IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How the Amazon’s lost cities worked

Researchers explain how an urban culture flourished 1,500 years ago in what are now the overgrown jungles of the Brazilian Amazon.
Image: Charred remains of house
Archaeologists came upon the charred remains of a house that had been burned during their expedition to the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon.Science / AAAS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Roads and canals connected walled cities and villages. The communities were laid out around central plazas. Nearby, smaller settlements focused on agriculture and fish farming.

The place: the now-overgrown jungles of Brazil.

The time: centuries before Europeans landed in the Americas.

Once, about 1,500 years ago, an essentially urban culture existed in what is now jungle settled by scattered tribes, researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

They weren’t as sophisticated as well-known cultures like the Maya to the north, but their culture was more complex than anthropologists had thought.

The find “requires a rethinking of what early urbanism may have been like, in diverse and variant forms,” said Michael J. Heckenberger of the University of Florida, lead author of the study.

Heckenberger and colleagues first reported evidence of the culture — which he calls Xingu after the local river — in 2003 and now have unearthed details of the ancient communities.

The researchers found evidence of 28 prehistoric residential sites. Initial colonization began about 1,500 years ago, and the villages they studied were dated to between 750 and 450 years ago. The local population declined sharply after Europeans arrived.

Villages were distinguished by surrounding ditches, with berms on the inside made from material dug from the ditch and topped with a wooden palisade wall, Heckenberger reported.

Each village had a central plaza, the team reports. Larger communities could cover 150 acres (60 hectares) and included gates and secondary plazas.

Satellite imaging reveals the outlines of Northern (Ipaste) cluster sites in the Amazon. Red lines indicate earthworks that were apparently erected as berms for roads and plazas, and black lines indicate defensive ditches.

And each settlement had a formal road connected to the central plaza and oriented northeast to southwest, the direction of the summer solstice.

Populations were estimated at 800 to 1,000 in the towns, with satellite farming villages bringing the total to about 2,500 in each of several village clusters.

Heckenberger and his colleagues said the findings suggest future solutions for supporting the modern-day indigenous populations in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso and other regions of the Amazon — and demonstrate that the area can return to a "pristine" state even after centuries of human activity.

"Some of the practices that these folks hammered out may provide alternative forms of understandiong how to do low-level sustainable development today," Heckenberg said in a news release.

This report was supplemented by