Ancient settlement sites discovered in Amazonia


Buildings of the Casarabe culture in Cotoca. © Prümers et al./ Nature, CC by 4.0

Archaeologists have found eleven previously unknown settlements of the Casarabe culture in southwestern Amazonia, dating from between 500 and 1400 AD. Two of the archaeological sites are significantly larger and more complex than anything previously known from the region. In addition, they were apparently connected to smaller surrounding settlements via sophisticated canal systems, which suggests a hierarchical organization. The finds thus shed new light on the cultural and architectural achievements of this early tropical culture.

Fascinating buildings in Central America bear witness to the achievements of an early advanced civilization, the Maya. In the South American Amazon lowlands, on the other hand, scientists have assumed that the natural conditions there were inadequate for larger civilizations. Members of the Casarabe culture lived in this area between about 500 and 1400 AD. However, since archaeological studies of the region are hampered by the dense vegetation of the Amazon rainforest, little was known about this culture and its stage of development.

Laser scans reveal hidden architecture

A team led by Heiko Prümers from the German Archaeological Institute in Bonn is now presenting sensational new findings about the architecture and settlement organization of the Casarabe culture. The researchers examined six areas in the Bolivian Llanos de Mojos savannah from the air. They used a technique called lidar (light detection and ranging), in which they scan the landscape with laser beams. From the radiation reflected from the ground
software can reconstruct how the landscape is shaped under the dense vegetation.

“The lidar data revealed two remarkably large facilities in a four-tier settlement system,” report Prümers and his colleagues. “The civil and ceremonial architecture of these large settlement sites includes stepped platforms supporting U-shaped structures, rectangular platform mounds, and conical pyramids up to 22 meters high.” Casarabe culture extensively redesigned their environment to suit their needs. Prümers and his colleagues identified sophisticated canal systems that were probably used for irrigation, water storage and fishing.

hierarchical organization

In addition to the two major sites, Cotoca and Landíva, the researchers identified 24 smaller settlement sites, nine of which were previously unknown. Using factors such as the size of the earth platforms, the architecture on them, and the canals and water storage systems, the authors derived a four-level hierarchical classification of the sites. They found that larger sites were surrounded by smaller ones and connected to them by canals and causeways.

“This hierarchical order of settlements suggests a highly complex governmental organization — a level of social complexity not previously often associated with early Amazonia,” said Colorado State University archaeologist Christopher Fisher in a commentary accompanying the publication which was also published in the journal “Nature”. “Cotoca and Landívar are examples of a new type of urbanism in Amazonia. The work of Prümers and his colleagues fundamentally challenges the current understanding of Amazonian prehistory and enriches our knowledge of tropical civilizations.”

Source: Heiko Prümers (German Archaeological Institute, Bonn) et al., Nature, doi: 10.1038/s41586-022-04780-4

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