Forgotten ruins of ‘monumental’ Amazonian settlements found in Bolivian jungle

(ORDO NEWS) — In the jungles of Bolivia, the sprawling ruins of Amazonian settlements have been unearthed, once inhabited by an indigenous, cosmologically inclined agricultural society hidden under seemingly impenetrable vegetation.

These 26 sites, about half of which were not previously known to archaeologists, are another example of large, long-standing settlements and complex ancient societies in the Amazon region prior to the Spanish invasion of the Americas.

“Our results put an end to the debate that the western Amazon was sparsely populated in pre-Hispanic times” and enrich the existing evidence that the Casarabe culture had a “highly integrated, continuous and dense settlement system,” write archaeologist Heiko Prymers of the German Archaeological Institute and his colleagues in the new study.

Using helicopter-mounted remote laser scanners, a team of mostly European archaeologists scanned six areas at the center of the ancient Casarabe culture, which developed between 500 and 1400 AD in what is now northern Bolivia.

The sprawling network of settlements they discovered under dense forest is a type of low-density urbanism, the first such type found in the tropical lowlands of South America, with numerous complex ceremonial structures, including stepped platforms and U-shaped mounds oriented north-northwest.

According to archaeologist Christopher Fisher of Colorado State University, who was not involved in the study, the hidden signs of human-altered ancient landscapes will force us to reconsider our understanding of early societies in the Amazon region.

“The scale of the architectural remains at these sites, which include adobe pyramids that once towered more than 20 meters above the surrounding savannah, cannot be overestimated and is on par with the scale of any ancient society,” Fischer writes in a separate commentary on the study.

For decades, however, some archaeologists have believed that the poor tropical soils of the Llanos de Mojos plains in Bolivia, like the Mayan strongholds of Central America, are generally unable to support large populations and complex urban civilizations.

But as past accounts show, the Casarabe people were skilled farmers who turned the seasonally flooded Amazonian savannas into productive landscapes by growing crops and also engaging in hunting and fishing.

However, little was known about how the Casarabe people built ceremonial structures or equipped their settlements.

Now adding to the story is LIDAR, a remote sensing technique that scans the earth’s surface with laser beams from the air, doing “in a single flight what would previously have taken years of grueling field work,” Fisher explains.

In their study, PrĂ¼mers and colleagues describe two large settlements, Kotoka and Landivar, which were the central nodes of a regional network of smaller settlements – 24 in all – connected by hitherto visible roads that diverge in the landscape for several kilometers.

“These two large settlements were already known, but their sheer size and architectural elaboration only became apparent through the LIDAR study,” the team writes.

They estimate that the people of Kasarabe moved about 570,000 cubic meters of earth to build Kotoka, ten times more than the people of Tiwanaku moved to build the largest structure found so far in the Bolivian highlands, the Akapana Pyramids.

Forgotten ruins of monumental Amazonian settlements found in Bolivian jungle 2

The Kasarabe also built ditches and ramparts to protect these central settlements, as well as massive water control systems designed to grow surplus food, which archaeologists concluded could support the large population of Kasarabe.

The layout and scale of the interconnected settlements also suggest that the Casarabe people of northern Bolivia created a social and community landscape comparable to the more familiar Andean cultures.

“These data point to dense populations, man-made landscapes, centers of monumental architecture, and a complex hierarchy of settlements” ranging from small farms to large centers, Fischer writes.

This is important because the hierarchical arrangement of urbanized settlements has long been used as an archaeological shorthand for inferring social complexity, so this newly discovered collection of settlements suggests “a level of social complexity hitherto not often associated with early Amazonia,” Fisher says.

“The acceptance of the new orthodoxy for the Maya has been ‘slow’ for decades, but thanks to LIDAR it will be more like an explosion for the Amazon,” Fischer adds.

However, only very much can be learned from the air, so if places are available, ancient artifacts can still be found there, which will reveal more details about the diet, lifestyle and cultural traditions of these agricultural societies.

However, rapid environmental change is threatening these easily degradable earthen ruins, so no time can be wasted documenting what remains of the Casarabe culture “before archeology is gone forever,” Fisher writes.

Establishing strong partnerships with local indigenous peoples will also be vital to address issues of sovereignty, access and data privacy, Fischer notes, and to recreate a fuller and richer picture of ancient Amazonian societies.

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