Civilization Beneath the Amazon Forest

As empire-builders,  the Inca took a deep,  abiding interest in the wealth of the lowland forests of the Amazon.  They were fascinated by the brilliant colored feathers of parrots, macaws,  and hummingbirds;  the sweet, exotic fruits of Amazon trees and shrubs;  and the potent medicines and hallucinogens that could be distilled from rainforest plants.  But the Inca emperors did not extend their military reach into the Amazon Basin of Brazil:  these lands remained largely the stuff of legend and myth.

Until very recently, the dense rainforest cover of this region discouraged many archaeologists as well.  But now intense logging  in the region is laying bare great tracts of land,  an environmental disaster that is inadvertently giving archaeologists their first glimpse of a previously unknown civilization.  In the current issue of Antiquity, an international research team led by Martti Parssinen,  an archaeologist at Instituto Iberoamericano de Finlandia in Madrid, Spain,  reports on their discovery of some 260 sprawling earthworks — geometric shaped enclosures,  ditches and long avenues–in uplands and floodplains along the border of Bolivia and Brazil.

The team found many of these constructions while conducting aerial surveys and examining Google Earth images.   Their excavations produced pottery sherds,  stone tools and other domestic debris  at some earthworks:  others revealed no artifacts at all.  Taken together,  the  new evidence suggests that these geoglyphs date between 2000 and 800 years before present, and were made by digging ditches measuring as much as 11 metres wide and 2 metres deep.

When I first saw the team’s photos of these earthworks,  I was immediately reminded of the massive geometric enclosures constructed by the Hopewell people of North America’s Eastern Woodlands.  The Hopewell had an immensely sophisticated and complex culture:  they were early agriculturalists with very rich ceremonial and artistic lives. It’s now very clear that the western Amazonian people who built these impressive earthworks in Bolivia and Brazil had a similarly sophisticated society.

I think that we are going to hear much more about this complex Amazon culture  in years to come.

Scientific American has an interesting video on this.  Please click here.


  1. Lisa

    I’m not sure what area this article is referring to, but is this the region that swallowed up the explorer Percy Fawcett (The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon)? It was a fascinating story.

  2. Hi Lisa:

    I’m awfully sorry, but I’m not going to be a lot of help on this point. I don’t have any maps of Fawcett’s various expeditions, and therefore can’t check his routes. It’s an interesting thought, though, that this might be the civilization that Fawcett was searching for.

    I should probably add, however, that I have always been very skeptical about Fawcett and his work. it’s a skepticism that many journalists and archaeologists share. For more on this aspect, you might want to check out a blog that my colleague Mark Rose recently wrote on Fawcett at the Archaeology magazine website. It’s at:

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