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Massive Ancient Network of Cities Found in the Amazon

posted by Jason Kottke Jan 25, 2024

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

lidar image of straight roads and structures built by an ancient Amazonian civilization

Using lidar, a team led by archaeologist Stéphen Rostain has found evidence of a network of cities in the Amazon dating back thousands of years. From the BBC:

Using airborne laser-scanning technology (Lidar), Rostain and his colleagues discovered a long-lost network of cities extending across 300sq km in the Ecuadorean Amazon, complete with plazas, ceremonial sites, drainage canals and roads that were built 2,500 years ago and had remained hidden for thousands of years. They also identified more than 6,000 rectangular earthen platforms believed to be homes and communal buildings in 15 urban centres surrounded by terraced agricultural fields.

The area may have been home to anywhere from 30,000 to hundreds of thousands of people:

“This discovery has proven there was an equivalent of Rome in Amazonia,” Rostain said. “The people living in these societies weren’t semi-nomadic people lost in the rainforest looking for food. They weren’t the small tribes of the Amazon we know today. They were highly specialised people: earthmovers, engineers, farmers, fishermen, priests, chiefs or kings. It was a stratified society, a specialised society, so there is certainly something of Rome.”

You can read more coverage of this in New Scientist, the NY Times, Science, and the Guardian.

I still remember reading Charles Mann’s Earthmovers of the Amazon (which he turned into the excellent 1491) almost 25 years ago and being astounded to learn that civilizations in the Americas were older, larger, and more widespread than I’d been taught.

Discussion  3 comments

Timothy C Truxell

This is very cool, but not unexpected to me really because of Charles Mann. 1491 is my go to book to recommend to people. It blew my mind as well.

Shamus Halkowich

I enjoyed the article "Earthmovers of the Amazon," it's the short story version of the book i suppose and a wonderful connection to the wealth of speculation on ancient Amazon civilization. I remember Graham Hancock discussing the idea that lidar surveys could reveal previously unknown civilizations in the Amazon, and am both thrilled by the idea of pre-Columbian cities and saddened by the destruction of it.

Michael Webster

There's a lot of fascinating stuff about the civilization and cultures of the ancient Americas. I read 1491 on your recommendation and that is very good. Not sure if you also recommended The Dawn of Everything by Davids Graeber and Wengrow? That's the book I've found most insightful on the general subject. From reading that, I'm curious if the Amazonian civilization really had Royalty and strict hierarchies. It appears that most 2000+ year old cultures here didn't.

To another point, the reason not much is known about those civilizations is because it has purposely been downplayed and even hidden from the general public. The argument that Europeans displaced a bunch of primitive savages has always been a powerful justification for the unprecedented human and cultural losses that happened. Then on down to the very basics of people who wanted to farm someone else's lands just violently taking it with state backing. Then to more modern times when farmers have done anything they could to keep the ancient cities on their land from being studied, fearful that the state would take their land and make it a museum.

Anyhow, interesting stuff and gets more interesting the deeper you look into it.

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