepts of nature and culture.

William I. Woods (PhD in geography from the University of Wisconsin in 1986) is a professor of geography at the University of Kansas Department of Geography in Lawrence. Professor Woods’ scientific work is a brilliant example of how problematizing archaeological research can contribute knowledge that is directly applicable to today’s society. His research examines the relations between humans and their environment, with a special focus on questions of sustainability in the past and across long periods of time.

The type of soil he is studying is known as Amazonian Dark Earths or terra preta and distinguishes itself by its characteristic dark, nearly black colour, high carbon and nutrient content, and high productivity from most other, more nutrient-poor soils in the Amazon basin that were shaped by natural processes. In his research Professor Woods has been able to show how terra preta was formed by the strategies for land use and settlement of prehistoric Indian cultures.

Professor Woods is the world leader in the interdisciplinary study of terra preta. In a number of collaborative projects with colleagues from Latin America, Europe, and the US, he is investigating the origin and importance of the soil. These research findings provide not only a deeper understanding of the environmental and cultural history of the Amazon basin but also clues to sustainable use of resources in the Amazon today and in the future.

Moreover, Woods’ research on terra preta is of critical importance to a new image of the Amazonian tropical rainforest landscape that has begun to emerge in recent years, from have represented the epitome of untouched wilderness to a more nuanced image of the Amazon basin as a cultural landscape where the impact of humans in prehistoric times often had a positive effect on the productivity and diversity of the ecosystem, and thereby on the ecological sustainability of the tropical rainforest.

“The revised historico-cultural view of Amazonas that Woods’ research findings have contributed to has provided a deeper and more problematizing understanding of the concepts of nature and culture, and ultimately a new view of human beings as cultural creatures,” says Christian Isendahl, a reader at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University.

For more information, please contact Reader Christian Isendahl at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History (who is also doing research on terra preta occurrences in Amazonas within the framework of a current Swedish-Brazilian research project funded by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond [Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Fund]), mobile: +46 (0)70-936 76 66,