Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Seven years ago this month, THE GENERALIST ran a long piece on the archaeological discoveries in Amazonia that showed evidence of a considerable number of  ancient settlements across the region that were much larger and more advanced than previous theories suggested, surrounded by areas that were extensively cultivated. SEE PREVIOUS POST 

So was interested to read a bang up to date summary of the latest evidence and theories in 'Finding the Real Eldorado' by Michael Marshall [New Scientist/19th Jan 2019].

Long before the arrival of Europeans, millions of people were living in Amazonia, building vast earthworks and  cultivating multitudes of plants and fish.

When the Europeans did arrive in the 1500s there were several reports of cities, road networks and cultivation. The mysteries of these lost cities fuelled many a gripping yarn and several expeditions searched for the legendary El Dorado without success. As a result, for many years, Amazonia was regarded as a pristine wilderness, with lush vegetation but poor soils that would not be able to support substantial human occupation.

Marshall says that this view changed in the 1990s. Fresh evidence of larger settlements and a new understanding of terra preta - patches of dark earth first discovered in the 1870s - emerged. This fertile soil is now thought to have been enriched by charcoal, created by burning waste including bones and seeds. However it only dates from 2,000 years ago and Amazonia was inhabited much longer than that.

Recent DNA samples of current Amazonian tribes has confirmed that colonists from east Asia, who first arrived in the Americas 17,000 years ago, quickly reached Amazonia, whose population began to expand  for the next 3,500 years. By 9,000 years ago, we now know that the Amazonians had domesticated 83 species of plants, including many that would become the most important crops in the world. There are traces from 4,500 years ago of fruit tree planting and rice growing. Large fish farms have been found.

It is clear that they also built substantial structures, principally out of soil.They never used stone and didn't have metal. Archaeologist Michael Heckenberger has spent 25 years mapping a substantial group of ancient settlements, home to some 50,000 people, that were linked by a network of roads.

It now seems that the entire southern Amazon belt [1800 kms long], was occupied by earth-building cultures from 1250-1500 AD.Their cities were linked networks of smaller clustered settlements woven into the fabric of the forest. They farmed fish and trees not wheat, barley and cattle.

Their population peaked in 1000 AD and began to decline over the next 50 years for reasons thatare not known..The best estimate is that there were 8-10 million people living in Amazonia by 1492, the year Columbus "discovered" America. When Europeans arrived, the rate of decline of the Amazonian population accelerated.

Modern deforestation has also revealed huge earthworks, further evidence of the extent of civilisations thousands of years ago. 

In 2010, a Finnish anthropologist Martti Pärssinen reported on his discovery of more than 300 large-scale geometrical patterns - mainly consisting of mounds and moats - in the Brazilian state of Acre alone. This construction feat has been compared to the scale of the Egyptian pyramid building. Radiocarbon dating conducted on the construction show that the earliest ones were built some 2.000 years ago.

Denise Schaan, co-author of the study and anthropologist at the Federal University of Pará, in Belém, Brazil.“We are talking of enormous structures, with diameters ranging from 100 to 300 meters, connected by straight orthogonal roads. They are strategically located on plateaux tops above the river valleys. Their builders took advantage of the natural topography in order to construct spaces that were full of symbolic meaning.”

“The geoglyphs are an astonishing discovery...They are the vestiges of a sophisticated pre-Columbian monument-building society.” 
[Source: ZME Science]

See Also: Under The Jungle by David Grann  [New Yorker. 7th Jan 2010]



There is a similarity between this story and discoveries made in the Great Plains of America. Again my main source is another excellent piece 'The Missing city on the Plains' by Daniel Cossins (New Scientist/1 Dec 2018). Most people will think that the vast grasslands of the Midwest were peopled by tribes of Native Americans who led a nomadic existence in small groups.

This view was disproved by the discovery of Cahokia, America's first city, centred on a large grassy knoll directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri. A cluster of small villages of the Mississippian people in the 9th century expanded over the next 200 years into a city of 20,000 people. Cossins writes: 'A 30m high terraced structure hewn from the clay-heavy soil, overlooked a grand plaza, outside of which people lived in thatched huts scattered across the landscape.' It was abandoned by the mid-14th century.

According to Wikipedia, the site is now a historic park covering 2,200 acres (890 ha) /3.5 sq mls (9 sq km),  containing about 80 mounds. In its heyday,  the ancient city was much larger, covering 6 sq miles (16 sq km) and included about 120 man-made earthen mounds.
'Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1,000 years before European contact. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.'
 'Archaeologists estimate the city's population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center.  If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia's population grew beyond 40,000. Moreover, according to the same population estimates, the population of 13th-century Cahokia was equal to or larger than the population of 13th-century London.'

The discovery of the second largest prehistoric settlement Etzanoa in modern-day Kansas can be traced back to the historic records of a 1601 Spanish expedition across what is now Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.Cossins reports: 'The Spanish recounted how they were led to a settlement of people they called the Rayados so that it would have taken two days to walk across it. They called it Etzanoa and reckoned it was home to 20,000 people.' 

Further testimonies of the expedition and an enigmatic map have come to light, piquing the interest of anthropologists Donald Blakeslee who went out into the field to follow-up previous speculations that Etzanoa lay at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut rivers in southern Kansas. By matching clues in the documents to the landscape, excavations have uncovered evidence of clusters of houses surrounded by gardens and some metal objects which may be Spanish. Further excavations to follow.
(Photo by William S. Soule/Wikimedia Commons)
According to an account in La Crosse International in August 2018: 'Centuries ago, people lived there in thatched, beehive-shaped houses that ran for miles along local riverbeds, the 75-year-old said. [Blakeslee] bases such claims on the unearthing in recent years of a huge trove of pottery, arrowheads, stone scrapers and other relics along a five-mile stretch along the banks of the Walnut and Arkansas rivers.'

Two videos on the Wichita Eagle website: Blakeslee refers to other discoveries: a settlement of 10,000 people in West Ohio and another in North Dakota.

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