Ancient lost cities in the Amazon basin are being rediscovered thanks to “lasers in the sky”.
A team of international researchers, including Professor Jose Iriarte from the University of Exeter, has uncovered sophisticated settlements in the Llanos de Mojos savannah-forest, Bolivia, some of which contain 70-foot conical “pyramids”.
The settlements also featured complex irrigation systems and huge terraces covering 22 hectares – the equivalent of 30 football pitches.
The cities, built by the Casarabe communities between 500 and 1400 AD, have been reclaimed by the jungle over the centuries and from the air are now almost completely invisible to the naked eye.
But the researchers used Lidar – a scanning system which works on a similar principle to radar, but uses light from a laser – to reveal the jungle’s hidden secrets. The aerial Lidar system has been described as "lasers in the sky".
Professor Iriarte said: “We long suspected that the most complex pre-Columbian societies in the whole basin developed in this part of the Bolivian Amazon, but evidence is concealed under the forest canopy and is hard to visit in person.
“Our Lidar system has revealed built terraces, straight causeways, enclosures with checkpoints, and water reservoirs. There are monumental structures are just a mile apart connected by 600 miles of canals long raised causeways connecting sites, reservoirs and lakes.
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“Lidar technology combined with extensive archaeological research reveals that indigenous people not only managed forested landscapes, but also created urban landscapes, which can significantly contribute to perspectives on the conservation of the Amazon.
“This region was one of the earliest occupied by humans in Amazonia, where people started to domesticate crops of global importance such as manioc and rice. But little is known about daily life and the early cities built during this period.”
Professor Iriarte’s co-author, Dr Mark Robinson, who is also based at the University of Exeter added: “These ancient cities were primary centres of a regional settlement network connected by still visible, straight causeways that radiate from these sites into the landscape for several kilometres."
He went on: "Access to the sites may have been restricted and controlled.
“Our results put to rest arguments that western Amazonia was sparsely populated in pre-Hispanic times. The architectural layout of Casarabe culture large settlement sites indicates that the inhabitants of this region created a new social and public landscape.
"The scale, monumentality and labour involved in the construction of the civic-ceremonial architecture, water management infrastructure, and spatial extent of settlement dispersal, compare favourably to Andean cultures and are to a scale far beyond the sophisticated, interconnected settlements of Southern Amazonia.”
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