“Until a few decades ago,” begins María Susana Cipolletti in her fascinating book, “it was generally assumed that cultural change came late to lowland South America, during the Rubber Boom [1875–1930]. Thus native societies had supposedly lived in a sort of historical limbo for extended periods. . . . We now know that the emergence, revitalization and decline of indigenous cultures during the colonial period compel us to give up this idea forever.” Historians and anthropologists of a certain age will recall that Amazonia was where you went to study native people who were unspoiled by Western civilization. The turning point came in 1978, when John Hemming published Red Gold: The Conquest of Brazilian Indians, 1500–1760. For the next twenty years, researchers in many disciplines brought Amazonian history sharply into focus. Favorite tropes—about “lost tribes” and “the last of this-or-that”—still hang on...

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