A groundbreaking discovery by a French-led team of archaeologists has unveiled the largest and oldest network of pre-Hispanic cities ever documented in the Amazon rainforest.
This 2,500-year-old lost civilization, primarily consisting of farmers, sprawls across an expansive 1,000-square-kilometer site in the Upano valley, nestled at the foothills of the Andes mountain range in eastern Ecuador.
The jungle had long concealed this archaeological treasure until laser-mapping technology, coupled with on-site excavations, exposed 20 settlements, including five sizable cities interconnected by roads. Stephen Rostain, lead author of the study and archaeologist at France’s CNRS research centre, likened the find to discovering the legendary “El Dorado.” The scale of urban development revealed, with earthen homes, ceremonial structures, and agricultural infrastructure, surpasses anything previously witnessed in the Amazon.
The first traces of this lost civilization were detected 25 years ago by Rostain, who observed numerous mounds in the Upano valley. Utilizing Lidar technology in 2015, the researchers identified over 6,000 earthen mounds, revealing rectangular platforms forming the foundations of the “Upano people’s” homes. Remarkably, the cities featured large, straight streets, reminiscent of metropolitan layouts, with central alleys resembling ancient Teotihuacan city streets in Mexico.
These cities, complete with structures up to 10 meters tall, were more than mere residential areas; some served as communal spaces for rituals or festivals. The agricultural fields showcased an intricate use of space, indicating a society that maximized every available area for cultivation. Rostain speculates that leadership, planning, and engineering were integral to constructing the roads and developing such an advanced society.
The mystery deepens as the fate of the Upano people remains unknown. Construction on the first mounds is estimated to have started between 500 BC and 300-600 AD, predating other large Amazonian villages discovered between 500-1,500 AD. This revelation challenges the long-held Western perception that the Amazon was solely inhabited by hunter-gatherers, showcasing the existence of complex, urban populations in the region. Rostain urges a reconsideration of the historically disparaging view of the Amazonian people’s capabilities before European colonization.