Ancient Amazon civilisation laid bare by felled forest
December 14, 2009 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Signs of what could be a previously unknown ancient civilisation are emerging from beneath the felled trees of the Amazon. Some 260 giant avenues, ditches and enclosures have been spotted from the air in a region straddling Brazil's border with Bolivia. (Previously: Lost City of Z and Colonel Fawcett)
posted by geoff. (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting! Lost City of Z looks like a great book to read over the holidays too.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:36 AM on December 14, 2009


This isn't new as much as it's corroborating a new view of pre-Columbian Amazonia. Charles C. Mann's 1491 has a whole chapter devoted to these civilizations, and I think it's the most interesting one.

Devoid of anything except vast amounts of land an immense and regular flow of water through the river systems - and by anything I mean they didn't even have plain stone, nevermind flint, obsidian or even shale - the Amazon cultures turned their technology to earthworks, irrigation and horticulture... and they were better at it than anyone else contemporaneous to them. They reshaped the entire landscape to suit their needs with some insanely advanced civil engineering and farming techniques. Disease pretty much wiped them out before the first European made it to within a thousand miles of where they were. (The Europeans aren't entirely to blame here, either, as much as a really unfortunate quirk of human evolution. Europeans have an immune system adapted to deal with pathogens, Native Americans have an immune system adapted to deal with parasites, which are far more vicious in the New World than in Eurasia. You can have a population who's bodies are good with dealing with infection or with infestation, but not both.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:56 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


sweet! that made for some good lunch time reading. i love ancient civs!
posted by sio42 at 10:02 AM on December 14, 2009



Devoid of anything except vast amounts of land an immense and regular flow of water through the river systems - and by anything I mean they didn't even have plain stone, nevermind flint, obsidian or even shale - the Amazon cultures turned their technology to earthworks, irrigation and horticulture


Also showing why we it's really difficult to find the material remains associated with most large-scale civilizations. Mann's book is a really wonderful read
posted by Think_Long at 10:23 AM on December 14, 2009


Europeans have an immune system adapted to deal with pathogens, Native Americans have an immune system adapted to deal with parasites

It that paraphrasing Jared Diamond, or from some other source?
posted by gottabefunky at 10:24 AM on December 14, 2009


So what you're saying then is rainforest clear cutting isn't ENTIRELY bad.
posted by Brodiggitty at 10:32 AM on December 14, 2009


I've read both Mann and Lost City of Z, and recommend Mann.

If your really serious and want a romping good read, the 1541-1542 account by Father Gaspar de Carvajal, down the length of the Amazon river, where he encountered warrior woman who reminded him of the Greek Amazonians, and from which it was forever named. Carvajal was the first European in the region and he reported vast numbers of people along most of the length of the river. They of course mostly died of disease in the 16th century gutting the region and leaving it a wasteland of primitive tribes. But Carvajal's account is the first, and last, to record what was there.
posted by stbalbach at 10:35 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh my God the Z's not for Zinj is it?
posted by DLWM at 10:41 AM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you can read Spanish, Father Gaspar de Carvajal's original is online, or the copyright English translation linked above (at.. Amazon).
posted by stbalbach at 10:42 AM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


See, wide-scale deforestation is good! We can finally see a bunch of neat stuff that the forests took back. Next: empty the oceans and we can find Atlantis!

(And thanks for the story!)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:13 AM on December 14, 2009


Oh my God the Z's not for Zinj is it?

̨̨̰̻̦̒͌̾͂̿̉̉ͮ͘Z̝̰̹̫̣̊͂̈́ͬ̊̍̑A̛͉͉̖ͨͬͤ͒̍̄̊ͥ̚L͉̠̻̻͙̙̗̈́ͭ͌ͅG̡͖̗̼̪͆ͣ̑̇́̋͛ͧO̵͍ͯ́̾ͥ͛ͩͣ̅ͅ!́̈́̈̋ͧ̏̕҉̤͉͇̱̲
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:25 AM on December 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


emerging from beneath the felled trees of the Amazon

And you guys said deforestation was a bad thing ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:26 AM on December 14, 2009


(Parasites) are far more vicious in the New World than in Eurasia.

Slap*Happy, any cites or examples? I have never heard this before.
posted by batou_ at 1:32 PM on December 14, 2009


It was in a 2004 study cited by Mann's 1491... I haven't done any further investigation on it, tho.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:12 PM on December 14, 2009


This reminded me of an article I read in the early 2000s in the Atlantic Monthly. Who wrote it? Charles C. Mann.

Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact

The article fascinated me. It postulates lots of interesting things but the one that got me the most was the idea that more than 100 million native americans lived in the Americas in 1491, more than the amount of Europeans in Europe at the time.
posted by GregorWill at 2:35 PM on December 14, 2009


From the previously New Yorker link:

Even today parts of the Amazon remain unknown. The Brazilian government estimates that there are some sixty tribes that are uncontacted. But I do think that Fawcett was the last of a breed of territorial explorers, who ventured into enormous unchartered realms, not knowing what one might find or if one would ever return.

I was chatting with an Israeli friend about how the young people there usually do a round-the-world trip after serving in the IDF. There is a supposedly a whole subculture with handcopied guidebooks on the best way to earn money for your travels, best places to go and stay, etc.

He claims that one of the more macho things one can do on one's year abroad is hike into the Amazon, find a previously unknown tribe, and teach them an Israeli folk song. If you find a tribe that already knows one of those songs, you weren't there first.

If there's even a grain of truth in this, I wonder how many tribes have actually been contacted this way...
posted by Araucaria at 2:53 PM on December 14, 2009


I know IDF guys are tough, but hiking into the amazon to find previously unknown tribes? That's a lot of walking
posted by Think_Long at 3:10 PM on December 14, 2009


Does this mean we'll be getting another Mel Gibson movie?
posted by bwg at 3:45 PM on December 14, 2009


Many of the structures are oriented to the north, and the team is investigating whether they might have had astronomical significance.

So here's one thing that confuses me about archaeology. How come it seems that nearly everything that we dig up from the ground has either astronomical or religious significance? Most of the edifices that have been built in modern times have no astronomical or religious significance. Malls, statues, bridges, office buildings, dams, walls..... Maybe it's just my own confirmation bias but I can't help but feel that there's a noticeable overidentification of "ceremonial uses" for archeological sites relative to the "sites" that I see around me every day.

At least in this situation they seem to be considering military utility as well.
posted by breath at 3:58 PM on December 14, 2009


How come it seems that nearly everything that we dig up from the ground has either astronomical or religious significance?

Yeah, it's your confirmation bias.
posted by The World Famous at 4:15 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


How come it seems that nearly everything that we dig up from the ground has either astronomical or religious significance?

I think on one hand, it's an easy way to explain the significance of a structure before you actually learn what it was for. On the other hand, when we think of ancient societies, what buildings are the people most likely to invest in? These days our buildings are cathedrals of capitalism, but back then most societies were oriented by powerful religious and ruling classes. When your ruler is also your god, or closely related, what else do you have to build?
posted by Think_Long at 6:35 PM on December 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I should add that this only applies to monumental architecture, which we are more likely to find - there is probably plenty of unpublished evidence of boring old dwellings and silos and the like
posted by Think_Long at 6:36 PM on December 14, 2009


How come it seems that nearly everything that we dig up from the ground has either astronomical or religious significance?

Because we build to last what is important to us - when religion runs things, it's temples; when kings are in charge, it's palaces; when commerce is in charge, we build malls.
posted by _paegan_ at 9:42 PM on December 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Apparently, I only thought read every post.
posted by _paegan_ at 9:43 PM on December 14, 2009


"He claims that one of the more macho things one can do on one's year abroad is hike into the Amazon, find a previously unknown tribe, and teach them an Israeli folk song. If you find a tribe that already knows one of those songs, you weren't there first."

I spent like 2 weeks in the Amazon basin, in a tourist lodge, technically in Peru but about 5 hours boat ride from Benjamin Constant, Brazil and the triple frontier between Colombia, Brazil and Peru.

This qualifies me as enough of an expert to call 100% bullshit on this feat.
posted by youthenrage at 4:44 PM on December 15, 2009


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