For the first time, archaeologist Stephen Rosten came across ancient mounds and remains of roads in the Upano Valley region of Ecuador, and this was more than 20 years ago.
When he began excavating, he found a variety of colorful pottery, including jugs that were tested to contain maize beer. Radiocarbon dating showed that people settled here about 2,500 years ago and lived for approximately one thousand years (from 500 BC to the 600s AD).
At that time, according to Rosten, he did not yet understand that in fact it was a very large complex of settlements, in fact a huge city, closely connected by roads.
Due to impenetrable thickets, intense heat, the risk of contracting malaria and other dangerous diseases, and remoteness from civilization, archaeological excavations in the Amazon region have always been very difficult.
The jungle very quickly takes over abandoned settlements and after tens of years no one will even guess, passing by, that there was a village or even a city here.
However, modern laser scanning technology (lidar), mounted on drones, is helping archaeologists discover ancient ruins hidden by vegetation. Recently, the Ecuadorian jungle was mapped using these technologies and many rectangular ruins of ancient structures were discovered.
According to Science magazine, it was a huge city, or rather a network of several large settlements. This is what such ruins look like from the ground, they look like earthen ramparts and if they are overgrown with trees, you will never guess that this is an artificial structure.
Archeology has only recently begun to reveal that the Amazon was quite densely populated thousands of years ago and had a fairly advanced civilization. Previously, it was believed that from ancient times only small groups of Indians lived there, the highest technical achievement of which were dilapidated huts and dugout boats.
Rosten now calls the Upano Valley “the lost valley of cities.” And, according to calculations, at least 10 thousand people lived here. True, archaeologists do not yet know which civilization built this network of cities, because it is more than a thousand years older than the previously known Amazonian cultures of pre-Columbian times.
In total, five large settlements and another ten smaller ones were discovered on an area of 300 square kilometers. Each settlement was densely built with residential and ceremonial structures, and between them were flat, rectangular fields where corn, cassava and sweet potatoes were grown, according to excavations.
The cities were connected by wide straight roads, and inside the cities there were clearly laid out streets and even neighborhoods.
“We can safely talk about urbanism,” says archaeologist Fernando Mejía of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, one of the authors of the new study.
According to him, in terms of the degree of artificial change in the landscape, the unknown builders of these cities could even compete with the “garden cities” of the Mayans. And what has been discovered so far “is really just the tip of the iceberg” about what else can be found in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Mejia says.
Judging by the layout and dating, all these cities and roads existed at the same time, and were not built one to replace another. Previously, the oldest highly developed society in the Amazon was considered to be a culture that lived in the Llanos Mojos region in Bolivia, where last year the ruins of ancient cities with pyramids were discovered using the same lidar.
But the network of cities in Ecuador turned out to be almost a thousand years older than the Bolivian civilization, and their settlements were larger and more developed, as were their roads. The largest roads were 10 meters wide and stretched for 10-20 km.
According to José Iriarte, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, the ruins are so poorly preserved not only because the jungle tried, but also because these cities were built mainly from clay.
For example, the Mayans and Incas built from stone and their pyramids are still in excellent condition. The unknown civilization of Ecuador that built these cities actually existed during the same era as the Roman Empire, and they had about the same population as London during the Roman Empire.
And we only recently learned about this. So how many more ancient mysteries will we have to discover in the future? “The Amazon has always had an incredible diversity of people and settlements. We just started learning more about them,” says Stephen Rosten.