The ancient people who reshaped the Amazon

This year, cutting-edge research shed new light on the earthwork-builders. In May, a group of archaeologists and scientists from Germany and the UK published the results of a survey that used laser-scanning technology to examine the south-eastern Llanos de Moxos. In a paper in Nature, they describe a form of “low-density urbanism” that bears comparison with contemporary – and better known – Andean societies, such as the Tiwanaku empire, whose eponymous capital now lies in ruins near Lake Titicaca. (A strong influence on the Inca, the Tiwanaku once dominated a vast area spanning much modern-day Bolivia, southern Peru, north-east Argentina and northern Chile.)

The team found several sites built by the Casarabe culture (circa 500-1400 CE), including a pair of large settlements: the construction process for the bigger of the two involved the movement of a staggering 570,000 cubic meters of earth – enough to fill 228 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The settlements featured stepped platforms that were topped, in some cases, with 22m-tall pyramids. They were also connected to neighboring communities by raised ways causing stretching for several kilometers and surrounded by canals, reservoirs and artificial lakes.

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

The scale and sophistication of the Casarabe culture and their counterparts are even more impressive when you consider the geographic and climatic challenges in the Llanos de Moxos. They also faced extreme weather phenomena – into which I got a first-hand insight. Overnight the heat and humidity ramped up before being broken by an almighty storm so powerful it rattled the walls of my guest room. It was a surazosaid Miriam over breakfast, frigid polar winds that periodically blow up from Antarctica, plunging temperatures and resulting in great downpours.

On the boat back to Loma Suárez – numb from the cold, lashed by raindrops resembling hailstones – I felt a fresh sense of respect for the ancient societies of the Llanos de Moxos, who not only carved out an existence here, but managed to flourish.

Shafik Meghji is the author of Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia

BBC Travel’s Lost Civilizations delves into little-known facts about past worlds, dispelling any false myths and narratives that have previously surrounded them.

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