Researchers Map Largest Pre-Colonial Lost Ancient Cities in Amazon

Researchers have found "lost" cities from the Upano people in Ecuador

Amazon Ecuador

Photo: Unsplash/ Kiyoshi

Most people only know the Amazon rainforest for how it’s currently being threatened by dangerous and destructive environmental practices. While it’s important to be aware of how our actions affect other parts of the world, it’s also important to remember its long and fascinating history as the home of thousands of indigenous groups past and present. Scientists from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris recently made a huge archeological breakthrough when they discovered a staggering number of “lost cities” in Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon thanks to a new laser mapping technology called lidar. While CNRS investigative director Stéphen Rostain knew of the existence of these cities over 20 years ago, it’s only now that he and his team have been able to see through the trees and map out a complex network of roads, neighborhoods, gardens, structures, and river drainages in the Upano Valley of Ecuador. These findings will help researchers learn more about the Upano people who used to live there and get a more accurate history of the area.

“The settlements are much bigger than others in the Amazon,” says Rostain said, the New Scientist reported. “They are comparable with Maya sites.”⁠ It’s reportedly within a region of the Amazon that other researchers had concluded was sparsely inhabited during pre-Columbian times, according to Charles Clement at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil. “This is the largest complex with large settlements so far found in Amazonia,” Clement said, the publication reported.

Groundbreaking work has been done in the Amazon over the years, with researchers discovering other settlements in Bolivia and Brazil, which revealed key insights that completely shifted what had been hypothesized about civilizations in the Amazon. However, these recently discovered cities in Ecuador are estimated to be at least 1000 years older than what was found in Bolivia in 2013. So far, researchers have found “6,000 earthen platforms” that are connected in a complex pattern with large roads and drainages, as well as multiple structures for residential and ceremonial purposes. “We have a brisk, sudden abandonment of the site — a destruction of the settlement,” Rostain told Discover magazine. He’s unsure of what caused the abandonment of the city but says it could be a sizable volcanic eruption or climatic changes though at this point it’s too hard to tell and more excavation is needed.

Based on these findings, researchers estimate that the Upano people built and lived in these cities from 500 B.C. to 300 A.D. and 600 A.D. with population numbers anywhere from 10,000 to as high as 30,000 people, according to CNRS archeologist archaeologist Antoine Dorison. Researcher Carla Jaimes Betancourt also added that they were most likely farmers, though there is still much to learn about their trade routes, governing system, and other aspects of their society.

“We say ‘Amazonia,’ but we should say ‘Amazonias,’ to capture the region’s ancient cultural diversity,” Rostain said. “There’s always been an incredible diversity of people and settlements in the Amazon, not only one way to live. We’re just learning more about them.”

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