Ancient Pyramids, Canals, Roadways Discovered in Bolivian Amazon Thanks to LiDAR

Using LiDAR, a team of researchers has discovered an ancient civilization beneath the forests of the Bolivian Amazon, replete with pyramids, canals, roadways, and even a “massive water-management infrastructure.”

In a new study published in the journal Nature a research team provides evidence of an ancient civilization in the Bolivian Amazon that has been largely hidden for hundreds of years. Deploying LiDAR (a.k.a. “light detection and ranging” or “3-D laser scanning”) from a plane, the team was able to see through the forest’s thick canopy and identify previously unknown “structures and settlements”—including pyramids, canals, roadways, and even a “massive water-management infrastructure”—from the Casarabe culture, which spanned from 500 to 1400 A.D.

The complexity of these settlements is “mind blowing” Heiko Prümers, an archaeologist at the German Archaeological Institute headquartered in Berlin and member of the research team said in a Nature press release. In all, the researchers found the size and shape of 26 settlements, including 11 the researchers hadn’t even been looking for.

While archaeologists have been well aware that humans inhabited the Amazon Basin—the part of South America drained by the Amazon River and its tributary water flows—for around 9,500 years before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, they believed the inhabitants lived in “small, nomadic tribes that had little impact on the world around them.” This new evidence, however, shows that wasn’t the case at all.

“[N]ear to every site [within] one of hour walking you will find at least one other site,” Prümers says in the video immediately above. The archaeologist adds that “Nobody expected that kind of society in that region; that’s a new thing to find a densely populated area with settlements much larger than before.”

Indeed, the researchers describe an astonishingly large and complex ancient civilization, with densely populated urban centers—two of which together were more than three times larger than Vatican City—as well as 70-foot-tall pyramids and miles of elevated roadways.

The researchers’ LiDAR images also revealed “walled compounds with broad terraces” that rose 20 feet above the ground. Prümers and his colleagues presume inhabitants lived in the areas around the terraces and travelled along the causeways to go from one from site to another.

Image: nature video

“We have this image of Amazonia as a green desert—devoid of any type of culture,” Prümers added in Nature‘s press release. But because civilizations rose and thrived in other tropical areas, Prümers has been forced to ask: “Why shouldn’t something like that exist here?”

Nature notes in its press release that the researchers’ LiDAR images also evince reservoirs in the settlements, perhaps indicating this part of the world hadn’t always been wet—which could’ve been an environmental shift that drove inhabitants away. Steady pollen records have shown that maize was grown in the area continuously for thousands of years, however, indicating sustainable agricultural practices.

Image: nature video

Why inhabitants left these settlements after 900 years is still a mystery to archaeologists. Radiocarbon dating has revealed the Casarabe people disappeared from the region around 1,400 A.D. Prümers says much more excavation must be done to figure out why, which could mean finding more ancient graves like the one in the image immediately above. And one can only imagine what’s hidden deep inside those 70-foot-tall pyramids.

Feature image: nature video

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