Ancient Amazon Cities Found; Were Vast Urban Network

August 28, 2008

Dozens of ancient, densely packed, towns, villages, and hamlets arranged in an organized pattern have been mapped in the Brazilian Amazon, anthropologists announced today.

The finding suggests that vast swathes of "pristine" rain forest may actually have been sophisticated urban landscapes prior to the arrival of European colonists.

"It is very different from what we might expect using certain classic models of urbanism," noted study co-author Michael Heckenberger, an anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Nevertheless, he said, the repeated patterns within and among settlements across the landscape suggest a highly ordered and planned society on par with any medieval European town.

The finding supports a controversial theory that the Amazon River Basin teemed with large societies that were all but obliterated by disease when European colonists arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The isolated tribes that remain in the Amazon today are the last survivors of these once great societies, according to the theory.

(Related story: "'Uncontacted' Amazon Tribe Actually Known for Decades" [June 19, 2008])

If this theory is correct, the networked structure of the ancient settlements may lend insight to better protect and manage the indigenous populations and forests that remain in the Amazon today, scientists said.

Heckenberger and his colleagues from the U.S. and Brazil—including a member of the Kuikuro, an indigenous Amazonian tribe—report their finding today in the journal Science.

Urban Plan

In 1993, Heckenberger lived with the Kuikuro near the headwaters of the Xingu River. Within two weeks of his stay, he learned about the ancient settlements and began a 15-year effort to study and map them in detail.

So far he has identified at least two major clusters—or polities—of towns, villages, and hamlets. Each cluster contains a central seat of ritualistic power with wide roads radiating out to other communities.

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