Archaeological excavations in the Amazon rainforest have revealed a network of ancient cities once inhabited by a population of over 10,000 agriculturalists around 2,000 years ago.
Over twenty years ago, archaeologist Stéphen Rostain first observed a collection of earthen structures and hidden pathways in Ecuador. “At that point, I couldn’t quite piece it all together,” admitted Rostain, a member of the team that published the discovery in the journal Science on Thursday.
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The dense vegetation of the Bolivian rainforest had long obscured these archaeological sites from discovery. However, advanced laser-sensing technology has recently mapped out a complex of urban settlements and interlinked roads nestled within the forest near the Andean foothills, which persisted for approximately a millennium.
“We’ve stumbled upon a valley of forgotten cities,” remarked Rostain, who leads research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. “It’s astounding.”
The researchers determined that these sites were inhabited by the Upano civilization from around 500 BC to AD 300-600, a timeline that coincides with the Roman Empire’s existence in Europe.
The communities constructed residential and ceremonial edifices atop over 6,000 earthen mounds, all encircled by cultivated lands complete with drainage systems. The broadest of the roads measured 33 feet (10 meters) across and spanned distances of 6-12 miles (10-20 km).
Although population estimates are challenging, archaeologist Antoine Dorison, a co-author of the study from the same French institution, suggested that the area supported a minimum of 10,000 people, potentially reaching 15,000 to 30,000 at its height. This population size is on par with that of London during the Roman era, which was then the largest city in Britain.
“This indicates an intensely populated area with a highly sophisticated society,” observed Michael Heckenberger, an archaeologist at the University of Florida not involved in the study. “In terms of its early establishment, this region is truly unparalleled.”
José Iriarte, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter, noted that constructing the extensive roadways and thousands of mounds would have necessitated a complex system of coordinated labor. “The Incas and Mayans constructed with stone, but in Amazonia, where stone wasn’t readily available, they used mud. The labor involved was still monumental,” said Iriarte, who was not part of the research team.
The Amazon has often been perceived as an untouched wilderness sparsely populated by small groups. However, recent findings have unveiled a more intricate history of pre-European contact societies in the Amazon, including discoveries in Bolivia and Brazil.
“The Amazon has always been home to a rich variety of peoples and settlements, not just a single lifestyle,” Rostain concluded. “We’re only now beginning to uncover their stories.”