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Scientists working in the Brazilian rainforest say they found the remnants of several clusters of towns, built as long as seven centuries ago. Anthropologists have long debated whether indigenous people in the tropical Amazon developed an urban culture. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, these latest findings suggest they did.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Five hundred years ago, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana paddled 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 that urbanism in pre-Columbian South America existed only in the Andes Mountains.

Michael Heckenberger didn't believe that. He's an anthropologist and he's been working in a place in the Southern Amazon called Xingu. There, he's found signs of dozens of villages at least 750 years old.

Mr. MICHAEL HECKENBERGER (Anthropologist, University of Florida): The real kind of head-ringer is the fact that they never occur alone.

JOYCE: Instead, they were built in clusters. Satellite photographs reveal ancient disturbances of the earth where people had built the villages. They were laid out geometrically, with a larger village in a big plaza in the middle of each cluster. Heckenberger, from the University of Florida, compares them to medieval villages in Europe.

Mr. HECKENBERGER: The Xinguan communities, not only were there settlements as large as some of the small to medium-sized medieval towns, but there was four of them tied to a major center, and they were tied in very specific orientation. It's like a - you know, almost like laying out a compass.

JOYCE: These clusters were aligned toward points in the sky for summer and winter solstices, when the sun reaches its northernmost and southernmost extremes. Heckenberger's team has excavated what were wide roads running through the villages, and more roads connecting the clusters to each other. Though very little remains of these towns, there are still deep ditches where Heckenberger believes palisade fences - much like medieval European walls - once stood.

Mr. HECKENBERGER: One of the things that Xingu has in spades, I mean, just blows your mind. Its self-organization is just off the scale. And this is just written on the landscape.

JOYCE: Heckenberger believes tens of thousands of people would have lived there. These were not cities as the Incas built them. They were more dispersed, yet connected. Heckenberger says the layout is unique and calls it a sort of garden city.

Jonathan Haas is an archeologist at the Field Museum in Chicago who studies Latin American cultures. He says this runs counter to traditional views of early Amazonian living.

Mr. JONATHAN HAAS (Archeologist, Field Museum, Chicago): I mean, what you have in the Amazon is you don't have the ability to centralize production of resources because the landscape doesn't lend itself to that. The landscape is dispersed in terms of its distribution of resources. And that's why you don't get the full, formal centralization that you get in those other large city-states.

JOYCE: Haas says that's one reason why people doubted that Amazonians would bother to build centralized cities. He says the discovery in the Xingu region suggests a sort of middle way for rainforest urbanization.

Mr. HAAS: It shows you how humans will take a different kind of environment and experiment with it, and they come up with different kinds of solutions in different areas.

JOYCE: The discovery is described in this week's issue of the journal Science. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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