Claire Leimbach/Robert Harding World Imagery
The Xingu region of the Amazon, seen here, had a far more complex structure of ancient villages than previously thought.
This satellite image of the Xingu region traces ancient roads leading away from a central village to smaller villages clustered around it.
This satellite image of the Xingu region traces ancient roads leading away from a central village to smaller villages clustered around it. Science/AAAS
Along the coast of Peru, a mysterious civilization sprang up about 5,000 years ago. This was many centuries before the Incan Empire. Yet these people were sophisticated. They cultivated crops and orchards. And they built huge monuments of earth and rock.
Archaeologists are trying to prove that an abrupt change of climate created this new culture.
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Ceramic shards are seen poking out of the wall in this excavation trench near an ancient village plaza.
Ceramic shards are seen poking out of the wall in this excavation trench near an ancient village plaza. Science/AAAS
Five hundred years ago, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana paddled the length of the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold.
He didn't find it.
And no one has found lost cities in the Amazon forests. Twentieth-century anthropologists concluded there weren't any, believing that "urbanism" in pre-Columbian South America existed only in the Andes Mountains.
Scientists working in Brazil say hold on — they've found the remnants of several clusters of towns built as long as seven centuries ago.
Michael Heckenberger from the University of Florida has been excavating in a region of the southern Amazon called Xingu.
"The real kind of head-ringer," he says, "is the fact [the villages] never occur alone."
Instead, they were built in clusters, in geometric patterns, with a larger village and a plaza in the middle. Heckenberger compares them in sophistication to medieval villages in Europe.
These clusters were aligned toward points in the sky for summer and winter solstices, when the sun reaches its northernmost and southernmost extremes.
Wide roads ran through the villages, and other roads connected the clusters to each other. Though very little remains of these towns, there are still ditches where Heckenberger believes inhabitants built palisade fences, much like medieval European walls.
Heckenberger believes tens of thousands of people would have lived there. He says the layout is unique and calls it a sort of "garden city."
Jonathan Haas, an archaeologist at the Field Museum in Chicago who studies Latin American cultures, says the discovery runs counter to traditional views of early Amazonian living.
In the Amazon, Haas says, "you don't have the ability to centralize production of resources because the landscape doesn't lend itself to that." People believed there just wasn't the need to centralize into cities.
Haas says the discovery in the Xingu region suggests a sort of middle way for rain forest urbanization.
The discovery is described in this week's issue of the journal Science.