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Shaan Hurley, Flickr

A Pop Cultural History of the Amazon

The Amazon is on fire. As we mourn the loss of these unique habitats and attempt to understand the complicated legal and economic ramifications of this devastation, it’s important to acknowledge the importance of this ecosystem, both ecologically and culturally. The Amazon has inspired a wave of pop culture moments that illuminate why it’s important.

Of the Amazon’s many fascinating creatures, few seem to have gripped the popular imagination as much as two of its allegedly ferocious denizens: the anaconda and the piranha. Both have inspired B movies that took liberties with the zoological facts.

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Anaconda (1997) depicts the misadventures of a film crew who encounter an absurdly large anaconda with a taste for people. Although incidents in which boas have eaten humans have occurred, real-life anacondas are not the extremely aggressive monster shown in the movie. To be fair, the creature is supposed to be a Giant Anaconda, a cryptid whose existence has yet to be proven. Even so, in local mythology, the Giant Anaconda is a guardian of the Amazon, and so this cinematic representation could be interpreted as either insensitive appropriation or a high-level satire depicting the Amazon defending itself against obnoxious filmmakers.

Real-life anacondas max at about 17 feet, not 30, and do not regurgitate food in order to eat again (although all boas may regurgitate food when frightened). Typically, they do not consume large prey, instead targeting fish and birds. Anacondas are not endangered, but may be threatened soon by the loss of their habitat.

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Piranha (1978) is the ultimate B movie about killer fish. In the film and its exceptionally gory reboot, schools of piranhas devour people in seconds. This extreme feeding behavior is based on Theodore Roosevelt’s observation of a school of piranhas skeletonizing a cow in mere minutes. What he didn’t know was that (a) piranha group feeding typically occurs when the fish are stressed and (b) local fisherman had starved the school for days before offering the cow to them.

In real life, piranha are often fished and prepared in Brazilian restaurants, making them an important part of the local economy. The fish themselves are largely scavengers and help clean up the river bed.

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In 1993, educational software MECC decided to take all the frustrations of the popular Oregon Trail game and make them prettier, fancier, and all the more likely that you’d die of some horrible illness.

In fairness, The Amazon Trail was quite addictive and had much more to offer in terms of gameplay and graphics than Oregon Trail. Players were much more likely to learn about different native species, indigenous culture, and historical figures than in Oregon Trail.

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When launched in 1994, it was a no-nonsense online marketplace for books and videos. Its appeal was that users could purchase items that weren’t available in their local stores — imagine that. It quickly became a book lover’s paradise, and as the site expanded to include everything under the sun, became the definitive online store.

Now, Amazon has morphed into a global force and a purveyor of any product you can imagine. It solidified the expectations that we have for ecommerce: extreme ease of purchase and broad availability of products.

CEO Jeff Bezos initially named the site Cadabra, but wisely chose the name of the world’s largest and most diverse river system instead. Amazon has lived up its name and now offers 12 million products for sale. Despite its questionable business practices, Amazon likely isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for its namesake.

Learn what you can do to help the Amazon so that it can live beyond the pop culture moments it inspires.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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