is the legend that drew legions of explorers and adventurers to their
deaths: an ancient empire of citadels and treasure hidden deep in the
Amazon jungle. Spanish conquistadores ventured into the rainforest
seeking fortune, followed over the centuries by others convinced they
would find a lost civilisation to rival the Aztecs and Incas.
Some seekers called it El Dorado, others the City of Z. But the jungle
swallowed them and nothing was found, prompting the rest of the world
to call it a myth. The Amazon was too inhospitable, said 20th century
scholars, to permit large human settlements.
Now, however, the doomed dreamers have been proved right: there was a
great civilisation. New satellite imagery and fly-overs have revealed
more than 200 huge geometric earthworks carved in the upper Amazon
basin near Brazil's border with Bolivia.
155 miles, the circles, squares and other geometric shapes form a
network of avenues, ditches and enclosures built long before
Christopher Columbus set foot in the new world. Some date to as early
as 200 AD, others to 1283.
who have mapped the earthworks believe there may be another 2,000
structures beneath the jungle canopy, vestiges of vanished societies.
The structures, many of which have been revealed by the clearance of
forest for agriculture, point to a "sophisticated pre-Columbian
monument-building society", says the journal Antiquity, which has
published the research.
The article adds: "This hitherto unknown people constructed earthworks
of precise geometric plan connected by straight orthogonal roads. The
'geoglyph culture' stretches over a region more than 250km across, and
exploits both the floodplains and the uplands
we have so far seen no
more than a tenth of it."
The structures were created by a network of trenches about 36ft (nearly
11 metres) wide and several feet deep, lined by banks up to 3ft high.
Some were ringed by low mounds containing ceramics, charcoal and stone
tools. It is thought they were used for fortifications, homes and
ceremonies, and could have maintained a population of 60,000 more
people than in many medieval European cities.
discoveries have demolished ideas that soils in the upper Amazon were
too poor to support extensive agriculture, says Denise Schaan, a
co-author of the study and anthropologist at the Federal University of
Pará, in Belém, Brazil. She told National Geographic: "We found this
picture is wrong. And there is a lot more to discover in these places,
it's never-ending. Every week we find new structures."
Many of the mounds were symmetrical and slanted to the north, prompting
theories that they had astronomical significance.
Researchers were especially surprised that earthworks in floodplains
and uplands were of a similar style, suggesting they were all built by
the same culture.
"In Amazonian archaeology you always have this idea that you find
different peoples in different ecosystems," said Schaan. "So it was odd
to have a culture that would take advantage of different ecosystems and
expand over such a large region." The first geometric shapes were
spotted in 1999 but it is only now, as satellite imagery and felling
reveal sites, that the scale of the settlements is becoming clear. Some
anthropologists say the feat, requiring sophisticated engineering,
canals and roads, rivals Egypt's pyramids.
The findings follow separate discoveries further south, in the Xingu
region, of interconnected villages known as "garden cities". Dating
between 800 and 1600, they included houses, moats and palisades.
"These revelations are exploding our perceptions of what the Americas
really looked liked before the arrival of Christopher Columbus," said
David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, a book about an attempt in
the 1920s to find signs of Amazonian civilizations. "The discoveries
are challenging long-held assumptions about the Amazon as a Hobbesian
place where only small primitive tribes could ever have existed, and
about the limits the environment placed on the rise of early
They are also vindicating, said Grann, Percy Fawcett, the explorer who
partly inspired Conan Doyle's book The Lost World. Fawcett led an
expedition to find the City of Z but the party vanished, bequeathing a
Many scientists saw the jungle as too harsh to sustain anything but
small nomadic tribes. Now it seems the conquistadores who spoke of
"cities that glistened in white" were telling the truth. They, however,
probably also introduced the diseases that wiped out the native people,
leaving the jungle to claim and hide all trace of their
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