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Long-Lost Cities of the Amazon

Imagine a city with roads wide enough to handle bustling rush-hour traffic. Think of bridges crossing canals that are filled with fish. Picture lush, green parks and popular town centers.

That description can easily apply to a modern city. But it also describes villages that the South American Indian groups of Brazil lived in about 700 years ago. In some ways, their lives were not much different from those of people today.

For hundreds of years, no one was aware that these cities existed. Scientists, however, recently discovered 19 ancient villages in the Amazon jungles of the upper Xingu (sheen GOO) region of central Brazil. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people known as the Xinguano (sheen GWAH noh) lived in the villages, which were connected by roads, parks, and canals.

Major Discovery

Before the discovery, scientists believed that large permanent settlements could not survive in that region, because agriculture would have been difficult. They thought the soil could not support crops. Scientists also believed that humans never changed the jungle's wild landscape. The discovery makes it clear that neither theory was correct.

Scientists say the Xinguano built their cities by devastating the surrounding jungle. They chopped down and burned acres of rain forest to clear the way for highways, plazas, dams, moats, ponds, and bridges.

The Xinguano survived in the jungle by practicing slash-and-burn agriculture, which is still in use today. After cutting down the trees, they burned them. When the trees were burnt, material from the trees seeped into the ground. That improved the quality of the soil and made it easier to raise crops. After a few years, the Xinguano moved on to another plot and started over when the soil became worn out and useless for growing food. They grew a fruit called piqui (PEEH kee) and a cousin of the potato called manioc (MAN ee ahk).

Jim Peterson, a scientist from the University of Vermont, called the discovery of the cities very important. “This research provides some of the very first concrete evidence of large, socially complex…societies in the Amazon,” he said.

Unearthing the History

Michael Heckenberger, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, discovered the ancient villages. He has spent the past 12 years traveling in the region.

Working with two descendants of Amazon tribes, Heckenberger pieced together the history of the region. They unearthed centuries of the lost culture. They dug into the thick, charcoal-rich soil and pulled out ceramic artifacts. They carefully marked the centers of each town and the roads that connected them.

Heckenberger believes the Xinguano were a civilization similar to other cultures that lived in the Americas, such as the Incas, Aztecs, and Maya.

The Xinguano arranged their villages around a ceremonial center. In the largest villages, homes were built on parcels of land as large as 200 acres. The area between each city was a well-landscaped public park.

By the time Christopher Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, the Xinguano were building roads and plazas in relation to the position of the sun and stars.“[Xinguano society was] organized in a way that suggests a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences,” Heckenberger told the Los Angeles Times.

The Civilization Ends

The Xinguano people had little contact with Europeans who arrived in Brazil in the early 1500s. The area in which the discoveries were made is so remote that Europeans did not reach the region until the mid-1700s. By then, however, the Xinguano had suddenly abandoned their jungle cities. Heckenberger said that afterward, most of the Xinguano died of smallpox, measles, and other diseases introduced to South America by Europeans.

Although Xinguano society ended a long time ago, scientists today are making exciting discoveries about one of Brazil's earliest civilizations.