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#15: The Lost Cities of the Amazon

What is now sparsely populated jungle held large urban settlements hundreds of years ago.

By Jane Bosveld
Dec 20, 2008 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:04 AM
Xingu | iStockphoto


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Around 800 years ago the Amazon rainforest was home to settlements that rivaled the small city-states of ancient Greece in size and sophistication. In a study published in the August 29 issue of Science, historical anthropologist Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida describes two large prehistoric settlement clusters in the Xingu basin in Brazil. Each cluster comprised several walled towns, perhaps housing up to 1,000 residents each, with a large plaza that served as both a burial ground for the ruling elite and the hub for ritual ceremonies. Roads going outward in the cardinal directions (to the east, west, north, and south) led to smaller satellite towns, many of which were connected to fishponds and agricultural sites. “The smaller settlements,” Heckenberger explains, “are almost like neighborhoods of the core area. You could jog from one to the other in about 10 minutes.”

Heckenberger discovered the Xingu settlements when the chief of the Kuikuro—the modern descendants of the Xingu basin people—showed him the remains of one of the towns. “I immediately saw that the sites are significantly larger than contemporary communities.” He and his team carried GPS equipment in their backpacks and walked from one site to another. “That’s when we recognized the regional pattern,” he says. The ancient sites are about 10 times the size of the local villages there today.

Heckenberger, who spent so much time with the Kuikuro that the chief adopted him and gave him the name Maikejamna, believes that the complex, managed landscapes of this ancient society could serve as a model for sustainable development in the Amazon. “Rather than have the populations that live in the indigenous areas adopt foreign technologies that are not well adapted to the environment,” Heckenberger suggests, “why not use some of these homegrown technologies that were used for a very, very long time in the Amazon basin?” They won’t solve the sustainability problem, he admits, “but they certainly could contribute to new solutions.”

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