Home Archeology History Archaeologists Discover 2,500-Year-Old System of Urban Centers in Amazonian Ecuador

Archaeologists Discover 2,500-Year-Old System of Urban Centers in Amazonian Ecuador

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Rostain et al. discovered a dense system of pre-Hispanic urban centers, characterized by constructed platforms and plazas and connected by large, straight roads. Image credit: Rostain et al., doi: 10.1126/science.adi6317.

When intact, the Amazonian forest is dense and difficult to penetrate, both on foot and with scanning technologies. Over the past several years, however, improved light detection and ranging scans have begun to penetrate the forest canopy, revealing previously unknown evidence of past Amazonian cultures. In a new paper, CNSR archaeologist Stéphen Rostain and his colleagues described evidence of such an agrarian Amazonian culture that began more than 2,000 years ago; the authors described more than 6,000 earthen platforms distributed in a geometic pattern connected by roads and intertwined with agricultural landscapes and river drainages in the Upano Valley of Amazonian Ecuador, in the eastern foothills of the Andes. Such extensive early development in the Upper Amazon resembles similar Maya urban systems in Central America.

Rostain et al. discovered a dense system of pre-Hispanic urban centers, characterized by constructed platforms and plazas and connected by large, straight roads. Image credit: Rostain et al., doi: 10.1126/science.adi6317.

Although a growing body of research has begun to highlight the scope and scale of pre-Hispanic occupation of the Amazon, evidence for large-scale urbanism has remained elusive.

Dr. Rostain and co-authors discovered evidence for an agrarian-based civilization that began more than 2,500 years ago in the Upano Valley of Amazonian Ecuador, a region in the eastern foothills of the Andes.

“Based on more than 20 years of interdisciplinary research that included fieldwork and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) mapping, we describe urbanism at a scale never before documented in Amazonia,” they said.

“We describe more than 6,000 anthropogenic rectangular earthen platforms and plaza structures connected by footpaths and roads and surrounded by expansive agricultural landscapes and river drainages within the 300 km2 survey area.”

The authors identified at least 15 distinct settlement sites of various sizes based on clusters of structures.

However, the most notable elements of this built environment are the extensive and complex regional-scale road network connecting urban centers and the surrounding hinterland.

Archaeological excavations indicate that the construction and occupation of the platforms and roads occurred between 500 BCE and 300 to 600 CE and was carried out by groups from the Kilamope and later Upano cultures.

Such extensive early development in the Upper Amazon is comparable to similar Maya urban systems recently highlighted in Mexico and Guatemala.

“The Upano sites are different from other monumental sites discovered in Amazonia, which are more recent and less extensive,” the researchers said.

“Such a discovery is another vivid example of the underestimation of Amazonia’s twofold heritage: environmental but also cultural, and therefore Indigenous.”

“We believe that it is crucial to thoroughly revise our preconceptions of the Amazonian world and, in doing so, to reinterpret contexts and concepts in the necessary light of an inclusive and participatory science.”

The team’s paper was published in the January 11 edition of the journal Science.

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Stéphen Rostain et al. 2024. Two thousand years of garden urbanism in the Upper Amazon. Science 383 (6679): 183-189; doi: 10.1126/science.adi6317

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