Monday, June 28, 2010

Advanced Amazonian Indians

Amazonian Indians More Advanced Than We Knew

Traci Watson ContributorAOL News

(June 25) -- For decades, archaeologists thought of the Amazonian Indians as lowly hunter-gatherers who inhabited widely scattered villages and barely eked out a living in the harsh landscape.Now that image is collapsing. In a study to be published later this summer, scientists detail an ancient system of monumental public works in a swath of the Amazon in eastern Bolivia. The researchers relied in part on satellite pictures to penetrate the thick jungle, allowing them to inventory vast earthen mounds 25 to 30 feet high and tidy networks of canals and causeways, all built centuries ago.The sheer volume of dirt that had to be moved to build these structures suggests that the area was densely populated and politically organized, the researchers say. And the neat patterns of mounds, canals and other features on the landscape indicate that the infrastructure was highly planned and well-organized -- not exactly the handiwork of villagers leading a hand-to-mouth existence.

Gilles Mingasson, Getty Images
A scientific study set to be published later this summer reveals that Amazonian Indians are far more advanced than thought. Here, a father and son fish on a handmade wooden boat in the Amazon basin in Bolivia in 1999.The scientists documented nearly 600 miles of canals and causeways, which altogether required moving enough earth to fill the Great Pyramid at Giza twice. But it's the mounds that are especially impressive. The biggest of the mounds -- earthen hills topped by pyramid-like structures and often at the center of a network of canals and causeways -- are higher than six-story buildings, and the average mound covered 50 percent more area than a football field."They are amazing," says Umberto Lombardo of the University of Bern, one of the authors of the new study, which will be published in the August edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. "You get to this mound and start going up and up and up. ... You feel like you are in the mountains, the Alps."The inhabitants of the Amazon who built the mounds had no metal tools, no pack animals, not even the wheel, yet they erected structures that would be "huge work" to build even today, Lombardo says.Scientists had known that these structures existed, but this is the first time that anyone has systematically counted and mapped them, says Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the same area of the Amazon.By studying how the earthworks are distributed and connected, archaeologists will be able to deduce something about the political structure and perhaps the economies of these long-ago communities. It's clear from the density and scale of the structures that their builders were more politically and socially sophisticated than the old stereotype, Erickson says."There's a certain amount of aesthetics and pride here," he says. "These people ... expressed pride in the community in mounds that towered over the landscape." The function of the mounds is still uncertain. People lived on them, but they also had ritual or political importance. Perhaps they held dance platforms or ball courts. Most of the structures were in continual use from around 500 to 1400 A.D., says study co-author Heiko Pruemers of the German Archaeological Institute. The first Europeans arrived in the area in the 1600s. Pruemers has done excavations at two of the mounds and discovered pottery, animal bones left over from meals, even human skeletons in cemetery-like areas. He's eager to find out more."We're just getting started," he says.