Archaeologists have discovered the largest and oldest network of pre-Hispanic cities ever found in the Amazon rainforest, uncovering a 2,500-year-old lost civilization of farmers.
The vast site, covering more than 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles), was long hidden by jungle in the Upano Valley at the foot of the Andes in eastern Ecuador.
However, a French-led team of researchers has used overhead laser mapping technology and archaeological excavations to uncover 20 settlements – including five major cities – connected by roads.
Stephen Rostain, an archaeologist at the French research center CNRS and lead author of a new study, told AFP it was like discovering El Dorado.
The scale of this urban development – which includes mud houses, ceremonial buildings and agricultural drainage – has never been seen before in the Amazon, Rostain said.
“It’s not just a village, but an entire landscape that has been domesticated,” he said.
Rostain said he discovered the first traces of this lost civilization 25 years ago when he discovered hundreds of mounds in the area.
In 2015, his research team flew over the region using lidar laser technology, which allowed scientists to see through the tree canopy as if “we had cut down all the trees,” Rostain said.
– 'Like New York' –
They found more than 6,000 mounds, rectangular earthen platforms that served as bases for houses for the “Upano people.”
On the floors, researchers found “all the domestic remains you would see in a house – fireplaces, large ceramic jars for beer made from corn, grinding stones, seeds, tools,” Rostain said.
What's remarkable is that the cities are all criss-crossed by large, straight streets – “just like in New York,” he added.
Some cities had a large central alley where people from surrounding villages gathered, Rostain said, comparing these streets to those of the ancient city of Teotihuacan in modern-day Mexico.
Rostain speculated that several thousand people may have attended such celebratory events, but further analysis is being conducted to estimate how many people lived in the area.
Some of the mounds are up to 10 meters (33 feet) high, suggesting that they were not dwellings but rather communal areas for rituals or festivals.
The small fields show that the agricultural society “used the smallest empty space to make sure it bore fruit,” Rostain said.
All of these achievements would have required managers, planners and engineers to plan the roads, he suggested.
What happened to the previously unknown Upano people, which the researchers named, is not known.
It is believed that the first mounds were built between 500 B.C. BC and 300-600 AD, around the time of the Roman Empire.
Other large villages discovered in the Amazon date back to between 500 and 1,500 AD, says the study published Thursday in the journal Science.
But this network of cities is “much older and much larger,” Rostain said.
The discovery shows that “there were not only hunter-gatherers in the Amazon, but also complex, urban populations,” he added.
Rostain said that “a certain Western arrogance” had long considered it impossible that the people of the Amazon before European colonization were capable of building such a complex society.
“It is time to rethink this derogatory view of the people of the Amazon.”
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