Scientists have discovered advanced ancient cities in the Amazon and it is the most compelling evidence yet that the Amazon’s rainforest “wilderness” was densely populated and, in some parts, quite urbanized.
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The Amazon is one of the world’s last great wildernesses, but rumors about hidden towns deep beneath the jungle have circulated for ages. Many Spanish adventurers were led far off the map in search of El Dorado, a rumored city of gold, and some of them never returned. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer, looked for the Lost City of Z as recently as the twentieth century. He vanished into the jungle, adding his own unfinished chapter to a 600-year-old story.
Scientists have discovered that ancient towns actually exist in the Amazon, giving the story a fresh twist. While finding urban ruins in thick, distant forests remains tough, a key technology has helped to shift the game. Scientists employed light-based remote sensing technology (lidar) from a helicopter 650 feet above the ground to digitally deforest the canopy and identify the ancient ruins of a massive urban settlement around Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon that was abandoned 600 years ago.
The new photos depict a stronghold of the socially complex Casarabe Culture (500-1400 C.E.) with massive platform and pyramid architecture in its urban centers. Raised causeways linked a slew of suburban-style towns that spanned miles over a landscape formed by a huge water control and distribution system complete with reservoirs and canals.
The discovery, which was published in Nature this week (pdf given below), is the most compelling evidence yet that the Amazon’s rainforest ‘wilderness’ was densely populated, and in some parts quite urbanized, for many centuries before written history of the region began.
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Heiko Prümers of the German Archaeological Institute, a co-author, quotes an old Spanish proverb that says no one is so blind as the one who doesn’t want to see. ” IIt’s a myth that was created by Europeans who really spoke of a jungle, and vast regions untouched by humans,” he explains. “So a lot of people didn’t want to see that there were archaeological sites here that merit exploration.
“I’m sure that in the next 10 or 20 years we’ll see a lot of these cities, and some even bigger than the ones we are presenting in our paper,” he adds.
Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, was not involved in the study but has spent nearly two decades researching urbanism in the pre-Columbian Amazon. Elements of the Llanos de Mojos town, like as moats and causeways, as well as a modified environment of parklands, working forests, and fish farms, have been seen elsewhere in the ancient Amazon, according to him. However, the current study reveals something completely fresh.
Previous examples of Amazon urbanization include Heckenberger’s work with the Kuikuro Nation in the Brazilian Amazon’s Upper Xingu region. These towns might be defined as a collection of interconnected villages. Some academics claim that they aren’t properly urban because they lack clearly defined major centers with monumental architecture such as platform mounds and U-shaped temples.
Llanos de Mojos, on the other hand, has such urban centers. Heckenberger observes, “This is in my mind the clearest case of a fully urbanized Amazonian landscape.” “It’s a marvelous piece of work. It shows really remarkable range of things that humans did in the past to work with their landscapes and work with larger and larger populations.”
Hundreds of isolated sites had been discovered across more than 1,700 square miles of the Llano de Mojos region, including settlements inhabited year-round by the Casarabe, who hunted, fished, and farmed staple crops like maize, thanks to previous hands-on archaeological work and other remote-sensing efforts. There were also 600 miles of causeways and canals discovered. However, the logistical difficulties of mapping them in a remote tropical forest hindered efforts to link the dots and determine whether or not they were related.
Even from the air, the secluded, forested area is difficult to explore, and the remains are tough to identify. “There’s no way to know what’s down there until you get there, and when you get there you have problems trying to find and orientate the sites,” says Prümers.
So, between 500 and 1400 C.E., the researchers conducted aerial lidar imaging of six different regions, ranging in size from roughly 4 square miles to 32 square miles, to provide a bird’s eye perspective of what was the Casarabe culture’s heartland. A lidar system fires hundreds of thousands of infrared beams per second from an aircraft, and each beam bounces back with a distance measurement when it hits something on the Earth’s surface.
This generates a massive data cloud that can be fed into computer software that generates high-resolution photos that scientists can use to digitally deforest the Amazon. The maps show the Earth’s surface and archaeological features by scrubbing away trees. The photos in this example clearly showed 26 distinct sites, including 11 previously unknown.
Landivar and Cotoca, two big urban centers, were among the 26 sites. They had already been discovered, but the new maps revealed their archaeological complexity and immense scale (1.2 and .5 sq miles respectively). Each large settlement is encircled by successive rings of fortifications, including a moat and ramparts.
Artificial terraces, massive earthen-platform constructions, and conical pyramids over 70 feet tall can also be found at the sites. All of these remarkable civic and ceremonial structures face north-northwest, which scholars believe mirrors a cosmological world view seen at other ancient Amazonian sites.
“Basically they remolded the landscape in terms of their cosmology, which is mind blowing,” says Chris Fisher, a Colorado State University Archaeologist not involved in the study who specializes in Mesoamerica. “The only problem is that this architecture was made from mud brick. So while at the time it was as fantastic looking as anything in the Maya region, the Maya monuments have endured because they had limestone while these just weren’t as durable.”
The Casarabe are far less well-known than the Maya. So, who were these people? A decade of archaeological study in the area has revealed that their culture was distinct, and that the area they lived in was likely a yearly flooded savannah with riverside forests, rather than the enormous uninterrupted stands of timber that can be found now.
What happened to the Casarabe and their settlements is unknown, although dating from the sites suggests that they occupied the Amazon until around 1400 C.E., much before Europeans arrived. Prümers speculates that widespread drought was at blame. His team has discovered massive reservoirs for water storage at several locations, which isn’t what one would expect in an Amazon region known for abundant rainfall.
“Of course, we don’t know if these were for a drinking water supply, or to farm fish or turtles, but it’s very interesting that we do have them,” he says. “We know that there were severe droughts in the Amazon regions several times in history. That might have happened to this culture as well. It only needs one or two years of loss of crops of harvest and people have to move.”
Though it had an unknown end, the civilisation that flourished here adds to mounting evidence that the Amazon isn’t one of the world’s great pristine wilderness areas—and that it wasn’t even an unbroken forest until very recent times.
However, the Amazon is rapidly changing. Forests are being cut down to make way for agriculture, ranching, energy production, and the roads and dams that support these activities. Many of those untouched locations, with their buried cultural artifacts, won’t be for long. Fisher promotes large-scale lidar scanning of the Amazon and beyond as part of the Earth Archive project, which aims to capture what is left of the past before it is lost to the future.
“We’re running out of time because we’re losing the Amazon,” he says. “And we’re going to lose things that we never knew were there. To me that’s a real tragedy.”
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