Image: Xinguano village
Michael Heckenberger and Jim Railey via Science/AAAS
An artist's conception shows a Xinguano village of the Brazilian Amazon as it might have appeared before 1492. Archaeologists have found traces of wide, curbed roads and managed parkland.
updated 9/9/2010 12:44:14 PM ET 2010-09-09T16:44:14

Spanish adventurer Gaspar de Carvajal wrote of "cities that gleamed white" and "very fruitful land," on his wanderings along the Eucadorian Napo River in 1541. But today there is little evidence of such a civilization. Instead this corner of the Amazon, like the rest of the massive tropical forest, is seemingly inhospitable: full of dense, obstructive vegetation and buzzing with poisonous creepy crawlers.

Is this a case of a Spaniard painting pretty pictures to pocket more money for future conquests, or an example of a perfectly executed cover-up directed by Mother Nature herself?

The Washington Post recently reported on the work of Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo of the University of Florida, who is part of a growing number of anthropologists who believe an ancient, advanced society once occupied Amazonia.

Though Oyuela-Caycedo and others do not necessarily take Carvajal at his word, they do believe that subtle soil disturbances in the Amazon landscape prove the past existence of a complex society — potentially even the one Carvajal claims he encountered.

Evidence for a past civilization is subtle — so subtle that it can easily be mistaken for nature. For example, proponents of the ancient Amazon society theory rely heavily on the wide distribution of terra preta sites; pieces of land with fertile soil. Initially, researchers thought terra preta formed from volcanic ash deposits or old swampland.

"But as terra preta was studied more in-depth by scholars from multiple disciplines, it was found to be the result of permanent human occupation of a site, an accumulation of organic matter, low-temperature burning charcoal and ash from fires," Oyuela-Caycedo told Discovery News.

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Another line of evidence is the pattern of vegetation in the Amazon. Researchers, "recognized a pattern of clusterings of many fruit trees at archaeological and surrounding areas, which suggest that people have been enriching the forest with desirable species for a long time," Oyuela-Caycedo said. "Now we are beginning to recognize that anomalous concentrations of economic plant species in the forest are most likely due to human actions."

Critics of the theory, like Betty Meggers, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution, remain unconvinced. Even if these pieces of evidence prove people once lived in the forest, she does not believe that this necessarily equates to a complex civilization, one comprised of many millions of people.

If they existed, where did all the people go? And why is it that the only current residents of the forest are small, nomadic tribes?

Oyuela-Caycedo and others believe that this society, like other indigenous groups of South America, were killed by diseases brought over by Europeans, including Spaniards like Carvajal.

Both sides remain steadfast in their ideas. Meggers represents the old way of thinking, and Oyuela-Caycedo touts the new wave of thought.

Beyond the debate itself, there is now fear that people hoping to exploit the Amazon's resources might use this anthropological data in support of future mining and logging. After all, if the forest survived such a large civilization before, how is today any different?

This is dangerous thinking, and in fact, not a legitimate comparison to make. "The past and present indigenous people have been successful stewards of the forest and have created a wonderful artifact that is what we see today and that we call Amazonia," Oyuela-Caycedo explained. Modern logging and mining interests would vastly eclipse  past communities' level of resource use.

Story: Lost cities of the Amazon revealed

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Tales of seven cities, lost and found

  • Science / AAAS

    The Lost City of Z, a fabled metropolis of unimagined riches deep in the Amazon rain forest, has eluded explorers for centuries. But recently documented traces of a well-planned constellation of walled settlements arranged around central plazas and linked together with arrow-straight roads in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon may be the civilization that gave birth to the legend, scientists say. This image shows the charred remains of a house in the region that was uncovered as part of an archaeological project led by the University of Florida's Michael Heckenberger.

    Click the "Next" label for six more tales of cities lost or found.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • Atlantis legend inspires hotel chain

    Joel Ryan  /  AP

    According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a powerful society that disappeared under the sea in a torrent of earthquakes after it failed to take the city of Athens. Some scholars consider Plato's account as purely fictional; others have scoured the world for evidence of its existence. One disputed theory holds that Atlantis was on a portion of the Mediterranean island Cyprus that was submerged during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The mythical allure of the lost city has spawned a luxury hotel chain. In this image, fireworks explode over the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai.

  • What happened to the lost colony of the Americas?

    Gerry Broome  /  AP

    Sometime in the late 1580s, 117 English colonists disappeared while attempting to become the first to settle the New World. Their settlement on what would become Roanoke Island, N.C., was found abandoned in 1590. To this day, scientists, scholars and the plain curious can't agree on what happened. Some people believe the colonists assimilated with neighboring Native Americans; others think they were either killed by their neighbors or sunk at sea while trying to flee. In the image shown here, Frank Ray, a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research looks for clues that could help solve the mystery.

  • Lost city of Ubar found


    From about 2,800 BC to AD 300, the city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert served as an outpost for the lucrative trade in frankincense, a sweet-smelling gum resin. Then, according to myth, the city sank in the sand, lost forever. And so it was until archaeologists armed with everything from ancient texts to remote-sensing technology on the space shuttle went looking for the lost city. The diffuse reddish streaks in this radar image from the space shuttle show ancient paths leading to and around the ancient site, which had literally sunk into an underground water hole. Ubar's discovery is an example of scientific sleuthing verifying ancient lore.

  • Lost city of the Incas remains a mystery

    Giulio Magli

    In 1911, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham scrambled up a steep mountain side in southern Peru and encountered an ancient city of sorts beneath the undergrowth. The site, Machu Picchu, is popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas. What exactly the city was, however, remains a mystery. Scholars have variously theorized it was the birthplace of the Incas, a private estate, and a spiritual destination. Prior to Bingham's encounter, the city was lost to the jungle for about 500 years.

  • Itil, lost capital of Khazars, found?

    Dmitry Vasilyev  /  AP

    The excavated buildings shown here south of Moscow, Russia, may be remains of Itil, the capital city of the Khazars, a Russian scientist has reported. The Khazars ruled the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea between the seventh and 10th centuries. Once conquered by the Russians, Itil disappeared without a trace. Some scholars believe it was swamped by the nearby rising Caspian Sea in the 14th century. Scientist Dmitry Vasiley at Astrakhan State University believes these flamed brick buildings are part of what was once Itil.

  • Layers of Troy found in Turkey

    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Homer's epic poem the "Illiad" famously describes a war in the city of Troy, replete with tales about the heroic Greek warrior Achilles and a wooden horse. Questions about whether the city really existed appeared resolved in the 1800s when journalists, archaeologists and others zeroed in on a site and excavated the ancient city. The so-called archaeological Troy consists of nine cities built on top of one another and denoted with Roman numerals. Scholars believe Troy VI and Troy VII correspond with the city described in the Iliad. This image from the movie "Troy," which was based on the Iliad, shows the famous Trojan horse.


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