• We have updated the guidelines regarding posting political content: please see the stickied thread on Website Issues.

Ancient / Pre-Columbian Cultures In The Amazon Region

I saw something about this remarkable soil on TV :- the crucial property it had was large quantities of charcoal. Apparently charcoal retains plant nutrients far better than soil, so this culture had built growing beds with lots of it incorporated.
The report Pietro quotes mentions charcoal being found at these sites.
Certainly sounds like a more constructive application for it than those pesky instant barbeques the students burn the grass in my local park with !
A long way from the 'real' El Dorado (as posted by PM), but still in Brazil, is a recently discovered 'Stonehenge' ...

Mail story, with pics:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/ ... azing.html

For archival purposes a text excerpt and illustration have been added below ...

Hundreds of geometric monuments unearthed deep in the Amazon may have been left behind by a previously unknown society, say scientists.
Archaeologists have found more than 200 earthworks shaped as perfect circles and squares, many connected by straight roads. They have dated one site to 1283AD but say others could be from as early as 200AD.

Aerial photograph and plan of the Fazenda Colorada site, which is made up of clear geometric shapes. Excavations suggest inhabitants lived in the three-sided square.

The earthen foundations were found in a region more than 150miles across, covering northern Bolivia and Brazil's Amazonas state.

The first ones were uncovered in 1999, after large areas of pristine forest was cleared for cattle grazing.

Sculpted from the clay rich soils of Amazonia, the earthworks are made up of 30ft wide and 10ft deep ditches alongside 3ft high walls. The largest ring ditches founds so far are 1,000ft in diameter. ...

Excavations at some sites have also revealed evidence of permanent habitation, including domestic ceramics, charcoal and grinding stone fragments.

The findings cast serious doubt on previous studies that stated the area could only support small, impermanent villages.

Instead it is likely the Amazon teemed with complex societies. These were probably wiped out by diseases brought to South America by colonists 500 years ago.
Last edited by a moderator:
Something very interesting about the investigation of the Amazonian civilizations is that it throws a wrench into our ideas about the pristine jungles of the Amazon. It actually messes with the idea of all the "untouched" wildernesses that we try to protect and preserve in the Americas.

It seems pretty obvious now that most of the land in the Americas was extensively managed and cleared to a certain extent by the Native Americans. Complex cities like this couldn't have been built in the middle of dense jungles. The Native Americans obviously had very complex systems of agriculture, forest and wildlife management. Sadly, European diseases travelled inland much faster than early explorers. By the time we got to these places most of the people were dead, their cultures in disarray and their great works reclaimed by the forest and wild animals.
Actually the demise of many of the great civilizations date to times prior to European contact. The southwestern civilizations have a long history of boom and bust which appear to center on charistmatic leaders, wars, and enviornmental factors such as drought. The modern Pueblo and Navajo tribal traditions evolved to survive with these stresses, and they are still working. It is not outside the realm of possibility that modern Amazonian tribes live the way they do because they tried large-scale agriculture and centralization, and it didn't work for them.
Its interesting how many of our so called wilderness areas are in fact simply abandoned human sites. (often of intensive farming or industry)

If these people died of diesease, they must have had a sophisticated trading network to spread it.

Perhaps the survivors are simply those who were too ignorant to join in the game.

(and what do `they` have to say about these sites? Surley they have stories?)
The southwestern tribes of the US do, though some are secret and not told to outsiders; and I expect the Amazonian tribes do, as well, but I know nothing about them myself. Anthropological received wisdom may have dismissed the stories as fantasy, or the most important ones might have been grossly misunderstood, or not collected. Many tribes have never been studied, if I understand the situation correctly - it's way outside the purview of my most intense interest. Probably to get up to speed on publications in the subject would require the ability to read Portuguese and Spanish, which I don't have to any practical degree. (I'll be happy to translate menus and billboards if you ever visit here, though.)
Stone age etchings found in Amazon basin as river levels fall
Drought in Brazil reveals engravings up to 7,000 years old – evidence of ancient civilisation
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 10 November 2010

A series of ancient underwater etchings has been uncovered near the jungle city of Manaus, following a drought in the Brazilian Amazon.

The previously submerged images – engraved on rocks and possibly up to 7,000 years old – were reportedly discovered by a fisherman after the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon river, fell to its lowest level in more than 100 years last month.

Tens of thousands of forest dwellers were left stranded after rivers in the region faded into desert-like sandbanks.

Though water levels are now rising again, partly covering the apparently stone age etchings, local researchers photographed them before they began to disappear under the river's dark waters.

Archaeologists who have studied the photographs believe the art – which features images of faces and snakes – is another indication that thousands of years ago the Amazon was already home to large civilisations.

Eduardo Neves, president of the Brazilian Society of Archaeology and a leading Amazon scholar, said the etchings appeared to have been made between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago when water levels in the region were lower. The etchings were "further, undeniable evidence" that the region had been occupied by a significant number of ancient settlements and people.

"There has always been this idea that the Amazon was empty. The truth is that this hypothesis is not correct. In many parts of the Amazon we now have proof of settlements," he said, adding that the discovery was of great scientific importance.

Recent years have seen a growing number of archaeologists studying the Amazon, revising previous theories that the rainforest was too inhospitable to host a major civilisation.

"The conventional account of the Amazon basin is that it was inhabited by very small, often nomadic indigenous communities," said archaeologist Manuel Arroyo-Kalin, a research associate at University College London and Durham University familiar with the Manaus region.There was growing proof of "incredible pottery, large villages [and] roads going from one place to another" which "for a century or two" had been discarded by scholars.

With soy farmers, loggers and urban settlements advancing, cataloguing and preserving ancient Amazon sites had become a race against time.

"In the city of Manaus the amount of archaeology that has been destroyed is impressive," Arroyo-Kalin said.

Archaeologists are particularly concerned about the imminent inauguration of a 2.2-mile bridge across the Rio Negro connecting Manaus with Iranduba. The area is home to numerous archaeological sites, where ancient ceramics and burial urns have been found. "The bridge … will probably alter quite dramatically life on the other side of the Rio Negro … because [it] will put pressure on the land with urbanisation, and river fronts tend to be loaded with archaeological remains," Arroyo-Kalin said. "By changing the dynamic of how the region is being used … you will certainly start damaging archaeology."

Neves said he hoped the latest find would boost efforts to preserve the rainforest and its ancient secrets.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/no ... e-etchings
Amazon Was Not All Manufactured Landscape, Scientist Says
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/20 ... 142846.htm

New evidence challenges the idea that the Amazon basin was densely inhabited before European arrival. (Credit: Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com)

ScienceDaily (June 14, 2012) — Population estimates for the Amazon basin just before Europeans arrived range from 2 to 10 million people. The newly reported reconstruction of Amazonian prehistory by Smithsonian scientist Dolores R. Piperno and colleagues suggests that large areas of western Amazonia were sparsely inhabited. This clashes with the belief that most of Amazonia, including forests far removed from major rivers, was heavily occupied and modified.

The team's research is published in the June 15 issue of Science.

"Drawing on questionable assumptions, some scholars argue that modern Amazonian biodiversity is more a result of widespread, intensive prehistoric human occupation of the forests than of natural evolutionary and ecological processes," said co-author Piperno, senior scientist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "Climatologists who accept the manufactured landscapes idea may incorporate wholesale prehistoric Amazonian deforestation, widespread fires and carbon emissions into their models of what caused past shifts in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels. But we need much more evidence from Amazonia before anything like that can be assumed."

This report paints a very different picture of the past. Crystal McMichael of the Florida Institute of Technology, first author of the paper, collected 247 soil samples from 55 sites across the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon, including little-studied interfluvial forests, distant from major water courses. A lack of charcoal in the samples told the authors that fires, almost always caused by humans in the humid tropics, were few and of low intensity and did not result in much structural damage to the forests. Fragments of silica left behind when vegetation decays, called phytoliths, indicated that crop species and plants typical of human disturbance were scarce. Forms of intensive forest management such as groves of palm trees were not indicated by the phytolith records either.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in 2011 was the lowest since annual record keeping began in the late 1980s and has fallen nearly 80 percent since 2004. Environmentalists fear that changes to the country's Forest Code, which mandates how much forest a landowner is required to maintain, could reverse progress in reducing deforestation, but the global consequences of such a policy remain unclear.

"Planners may assume that Amazonian forests were resilient in the face of heavy prehistoric human modification," said Piperno. "These views based on few empirical data are gaining currency in scholarly circles and the popular media. Hopefully, our data will help to place these questions into a more rigorous empirical context."

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

C. H. McMichael, D. R. Piperno, M. B. Bush, M. R. Silman, A. R. Zimmerman, M. F. Raczka, and L. C. Lobato. Sparse Pre-Columbian Human Habitation in Western Amazonia. Science, 15 June 2012: 1429-1431 DOI: 10.1126/science.1219982
This kind of fits here.

WHAT is a vast grassland doing in the middle of the world's largest rainforest?Conservationists say that fires started by the indigenous Pemón people have destroyed the forests that should naturally blanket the area, and that fires should be banned. Others argue that the savannah has existed for millennia and that the fires conserve this natural landscape. Both could be wrong.

New research shows that human fires did help shape the landscape, but only after a portion had already become savannah. Some think that burning land could even help protect the remaining forest.

The Gran Sabana looks like an anomaly. It's part of a 68,000 square kilometre island of savannah in the lush rainforests where Venezuela meets Brazil and Guyana (see map). There have been many different theories about how it formed in a region where the climate favours rainforests, and plenty involve fire.

The Pemón set thousands of fires each year. It helps them communicate and hunt, and they believe it has magical healing powers. Such spiritual connotations might explain why some view the Pemón's fire use as irrational and dangerous, says Iokiñe Rodríguez, at the University of East Anglia, UK. ...

This seems like the most appropriate extant thread for this item ...

Understanding ancient geometric earthworks in southwestern Amazonia
Researchers examine pre-colonial geometric earthworks in the southwestern Amazonia from the point of view of indigenous peoples and archaeology. The study shows that the earthworks were once important ritual communication spaces.

FULL STORY: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170830103459.htm
Shades of "Z", perhaps?

Ever since I first read of Percy Fawcett in one of Rupert Furnaux's books, I have strongly suspected that something was hidden in the Amazon jungles.

While it is not absolute proof, it does tend to encourage this belief.
This latest research establishes there was a network of Pre-Columbian earthworks spanning the southern area of the Amazon Basin - further filling in the picture of previously unsuspected human settlement throughout the region.

I find it interesting that these large-scale earthworks seem to be ceremonial or some other form of gathering places rather than permanently inhabited settlements - a non-residential status increasingly believed to apply to many similar - (e.g.) megalithic - sites worldwide.

Mysterious Geoglyphs Reveal Amazon Was Densely Populated Before Columbus
Mysterious geoglyphs and a host of other earthworks in the Amazon rainforest suggest that the now-sparsely populated region was home to up to 1 million people before the arrival of Columbus, a new study finds. ...

Amazonia is often thought of as pristine nature, but over the past few decades, archaeologists have discovered evidence of numerous large, complex societies that may have inhabited Amazonia before the arrival of Columbus. Although these newfound discoveries contrast with the small Amazonian societies anthropologists studied in the 20th century, they are in line with initial eyewitness accounts of Europeans from the 16th and 17th centuries. ...

For example, previous research excavated large earthworks along the southern rim of the Amazon rainforest. These included mysterious geometrical structures known as geoglyphs that combined square, circular and hexagonal earthworks.

"The geoglyphs are interesting for several reasons," said study lead author Jonas Gregorio de Souza, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in England."Despite the impressive architecture of these features, and the effort and planning that must have been involved in their construction, archaeologists have actually found very few remains of habitation inside the enclosures. That means they were probably not settlements, and the most likely explanation is that they were used for ceremonial gatherings, although their exact function is still a mystery."

The earthworks that scientists have found so far in the southern rim of Amazonia are typically far apart from each other. However, this region was occupied by peoples that shared common lifestyles, suggesting the earthworks might have actually formed a chain about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) long.

To see how widespread human settlements were in the Amazon, scientists focused on the basin of the upper reaches of the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon. They concentrated on this area because of the dearth of archaeological research in this previously uncharted region.

The researchers used satellite images to discover 81 new archaeological sites in the upper Tapajós basin with a total of 104 earthworks. This suggests there is no gap in the network of earthworks spanning across Amazonia's southern rim, they said.

"We filled the last piece of a puzzle in Amazonian archaeology," de Souza told Live Science. "Thanks to our research in the Upper Tapajós river, now we can speak of a whole 1,800-kilometer [1,100-mile] stretch of rainforest occupied by these earth-builders." ...

FULL STORY: https://www.livescience.com/62137-amazon-once-densely-inhabited.html
On the positive side, perhaps this means the rainforest can bounce back easier than we thought, if left alone.
On the positive side, perhaps this means the rainforest can bounce back easier than we thought, if left alone.

Yep - that's the minor silver lining such discoveries imply. Of course, the scale of deforestation / degradation centuries ago would have been minuscule compared to what the Amazon Basin would need to overcome today.
Newly published results from LIDAR surveys in southwestern Amazonia demonstrate a surprising number of ancient villages with mounds and interconnecting roads.
Archaeologists Discover Hidden Network of Amazonian Villages Arranged Like Clock Faces

Using remote laser scanners mounted on helicopters, archaeologists have been able to peer below the forest canopy of the Amazon, revealing the layouts and links of ancient villages laid out like clock faces.

While these so-called mound villages had been spotted before, the new surveying technology has revealed exactly how they were organised at scale, and the data were gathered without the need for laborious work and excavation on the ground. ...

"LIDAR has allowed us to detect these villages, and their features such as roads, which wasn't possible before because most are not visible within the best satellite data available," says archaeologist José Iriarte, from the University of Exeter in the UK. ...

The scans showed how the villages – built between 1300-1700 CE – were arranged to represent very specific social models, with no clear hierarchy.

"The uniform spatial layout of the mound villages, like many contemporaneous ring villages of the Neotropics, are likely to represent physical representations of the Native American cosmos," the team writes in their paper.

Between 3 and 32 mounds were found at each site, with the mounds themselves as high as 3 metres (9.8 feet) in some cases, and stretching up to 20 metres (65.6 feet) in length. Closer investigation in the future should be able to reveal exactly what these mounds were used for – from houses to cemeteries.

Long, sunken minor and major roads with high banks were also discovered by LIDAR, radiating from the mound villages like rays of sunshine or the hands of a clock. Most villages showed two roads leaving to the north, and two to the south. ...

The research has been published in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology.

FULL STORY: https://www.sciencealert.com/lidar-...-amazonian-villages-arranged-like-clock-faces
Here are the bibliographic details and abstract from the published research. The full research report is accessible at the link below.

Iriarte, J., Robinson, M., de Souza, J., Damasceno, A., da Silva, F., Nakahara, F., Ranzi, A. and Aragao, L., 2020.
Geometry by Design: Contribution of Lidar to the Understanding of Settlement Patterns of the Mound Villages in SW Amazonia.
Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology, 3(1), pp.151–169.

DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jcaa.45

Recent research has shown that the entire southern rim of Amazonia was inhabited by earth-building societies involving landscape engineering, landscape domestication and likely low-density urbanism during the Late Holocene. However, the scale, timing, and intensity of human settlement in this region remain unknown due to the dearth of archaeological work and the logistical difficulties associated with research in tropical forest environments. A case in point are the newly discovered Mound Villages (AD ~1000–1650) in the SE portion of Acre State, Brazil. Much of recent pioneering work on this new archaeological tradition has mainly focused on the excavation of single mounds within sites with little concern for the architectural layout and regional settlement patterns, thus preventing us from understanding how these societies were organised at the regional level. To address these shortcomings, we carried out the first Lidar survey with a RIEGL VUX-1 UAV Lidar sensor integrated into an MD 500 helicopter. Our novel results documented distinctive architectural features of Circular Mound Villages such as the presence of ranked, paired, cardinally oriented, sunken roads interconnecting villages, the occurrence of a diversity of mound shapes within sites, as well as the exposure the superimposition of villages. Site size distribution analysis showed no apparent signs of settlement hierarchy. At the same time, it revealed that some small groups of villages positioned along streams exhibit regular distances of 2.5–3 km and 5–6 km between sites. Our data show that after the cessation of Geoglyph construction (~AD 950), this region of SW Amazonia was not abandoned, but occupied by a flourishing regional system of Mound Villages. The results continue to call into question traditional views that portray interfluvial areas and the western sector of Amazonia as sparsely inhabited. A brief discussion of our findings in the context with pre-Columbian settlement patterns across other regions of Amazonia is conducted.

And they lived sustainable lifestyles.

A study that dug into the history of the Amazon Rainforest has found that indigenous people lived there for millennia with "causing no detectable species losses or disturbances".

Scientists working in Peru searched layers of soil for microscopic fossil evidence of human impact. They found that forests were not "cleared, farmed, or otherwise significantly altered in prehistory". The research is published in the journal PNAS.

Dr Dolores Piperno, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, who led the study, said the evidence could help shape modern conservation - revealing how people can live in the Amazon while preserving its incredibly rich biodiversity.

Dr Piperno's discoveries also inform an ongoing debate about how much the Amazon's vast, diverse landscape was shaped by indigenous people.

Some research has suggested the landscape was actively, intensively shaped by indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans in South America. Recent studies have even shown that the tree species that now dominates the forest was planted by prehistoric human inhabitants.

Dr Piperno told BBC News, the new findings provide evidence that the indigenous population's use of the rainforest "was sustainable, causing no detectable species losses or disturbances, over millennia".

A study that dug into the history of the Amazon Rainforest has found that indigenous people lived there for millennia with "causing no detectable species losses or disturbances".

Just read this article. With equal joy and sadness.

Aren't we doing wo well as a "civilisation". We have technology the likes of which has never been seen for kicking about in our pockets.

And all we do is exploit, ruin and destroy.

I would argue that the sooner we make this word uninhabitable to us, everything else will breathe a sigh of relief.
No, thats not true.

We have a greater understanding of how things work; we could probably make a better world...if we felt like it.

The fact that we dont is the sad thing.

Re-creating one of these settlements would be a great Experimental archaeology project...and teach us new ways to make productive land.
Another vast conurbation discovered, this time it's in Bolivia, spread out and had low population density.

A massive urban landscape that contained interconnected campsites, villages, towns and monumental centers thrived in the Amazon rainforest more than 600 years ago.

In what is now Bolivia, members of the Casarabe culture built an urban system that included straight, raised causeways running for several kilometers, canals and reservoirs, researchers report May 25 in Nature.

Such low-density urban sprawl from pre-Columbian times was previously unknown in the Amazon or anywhere else in South America, say archaeologist Heiko Prümers of the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn and colleagues. Rather than constructing huge cities densely packed with people, a substantial Casarabe population spread out in a network of small to medium-sized settlements that incorporated plenty of open space for farming, the scientists conclude.

Darkening the earth. How ancient settlers created fertile areas in the Amazon basin.

The Amazon river basin is known for its immense and lush tropical forests, so one might assume that the Amazon's land is equally rich. In fact, the soils underlying the forested vegetation, particularly in the hilly uplands, are surprisingly infertile. Much of the Amazon's soil is acidic and low in nutrients, making it notoriously difficult to farm.

But over the years, archaeologists have dug up mysteriously black and fertile patches of ancient soils in hundreds of sites across the Amazon. This "dark earth" has been found in and around human settlements dating back hundreds to thousands of years. And it has been a matter of some debate as to whether the super-rich soil was purposefully created or a coincidental byproduct of these ancient cultures.

Now, a study led by researchers at MIT, the University of Florida, and in Brazil aims to settle the debate over dark earth's origins. The team has pieced together results from soil analyses, ethnographic observations, and interviews with modern Indigenous communities, to show that dark earth was intentionally produced by ancient Amazonians as a way to improve the soil and sustain large and complex societies.

"If you want to have large settlements, you need a nutritional base. But the soil in the Amazon is extensively leached of nutrients, and naturally poor for growing most crops," says Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. "We argue here that people played a role in creating dark earth, and intentionally modified the ancient environment to make it a better place for human populations."

Another lost city rediscovered, this time in Ecuador.

A huge ancient city has been found in the Amazon, hidden for thousands of years by lush vegetation.

The discovery changes what we know about the history of people living in the Amazon. The houses and plazas in the Upano area in eastern Ecuador were connected by an astounding network of roads and canals. The area lies in the shadow of a volcano that created rich local soils but also may have led to the destruction of the society.

While we knew about cities in the highlands of South America, like Machu Picchu in Peru, it was believed that people only lived nomadically or in tiny settlements in the Amazon.

"This is older than any other site we know in the Amazon. We have a Eurocentric view of civilisation, but this shows we have to change our idea about what is culture and civilisation," says Prof Stephen Rostain, director of investigation at the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, who led the research.

"It changes the way we see Amazonian cultures. Most people picture small groups, probably naked, living in huts and clearing land - this shows ancient people lived in complicated urban societies," says co-author Antoine Dorison.

The city was built around 2,500 years ago, and people lived there for up to 1,000 years, according to archaeologists. It is difficult to accurately
estimate how many people lived there at any one time, but scientists say it is certainly in the 10,000s if not 100,000s.

The archaeologists combined ground excavations with a survey of a 300 sq km (116 sq mile) area using laser sensors flown on a plane that could identify remains of the city beneath the dense plants and trees.