Archaeologists once believed that the Amazon rainforest was a pristine wilderness sparsely occupied by bands of hunter-gatherers. But discoveries of large settlements, pyramids, and roads from Bolivia to Brazil over the last two decades have shattered this idea, showing that complex ancient civilizations inhabited the jungle for thousands of years. A massive city hidden by the luxuriant vegetation of the Amazon rainforest has been discovered in Ecuador. The research, published in Science, reveals an advanced society beneath the trees long before European colonists arrived.
The discovery was made using LiDAR, a popular remote sensing method that uses light to measure distances. In this case, the researchers used the device to scan an area in the Upano Valley in Ecuador. The technique allows researchers to see through the forest canopy and reconstruct the topography below. The resulting data showed that the area was dotted with raised earthen platforms and squares, considered houses and plazas. A network of roads and canals also connected the villages. New Scientist reports that the extent of the landscape modification resembles the “garden cities” of the Classic Maya in Central America. The Upano valley is in the shadow of a volcano, which created rich local soils that could support agriculture. But the people who lived there also developed other ways to survive. The villagers harvested a variety of wild foods, including maize, manioc, and cassava. They also bred fish and hunted birds.
It’s hard to imagine that such a complex urban society could exist in the Amazon rainforest, even today. For one thing, the dense forests are home to a vast diversity of wildlife and would have blocked views of the ground. But it’s possible that people lived in the forests for thousands of years and developed ways to survive by taming the environment around them.
This discovery and others uncovered over the past two decades suggest that the jungle was once a thriving metropolis. The research is essential because it helps to debunk the myth that people in ancient times were primitive, roaming nomadic bands that rarely settled down anywhere for long. It also challenges the notion that the first complex ancient civilizations originated in Europe and the Middle East.
The study reveals that the Upano valley was inhabited for at least 2500 years, but it was abandoned before the arrival of Europeans. The reason isn’t apparent, but the team thinks it might have been due to volcanic eruptions that killed or drove out the population. The team continues exploring the area and hopes that further discoveries will reveal more about how these cities functioned. It’s also hoped that the findings will give a fuller picture of the complexity of the Amazon rainforest in ancient times.