The ancient peoples who reshaped the Amazon

This year, cutting-edge research has shed new light on earthwork builders. In May, a group of archaeologists and scientists from Germany and the United Kingdom published the results of a survey that used laser scanning technology to examine the southeastern Llanos de Moxos. In an article in Nature, they describe a form of “low-density urbanism” that has nothing to do with contemporary – and better known – Andean societies, such as the Tiwanaku Empire, whose eponymous capital is today in ruins near Lake Titicaca. (A strong influence on the Incas, the Tiwanaku once ruled a vast region covering much of modern Bolivia, southern Peru, northeastern Argentina and northern Chile.)

The team found several sites built by the Casarabe culture (c. 500-1400 CE), including a pair of large settlements: the building process for the larger of the two involved moving a staggering 570,000 cubic meters of land – enough to fill 228 Olympic swimming pools. The settlements featured stepped platforms topped, in some cases, by 22 m high pyramids. They were also connected to neighboring communities by elevated causeways stretching for several miles and surrounded by canals, reservoirs and man-made lakes.

Heiko Prümers, an archaeologist at the German Archaeological Institute and co-author of the study, told Nature that the complexity of these sites is “breathtaking”.

The scale and sophistication of the Casarabe culture and its counterparts is even more impressive when considering the geographic and climatic challenges of the Llanos de Moxos. They also faced extreme weather events – which I got first-hand glimpses of. Overnight the heat and humidity rose before being shattered by an almighty storm so powerful it shook the walls of my guest bedroom. It was a surazosaid Miriam over breakfast, freezing polar winds that periodically blow in from Antarctica, dropping temperatures and bringing heavy downpours.

On the boat back to Loma Suárez – numbed by the cold, whipped by hailstone-like raindrops – I felt a new sense of respect for the ancient societies of the Llanos de Moxos, which not only carved out a existence here, but have managed to thrive.

Shafik Meghji is the author of Barré de la carte: Travels in Bolivia

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