In the heart of the Amazon, researchers have discovered a complex of ancient cities using laser technology


The flow4:20 p.m.A huge ancient city discovered in the Amazon

“Wow,” was all archaeologist Stéphen Rostain could say when laser LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology revealed several ancient cities hidden deep in the Amazon rainforest.

“It’s a gift for an archaeologist,” he said The flowIt is Matt Galloway.

Using laser scanning technology, researchers discovered a complex network of farmlands, roads and neighborhoods in Ecuador’s Upano River Valley.

These cities are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old, according to Rostain, who works at the National Center for Scientific Research. His group’s findings were recently published in the journal Science.

“In Upano, it’s a completely new approach to the human past in the world’s largest rainforest,” he said.

LiDAR leads the way

Rostain has been working in the Upano River Valley for years. He says he started digging there 25 years ago, so he’s known about the site with dirt mounds in the area for decades.

“What we didn’t know at that time was the scale and overall organization of this construction,” he said. “It’s really new, and the LiDAR showed us a map of this road connecting the cities.”

LiDAR was introduced into the excavations in 2015when Ecuador’s National Institute of Cultural Heritage funded a LiDAR study of the valley.

As part of the investigation, specially equipped aircraft sent laser pulses through forest vegetation and measured their return trajectory.

This LIDAR image provided by researchers in January 2024 shows a main street running through an urban area, creating an axis along which complexes of rectangular platforms are arranged around low plazas at the Copueno site in the Upano Valley in Ecuador.
This LIDAR image shows a main street running through an urban area, creating an axis along which complexes of rectangular platforms are arranged around low-lying plazas at the Copueno site in Ecuador’s Upano Valley. (Antoine Dorison, Stéphen Rostain via AP)

According to archaeologist Jay Silverstein, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in England, this method allows researchers to create a model of the terrain beneath the forest.

“Basically, you’ve razed all the trees and you’re actually looking at the shape of the earth,” he told Galloway. “Then we start to be able to see patterns of what we call anthropogenic, or things that were made by humans as opposed to nature.”

For Rostain, this method is essential because it allows the exact shape and size of the soil to be reconstructed without harming the forest itself.

Rostain says nothing is destroyed by LiDAR, noting that the technology maps the terrain without cutting down trees or destroying the archaeological site. “It’s just perfect.”

Whether it’s the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea or the villagers of Mexico… we adapt to our environments, we find ways to organize ourselves.-Archaeologist Jay Silverstein

Silverstein said science can indeed be destructive, because the damage created during excavations cannot be undone. This is why the use of non-destructive archeology like LiDAR is extremely important.

“We are increasingly developing non-destructive techniques that allow us to better plan our excavations to understand what we are looking at and on a large scale before we do our small-scale excavations,” he said.

The potential of humanity – and its fragility

As important as this discovery is, Silverstein cautions against making assumptions about this civilization based on first impressions.

“When I teach students or young archaeologists, I tell them that your first impression, your instinct, your feeling of what you see when you first see, is wrong,” he said .

“You can’t trust your instincts too much. You have to gather evidence.”

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In this case, Silverstein said you shouldn’t make assumptions about what the geometric shapes revealed by LiDAR represent.

“You don’t know if you’re really talking about palace squares or agricultural fields when you see a rectangular shape in the ground,” he said. “There’s a big difference in what that means when you understand this society.”

Nonetheless, these discoveries confirm humanity’s potential, Silverstein said.

“Whether we’re dealing with Highlanders in Papua New Guinea or villagers in Mexico… we adapt to our environment, we find ways to organize ourselves,” he said.

“And if we have the opportunity and the resources and the luck, we will organize and create more complex societies and we will figure out how to better manage our water and build roads and build houses.”

There may be a dark lesson to be learned from these findings, according to Silverstein: Civilization is fragile and there is no guarantee that our societies will exist in the future.

“Everyone who lived in these ancient societies thought that their society was good and that they were going to live forever, that their children and their grandchildren would live there, etc.,” he said. “But something happened and it didn’t.”

“We blithely go through life and receive our warnings of climate crisis, war and threats. But we more or less assume that we will be here tomorrow and live as we do today, until it passes. produce.”

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