Lesson 23.3: Social Studies Connection

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Land of the Lost

The roadways were 165 feet wide, large enough to accommodate today's rush-hour traffic. Bridges spanned expertly dug canals that teemed, or overflowed, with fish. The circular plazas were grand, wonderful spots to meet friends. The local parks were lush and green, perfect places to spend a lazy summer's day.

Does this sound like Paris, or perhaps Rome? How about an ancient village deep in a tropical rain forest?

Scientists recently discovered 19 villages in the jungles of the upper Xingu region of Brazil. Roads, parks, and canals connected the settlements. More than 5,000 to 10,000 people, known as the Xinguano, inhabited these places about 700 years ago.

Major Discovery

Most of the 4,000-mile-long Amazon River flows through Brazil, the largest country in South America.. The discovery of the villages has turned a number of ideas about life near the Amazon River upside down. Scientists used to believe that large permanent settlements could not have flourished in the dense Amazon jungle because the land was not fertile. The discovery of the villages puts to rest that long-held idea. The discovery also dispels the idea that humans never changed the jungle's wild landscape.

Scientists say that the Xinguano built their villages by devastating the surrounding jungle. They chopped down and burned much of the rain forest to make way for highways, plazas, dikes, dams, moats, ponds, and bridges.

In addition, the Xinguano survived in the jungle by practicing the ancient technique of slash-and-burn agriculture, still in use in some places today. They cut down trees, and then burned them to add nutrients to the soil. Then they planted their crops in the nutrient-rich soil. When the soil became useless for growing food, the people moved to another region and started over.

Scientists say that after 30 or so years, the Xinguano would return to areas that they had planted in the past and farm them again. They grew a fruit called piqui and a vegetable related to the potato called manioc.

Bits and Pieces

Michael Heckenberger, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, discovered the ancient villages. He spent 12 years traveling in the region. During his travels in the Amazon, Heckenberger and two local tribesmen pieced together the history of the region. They unearthed centuries of lost culture. They dug into the thick, charcoal-rich soil and pulled out artifacts. They carefully marked the centers of the villages and the roads that once connected them.

Heckenberger believes that the Xinguano were a highly developed people much like the Incas, Aztecs, and Maya—other cultures that flourished in the Americas. The Xinguano arranged their villages around a ceremonial center. Some villages had large residential areas. The land between the villages was carefully landscaped and served as public parks. The Xinguano also studied the stars. They built roads and plazas that reflected the positions of the sun and the stars.

“[Xinguano society was] organized in a way that suggests that they had a knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences,” Heckenberger told the Los Angeles Times. “It's not earth-shattering...but at the same time, nobody expected it in the Amazon.”

Word Wise

Live in: A beaver family inhabits the pond near my school.

Grow vigorously: Roses must be planted in a sunny spot in order for them to flourish.

Able to sustain plant growth: We planted bean seeds in the milk containers that we filled with fertile soil.

Drive away: My math test grade dispelled my idea that I don't have to study.

Wipe out, or destroy: The flood in our yard devastated our garden.

Scientist who studies archaeology, the study of the remains of human life. When some archaeologists went on a “dig” in Arizona, they found many arrowheads.

Something made by hand to serve a particular purpose: My favorite room in the natural history museum has cases of Egyptian artifacts.

Having to do with the place in which one permanently lives: There are no stores in our residential neighborhood.

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The Word Wise word “fertile” means “able to sustain plant growth.” The word has its root in the Latin word “ferre,” which means “to give life.” The list below shows words with the same root.

  • Ferre: to give life
  • fertile
  • fertility
  • fertilizer
  • fertilize
  • fertileness

Look up the words “archaeologist,” “residential,” and “inhabit” in a dictionary. Find the root of each word. Write each root on a piece of paper, and put a star next the root. Below each root word, write as many words as you can that share that root. How many words could you find for each root? Share your lists with a partner to compare your work.

Data Hunt

Look at a map of South America. Find the lines of latitude and longitude that cover the map.

Lines of latitude go across a map. The latitude line that goes around the middle of the earth represents the equator. This line is marked 0°. In South America, there are just a few latitude lines north (N) of the equator. Most are south (S) of the equator.

Lines of longitude go up and down on a map. The line that represents 0° longitude on a map runs through England. All the longitude lines in South America are west (W) of England.

To describe the location of a place, find the degrees of latitude that are closest to that place. These are marked on the sides of the map. Then look at the top or bottom of the map to find the degrees of longitude. For example, find São Paulo, Brazil, on the map. Its location is approximately at 25°S, 45°W.

Mark four locations on the map. Write the coordinates of each location on a piece of paper, using the degrees of longitude and latitude.

Trade coordinates with a partner. Challenge each other to find the locations on the map using your coordinates.