In the Bolivian Amazon, near the border with Brazil, settlers who lived between 1500 and 600 years ago established settlements with a complex network of fortifications, roads, canals and dams, which seem to dominate from the top of earthen pyramids that exceeded 20. Its length is several meters.
Details of this lost civilization, contained in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature, must bury once and for all the idea that the Amazon lands were “shrub land only” before the arrival of the Europeans.
These platforms and pyramids were artificial from the bottom up. In fact, they are built on balconies up to 6 meters high, which, in and of themselves, already corresponds to an incredible amount of work ”, says researcher Heiko Brommers. at the German Archaeological Institute and coordinator of the new study.
Together with Bolivian Carla Jaimes Betancourt, of the University of Bonn (also in Germany), Brommers has been working in the Llanos de Mojos region for about 20 years, mapping the archaeological sites of the so-called Casarapi culture, which spread over an area of 4,500 km.two (about three times the size of the city of São Paulo).
Llanos de Mojos consists, for the most part, of a type of savannah that is periodically flooded – something that, from a Brazilian point of view, could be considered a mixture of Pantanal and Cerrado, although the area has more densely forested expanses.
Several previous studies have already indicated that the pre-Columbian people of the region adopted sophisticated land management systems, such as artificial raised fields where they could farm even during floods, canals to regulate water distribution, and slopes and roads that facilitated movement in the rainy season.
However, the still dense vegetation in most of the region made it difficult to obtain an overview of the changes made by the peoples of the past in the territory. That’s why archaeologists have turned to lidar (pronounced lidar) technology, which can be described as the laser equivalent of radar.
Distributors on airplanes or helicopters shoot infrared lasers at the ground. The time it takes for the light to hit the ground and return to the device’s detectors, as if it were an echo, is used to calculate with great accuracy the details of the terrain below, allowing for the creation of terrain maps. They are not hindered by the presence of trees.
Thanks to lidar, Prümers, Betancourt and their colleagues were able to map a network of 24 archaeological sites of Casarabe culture, two of which, called Cotoca and Landívar, are the size of a city, with 147 hectares and 315 hectares, respectively (one hectare corresponds to the area of a football field).
Both have a clear ritual or government center consisting of terraces and pyramids above them. In addition, it was surrounded by three concentric defensive structures, made up of a trench and a wall or parapet, also made of rocky ground.
“These centers are the product of a long process. Like Rome, they were not built in a day “, compares the German researcher. “The three rings of defensive structure at the Kotoka site, for example, indicate continued rebuilding and adaptation due to a growing population.”
Moreover, other sites scattered throughout the region indicate a hierarchy of settlements of different sizes and functions. Some places have smaller ceremonial platforms (but no pyramids); Others seem to be medium and small towns. It is as if there were two metropolises, some regional capitals and more modest cities, for example.
According to Prümers, the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region today is too great for us to know the people responsible for building the structures. There are indications of trade contacts with the Cochabamba region, as well as in the Bolivian Amazon, and with the Brazilian Amazon, and even with the Andes (in this case, a little coppery thing).
The question is to what extent the discoveries in Bolivia are truly unique in the context of the Amazon. Many regions of the Brazilian Amazon, such as Alto Xingu and Marajó Island, have massive structures, such as large roads, fortifications, and even artificial platforms created to house settlements during floods, albeit on a smaller scale.
“I followed this story from the beginning because I was in Bolivia in 2019, when some of these overflights occurred,” says Brazilian archaeologist Eduardo Jos Neves of the University of the South Pacific, one of the leading researchers of the country’s pre-Columbian Amazon region. “Heiko and Carla, to me, they are the best archaeologists in the field of the Amazon today, and this work we see and do their best. At the moment, in fact, it is a unique thing, it affects people who do not know or may appear in the future. »