Amazon Civilization Before Columbus

A series of articles from various news sources following the publication of "Amazonia 1492: Pristine Forest or Cultural Parkland?" in Science [2003 301: 1710-1714] by Heckenberger et al. Information on Amazon forest dwellers can be found at American Forest Peoples

Tue, Sep. 23, 2003
Study shows complex grid of towns in Amazon of 1400s
By Paul Recer
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Amazon River basin was not all a pristine, untouched wilderness before Columbus came to the Americas, as was once believed. Researchers have uncovered clusters of extensive settlements linked by wide roads with other communities and surrounded by agricultural developments.

The researchers, including some descendants of pre-Columbian tribes that lived along the Amazon, have found evidence of densely settled, well-organized communities with roads, moats and bridges in the Upper Xingu part of the vast tropical region.

Michael J. Heckenberger, first author of the study appearing last week in the journal Science, said the ancestors of the Kuikuro people in the Amazon basin had a ``complex and sophisticated'' civilization with a population of many thousands during the period before 1492.

``These people were not the small mobile bands or simple dispersed populations'' that some earlier studies had suggested, he said.

Instead, the people demonstrated sophisticated levels of engineering, planning, cooperation and architecture in carving out of the tropical rain forest a system of interconnected villages and towns making up a widespread culture based on farming.

Heckenberger said the society that lived in the Amazon before Columbus was overlooked by experts because they did not build the massive cities and pyramids and other structures common to the Mayans, Aztecs and other pre-Columbian societies in South America.

Instead, they built towns, villages and smaller hamlets all laced together by precisely designed roads, some more than 50 yards across, that went in straight lines from one point to another.

``They were not organized in cities,'' Heckenberger said. ``There was a different pattern of small settlements, but they were all tightly integrated."

He said the population in one village and town complex was 2,500 to 5,000 people, but that could be just one of many complexes in the Amazon region.

``All the roads were positioned according to the same angles, and they formed a grid throughout the region,'' he said. Only a small part of these roads has been uncovered, and it is uncertain how far the roads extend, but the area studied by his group is a grid 15 miles by 15 miles, he said.

Heckenberger said the people did not build with stone, as did the Mayas, but made tools and other equipment of wood and bone. Such materials quickly deteriorate in the tropical forest, unlike more durable stone structures. Building stones were not readily available along the Amazon, he said.

He said the Amazon people moved huge amounts of dirt to build roads and plazas. At one place, there is evidence that they even built a bridge spanning a major river. The people also altered the natural forest, planting and maintaining orchards and agricultural fields, and the effects of this stewardship can still be seen today, Heckenberger said.

Diseases such as smallpox and measles, brought to the new world by European explorers, are thought to have wiped out most of the population along the Amazon, he said. By the time scientists began studying the indigenous people, the population was sparse and far-flung. As a result, some researchers assumed that that was the way it was prior to Columbus.

'Pristine' Amazon Hosted Large Cities, Study Finds
Thu Sep 18, 2:02 PM ET
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brazil's northern Amazon region, once thought to have been pristine until modern development began encroaching, actually hosted sophisticated networks of towns and villages hundreds of years ago, researchers said on Thursday.

Archeological evidence and satellite images show the area was densely settled long before Columbus and European settlers arrived, with towns featuring plazas, roads up to 150 feet wide, deep moats and bridges, the researchers found.

The report, published in the journal Science, suggests a society that was advanced and complex, and that found alternative ways to use the Amazon forest without destroying it.

Nineteen evenly spaced villages were linked by straight roads, and the cluster could have supported between 2,500 and 5,000 people, said the researchers, led by Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida.

The villages were all laid out in a similar manner -- and the roads were mathematically parallel. "This really blew us away," Heckenberger said in a telephone interview. "It's fantastic stuff."

Heckenberger, who worked with indigenous chiefs from the Upper Xingu region as well as a team at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, said the settlements dated to between 1200 A.D. and 1600 A.D.

"Every 3 km to 5 km (mile and a half to two miles) there is another village or town," he said. "Some of these villages are 50 hectares in size ... maybe 150 or so acres in total size," he added.


"In the villages sometimes the roads are 50 meters wide. Why 50 meters? There were no wheeled vehicles. They were not having car races up and down these things and certainly you were not moving Incan armies."

Heckenberger believes the wide boulevards and plazas were the early Xinguano society's version of monuments -- akin to the pyramids of the Maya.

"Clearly it is an aesthetic thing," he said. "It speaks of very sophisticated astronomical knowledge and mathematical knowledge and the kind of things that we associate with pyramids. It is a different human alternative to social complexity."

It would have taken a productive economy to fund such works, he added. But the civilization was not as large and urbanized as better known South American civilizations.

"Everyone loves the 'lost civilization in the Amazon story'. What the Upper Xingu and middle Amazon stuff shows us is that Amazon people organized in an alternative way to urbanization. We shouldn't be expecting to find lost cities. But that doesn't mean they were primitive tribes, either."

The agriculture was clearly sophisticated, too, the researchers said, and probably very unlike modern clear-cutting strategies. They clearly, however, altered the forest, Heckenberger said.

"What it does show is there are alternatives to what is commonly presented as an all-or-nothing scenario," he said.

The Amazon was not primordial when European colonists arrived -- bringing with them the diseases such as smallpox and measles that virtually wiped out indigenous populations.

"I firmly believe that the majority of what is now forested landscape would have been converted into some other type of environment -- secondary forest or fields of grass or orchards of fruit trees or manioc gardens," he said.

Xinguano people still live in the region and are certainly descended from whoever built the cities, he said -- but the populations are considerably sparser.

The Independent
Amazon rainforest was home to highly elaborate civilisation
By Charles Arthur, Technology Editor
19 September 2003

The Amazon is known today as a rainforest whose natural resources are under threat from human incursion.

But before Europeans arrived in the 15th century it was home to dense populations served by a complex of public plazas, roads and canals.

Researchers from the University of Florida at Gainesville challenge the traditional view that it was a "pristine" habitat containing only small numbers of scattered villages. Michael Heckenberger, an assistant professor at the university's department of anthropology, says the jungle was being tamed and altered by humans well before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492.

He reports his 10-year study, mapping and excavating a 1,000-square kilometre area around the Upper Xingu, a tributary of the Amazon in Brazil, in the journal Science today.

Clark Erickson, from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says in an accompanying news article: "These people were doing something we don't seem very successful at: sustaining populations without destroying biodiversity."

Professor Heckenberger sayshuman population declined in the Amazon because of diseases introduced by Westerners such as smallpox and influenza. His studies were assisted by two indigenous chiefs from the region. They turned up man-made features that date back more than 500 years, including overgrown canals and roads up to 50 metres wide. There was evidence of large central plazas, canals and bridges and defensive moats around villages.

The researchers say: "Evidence ... suggests a highly elaborate built environment, rivalling many contemporary societies of the Americas."

Los Angeles Times
Amazon revealed as a hub of society
By Thomas Maugh
September 20, 2003

Deep in the Amazon forest of Brazil, archaeologists have found a network of 1000-year-old towns and villages.

The find refutes two long-held notions: that the pre-Columbian tropical rainforest was a pristine environment that had not been altered by humans and that the rainforest could not support a complex, sophisticated society.

A 39-square kilometre region at the headwaters of the Xingu River contains at least 19 villages that are sited at regular intervals and share the same circular design. The villages are connected by a system of broad, parallel highways, Florida researchers were expected to report in the imminent issue of Science.

The Xinguano people who occupied the area not only built the complex towns but altered the forest to meet their needs, clearing large areas to plant orchards and cassava while preserving other areas as a source of wood, medicine and animals.

Researchers have theorised for 10 to 20 years that such societies were possible in Amazonia, but Jim Petersen, an archaeologist at the University of Vermont, said "this is the first proof".

The new findings are a crucial part of "a growing body of evidence that Amazonia could support reasonably large villages and complex societies", said archaeologist Robert Carneiro, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Today the region is comprised mainly of villages with populations of fewer than 150 people, each of which is independent of other settlements. Before the current work, most of the Xinguano remaining in the region were not even aware of the accomplishments of their ancestors before the population was devastated by diseases brought by the Europeans in the 16th century, said archaeologist Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida, who led the research.

Attitudes about the region were shaped nearly 50 years ago by researchers such as archaeologist Betty Meggers, of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. She concluded that the soil in the region is so poor that it could not support the intensive agriculture necessary for the establishment of large communities.

The new research reveals that there were in fact 19 villages. Occupied between 800AD and 1600AD, each supported populations of 2500 to 5000 people. They were about 2.5 to 3.5 kilometres apart, connected by straight roadways that were up to 45 metres wide.

The team also found excavated ditches in and around the ancient settlements, bridges, artificial river obstructions and ponds, causeways, canals and other structures, many of which are still in use today.

"They are organised in a way that suggests a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and other sciences," Mr Heckenberger said.

"It's not earth-shattering compared to what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time, but nobody expected it in the Amazon."


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of environmental issues. This constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

copyright Rhett Butler 2002