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I am writing a book set in a world that is a fleshed out version of a myth told by Central African Hunter Gatherers (Congo Pygmies) and the African groups north of them, generally going as follows:

The Pygmy Peoples of the Congo were once highly advanced and had Jungle cities, all sorts of advance machines, tools, medicines, etc. However due to internal conflict and wanton growth, the Pygmies nearly brought themselves to the brink of extinction. Due to this, the Pygmies that were left decided to return to hunter-gathering in order to sustainably coexist with the forest they so loved and the trees of which they had always worshipped.

This is all well and good, but to retain such a world's believeability there is need to answer fundamental questions about the nature of their civilization, the most primary of which being by which means do they maintain an agricultural system that can support civilization in a rainforest.

Given that it is antithetical to the beliefs of Pygmies to clear rainforest for agriculture, given that all Pygmy groups in varying ways unilaterally worship the rainforest, How might these groups engage in the level of agriculture needed to sustain a civilization?

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding.SE! That is a very interesting question. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Looking forward to your future contributions. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jul 13 '18 at 11:08
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question and also well written. Welcome to Worldbuilding! $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jul 13 '18 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand. Hunter-gatherers don't do agriculture, by definition. So are you asking how these people managed agriculture in the days before they reverted to hunter-gathering? If so, please edit your question (and, especially, the title) to clarify this. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 13 '18 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Its because a) I don't want to call them "Pygmies" in the title because b) "Pygmy" is technically a derogative word so c) I initially called them Central African Hunter-Gatherers since d) thats what anthropologists call them. And yes to your question $\endgroup$ – user52978 Jul 13 '18 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Not exactly. It's not a "hey guys, I just discovered how to plow, let's abandon hunter-gathering". It's a process. In fact you can call most south american indigenous semi-nomadic hunter gatherers but they have know how to plant some crops from millenia and they do it in the middle of the jungle. The main difference is how extensive and variated plantations can go $\endgroup$ – jean Jul 13 '18 at 19:40

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Worship the forest that you make.

There is a real life parallel for you: the ancient Amazon. Exactly what you describe happened there. Whether the ancient Amazonians disappeared because of European diseases or at some earlier point (like the Mound Builder civilization) is still not known, I do not think. But they were there in great numbers, and their descendants are hunter gatherers much like the pygmies.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/its-now-clear-that-ancient-humans-helped-enrich-the-amazon/518439/

For more than 8,000 years, people lived in the Amazon and farmed it to make it more productive. They favored certain trees over others, effectively creating crops that we now call the cocoa bean and the brazil nut, and they eventually domesticated them. And while many of the communities who managed these plants died in the Amerindian genocide 500 years ago, the effects of their work can still be observed in today’s Amazon rainforest.

“People arrived in the Amazon at least 10,000 years ago, and they started to use the species that were there. And more than 8,000 years ago, they selected some individuals with specific phenotypes that are useful for humans,” says Carolina Levis, a scholar at Wageningen University who helped lead the study. “They really cultivated and planted these species in their home gardens, in the forests they were managing,” she said.

That cultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa tree—still dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin.

“Modern tree communities in Amazonia are structured to an important extent by a long history of plant domestication by Amazonian peoples,” says the paper.

So too your ancients. They revere the forest and they manage the forest. The forest is not a wild thing. It is the place they live and they work to keep it a nice place to live. And just as the Amazon today, what appears to be a wild forest is actually akin to an overrun garden - with evidence of the ancient gardeners if you know how to look.

The linked article is more about the forest but you can read about ancient Amazonian agriculture here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_preta They had a system for enriching the soil with charcoal and pottery shards. The soil enrichments those ancients made persist to this day and are still valued as soil amendments.

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  • $\begingroup$ good real world example $\endgroup$ – Reed Jul 13 '18 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ +1. To add the by far most important "crop" (it's a root really) for Amazon indigenous is mandioca and they plant it in small pieces of land for substence $\endgroup$ – jean Jul 13 '18 at 19:47
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Depending on the exact definition of "Clear the Rainforest" this could be achieved.

Agriculture was a gradual discovery. The first gatherers would have realised that if they scattered some of the fruit/seeds they collected as an "offering" to the plant, more of these plants would grow over time. They should quickly make the connection that the plant comes from the seeds themselves.

They would then start protecting and encouraging more of these plants to grow. Removing competing inedible plants, and putting coverings over them to stop wildlife taking the food will ensure even more is available to the pygmies.

Finally, they will attempt to clear areas of land purely to plant their food. I imagine it is this point that violates their beliefs, but by many generations protecting and encouraging naturally grown plants you will eventually get to the same point without ever actually "clearing" the jungle itself.

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Modern forestry is actually a kind of agriculture. Humans replace trees they can't use with trees they can use, plant them in the ways which achieve the best yields and build road networks and other infrastructure into the forests which make planting and harvesting easier.

Forestry in the northern hemisphere focuses primarily on mass-producing timber. If you want to grow food, you get rid of the trees to get open land for planting vegetables, legumes or grains.

But your culture could instead focus on cultivating trees and shrubs which produce edible fruits with timber just being a by-product. Cultivating trees for food is also known in modern agriculture. It's called an orchard. But industrial orchards usually try to keep their trees short so farmers can pick the fruits without having to climb the trees. Your culture might reject that practice for cultural reasons and let their fruit trees grow to taller sizes. This has the advantage that the land below the trees becomes more useful for cultivating shrub-plants or mushrooms.

So imagine an orchard of rainforest trees with fields of berry bushes and mushrooms below them.

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I imagine there are a couple possibilities to go about this.

  1. Settling close to naturally occurring food sources (fruit trees etc) and instead of planting, put the energy into maintaining the already given resources.

  2. They would need to have space to live anyway and could possibly have small gardens with edible plants next to their huts or whatever they live in, so they wouldn't need to clear large spaces of rainforest but smaller ones so that individual families plant what they need.

  3. They could try to find an already existing open space. That might be difficult in thick forest but I don't want to leave this unmentioned. An already existing open space could (presumably) be used for agriculture without violating religious dogma.

All of these only work for rather small communities but I don't think there's much possibility to keep a large civilization up under the mentioned conditions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, user4308! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 13 '18 at 21:48
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Send the criminals of society away from the forests they love to toil in the open fields. Your "prison population" is then responsible for the arable agriculture needed to supplant forest sources of food

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, James! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 13 '18 at 21:47
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There are permaculture techniques for farming in a forest. These take time to establish, but once set up, they'll provide food over the course of a year and not one great big harvest at one time during the year.

This article has a brief description of the levels in a forest permaculture environment. Under this model, the overstory, or canopy layer usually doesn't provide human edible foods (there are some exceptions, like Brazil nut trees - they're typically reaching heights around 50m/160ft). Most fruiting trees are shorter and would occupy the subcanopy/understory layer (in tropical American regions, custard apples and tamarind would be here, these trees are 5-9 meters or 15-35 feet tall). Food shrubs like papaya and carob would occupy the shrub layer. The "Three Sisters" would occupy layer 4. Some tropical root crops would include yams, cassava and taro - these provide large amounts of starch/carbs for tropical peoples. Vanilla, passion fruit, pepper (the one you place next to salt on your table) and some beans are vines and can be grown up the sides of your taller trees.

Add some water works like canals (with weirs for fishing and irrigation) and raised beds that the pre-Columbian South American cultures made and your peoples should be able to accommodate the food needs for their civilizations. Perhaps they have small furry animals cohabitating, like the Quechua peoples kept guinea pigs running freely around the house. Need more meat for dinner tonight? Grab Mr Fluffykins and toss him into the pot.

You would need to select plants and animals for the altitude of your tropical forest.

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Agro-Forestry

Similar to Wilk's answer, you can integrate farming within the forest. But you actually don't need to limit yourself to trees, or even actually rely on the trees themselves for food.

By just choosing the right crops, things such as fungi, berries, ducks and sheep, you can grow them on the forest floor and actually help the forest at the same time.

The native trees earn their keep by attracting natural predators as pest control, providing shade for the dark-dwelling fungi, and feeding animals with a constant supply of bugs and grass cover.

In return, the crops compensate trees by building soil, preserving water quality and run-off, and adding biodiversity to the indigenous demographic. The farm restores and protects the forest ecosystem, and vice-versa.

https://grist.org/sponsored/how-farms-can-heal-a-forest-or-even-make-them/

A real-world modern example exists at Wellspring Forest Farm

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In some ways, your question answers itself. The people, of whom you write, may well have had a slash-and-burn ethos in their distant history. Due to those practices, they may well have suffered a localized ecological catastrophe, which increased the influence of a certain faction opposed to these practices or even brought them to power.

As a result, they initially began to repair the damage. As the damage was repaired and the influence of this group increased, a generalized back-to-nature movement may have occurred, which resulted in their cities becoming gradually depopulated.

The people of today are then the descendants of the back-to-nature group. They maintain this ethos through a strong oral tradition. Depending on how long ago this occurred, the ecological damage they caused may have repaired itself and their cities may simply be piles of rocks in a vague city-like arrangement in the forest.

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You said that they are hunter-gatherers. This implies that they can't consciously be farmers by definition. But they can do it unconsciously.

For example, they can be nomadic and they can constantly pursue their prey that migrates by the same path. During their temporal stop they eat local fruits/berries/etc and then take shit (pardon my french) nearby. Seeds of some species survive their digestive system and use their shit as fertilizer. After some time the tribe(s) returns to the same location and it will be able to eat fruits/berries/etc that it unconsciously planted.

Although good timing is important here, they should arrive just in time. But maybe they will be able to figure it out on their own.

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You might like to research the practices of the Native Americans. They are often thought of as hunter-gatherers, but they also practiced extensive agriculture, and in a landscape that was heavily forested. A detailed description is far beyond the scope of this answer, but this Google search gets you some good references.

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  • $\begingroup$ Please note that Google searches can return different results for different people, and that results returned will vary over time. If there are specific results you're seeing in that search which you think are particularly noteworthy, it'd be far better to link directly to them. Subject, of course, to the usual caveats surrounding link-only answers. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 15 '18 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ There are plenty of good results in the search, and I'm happy if the results change a bit. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Jul 15 '18 at 20:12

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