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The ruins of a huge ancient civilization, hidden beneath the densely forested landscape of the Bolivian Amazon for ages, have now been traced out in unprecedented detail by lasers fired from a helicopter. The latest research revealed the remnants of 15 previously unknown settlements, adorned with massive pyramids and waterways.

The Amazon is one of the last big wildernesses on the globe, but legends have circulated for ages claiming that ancient humans once thrived deep beneath the forest. Some of the Spanish explorers who pursued El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, have never returned. British explorer Percy Fawcett looked for what he thought to be the Lost City of Z in the 20th century. He disappeared into the jungle, adding his unfinished chapter to a story that had started 600 years before.

According to a study published in Nature, the “wilderness” of the Amazon’s jungle was once densely populated and, in some parts, extremely urbanized for centuries before recorded history began. Scientists used helicopter-mounted lidar imaging technology to look at six areas within a 4,500-square-kilometer (1,737 square miles) region of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon.

In total, they found two new major settlement sites, which were named Cotoca and Landívar. In addition, they found 24 smaller sites, of which only 15 were known to have existed before. The immense settlements stretch across some 80 square miles of the Llanos de Mojos region of Bolivia and include pyramids, causeways, canals, ramparts, elevated “forest islands,” and buildings arranged in ways that hint at cosmological worldview. The Casarabe culture, the indigenous people that flourished from 500 to 1400 A.D. and came to inhabit approximately 1,700 square miles of the Amazon jungle, was responsible for the construction of the structures.

lost amazon cities
Screenshots From A 3D Animation Of The Cotoca Site. Image: H. Prümers / Dai

The co-author of the study Heiko Prümers, an archaeologist at German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, references an old Spanish proverb asserting no one is so blind as the one who does not want to see. “It’s a myth that was created by Europeans who really spoke of a jungle, and vast regions untouched by humans,” he said. “So a lot of people didn’t want to see that there were archaeological sites here that merit exploration. I’m sure that in the next 10 or 20 years we’ll see a lot of these cities, and some even bigger than the ones we are presenting in our paper,” he added.

Cotoca and Landíva were fortified with a series of concentric defensive works that included moats and walls. There is a lot of evidence of civic and ceremonial life imbedded in more densely populated locations, such as 70-foot-tall conical pyramids and mud buildings that interestingly take the U-shape. These indicators may be found in places like Mexico City, Guatemala City, and El Salvador City.

“The scale and elaboration of civic-ceremonial architecture are key aspects of the large settlement sites,” Prümers and his colleagues said in the paper. “The orientation of the buildings that constitute the civic-ceremonial centers of the two large settlement sites is very uniform towards the north-northwest. This probably reflects a cosmological worldview, which is also present in the orientation of extended burials of the Casarabe culture.” “Basically they remolded the landscape in terms of their cosmology, which is mind-blowing,” said Chris Fisher, a Colorado State University archaeologist not involved in the study, who specializes in Mesoamerica. (Source

The study states: “The architectural layout of large settlement sites of the Casarabe culture indicates that the inhabitants of this region created a new social and public landscape through monumentality.” Prümers and his colleagues propose that “the casarabe-culture settlement system is a singular form of tropical agrarian low-density urbanism—to our knowledge, the first known case for the entire tropical lowlands of South America.”

An anthropologist at the University of Florida named Michael Heckenberger was not engaged in the study, but he has spent nearly two decades researching urbanism in the pre-Columbian Amazon. He claims that moats and causeways, as well as a modified environment consisting of parks, working woods, and fish farms, were all present at the Llanos de Mojos community, as well as elsewhere in the old Amazon. In contrast, the latest findings show something completely new.

Numerous of these discoveries were made feasible by lidar. This laser-based imaging technique, initially developed in the early 1970s for space exploration, has subsequently proven to be a useful resource for archaeologists combing landscapes for long-lost settlements. Not only can it instantly scan vast areas, but it can also “see through” dense vegetation and detect traces of human-made structures that have since disappeared.

Despite the fact that the majority of these structures are found in larger, more populous ruin sites, the team speculated that the scanned area may have also been home to numerous little hamlets that are too subtle to be spotted by LIDAR. Altogether, the new discoveries provide an intriguing glimpse into the culture that developed and flourished in this wooded area over many decades and centuries, constructing a vast agricultural and aquacultural infrastructure that supported a vibrant social and ritual life.

Paleoclimate studies have shown that substantial sections of the Amazon had been open habitats with less wilderness before the Europeans arrived in the Americas, suggesting that the Amazon forest is much younger than it was previously thought. Such an environment would have facilitated the type of landscape engineering that it is increasingly evident was practiced by Amazonians. (Source)

“Unfortunately, given the rapid rate of ecological change that threatens not only ecosystems but also cultural resources, we are running out of time,” concluded Fisher. “If the Amazonian new orthodoxy is to be suitably documented before the archaeology vanishes forever, we must see many more large-scale lidar scans and studies like the one presented by Prümers and colleagues.”

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