Archaeologists Discover 81 New Ancient Villages in the Amazon

The settlement looked like little more than 11 mounds of earth surrounded by a sunken ditch. But if Jonas Gregorio de Souza closed his eyes, he could imagine the Boa Vista site as it would have appeared 800 years ago. Perhaps, the archaeologist said, those mounds were houses circling a central square. Outside the defensive ditch, gardens and fruit trees might have flourished. The mile-long road leading to the enclosure may have had a ritual purpose, its surface hardened by countless ceremonial processions. Or maybe it linked the village to others, forming a chain of communities that crisscrossed the whole southern Amazon basin.

There was a time when no archaeologist expected to discover such an elaborate settlement in this relatively resource-poor part of the rain forest. But in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, de Souza and his colleagues describe the mound village and 80 other newly discovered archaeological sites from the years 1250 to 1500.

They predict that the region hides hundreds more undiscovered sites, and that as many as a million people might have carefully managed the rain forest long before Europeans arrived.

“It’s an important paper,” said Dolores Piperno, an archaeobotanist at the National Museum of Natural History who has worked extensively in the Amazon but was not involved in the new study. Though she wasn’t quite convinced by de Souza’s conclusions about the size of the region’s pre-Columbian population, the discoveries add to a growing body of evidence that large communities flourished in one of the world’s most diverse landscapes.

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests, they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”

Collaborating with scientists from Britain and Brazil, de Souza, a research fellow at the University of Exeter in England, identified the new archaeological sites by looking at satellite images of the Upper Tapajós Basin, on Brazil’s border with Bolivia. This area is considered a “transitional zone,” where rainfall is more sparse and seasonal and the rain forest shifts into a savanna-like ecosystem. Since the basin is far from the floodplains that enrich other landscapes, researchers have long overlooked it, de Souza said, assuming that it couldn’t sustain large groups of people.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan