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Lost cities hidden for thousands of years discovered under forest

Researchers used laser beams to find more than a dozen lost cities in the Amazon rainforest (Picture: Stephen Rostain/AP)

Researchers used laser beams to find more than a dozen lost cities in the Amazon rainforest (Picture: Stephen Rostain/AP)© Provided by Metro

Anetwork of huge cities, hidden by lush rainforest for thousands of years, has fundamentally changed our understanding of ancient Amazon civilisations.

The groundbreaking find in Upano, eastern Ecuador, has revealed the cities – home to tens or even hundreds of thousands of people – were connected by an incredible network of roads and canals. 

French researchers, led by Professor Stephen Rostain, used a special laser technique known as LiDAR to reveal the breathtaking settlements. They are thought to be around 2,500 years old, existing around the same time as the Roman Empire and 1,000 years before any other known complex Amazonian society.

‘This is older than any other site we know in the Amazon,’ said Professor Rostain, from the National Centre for Scientific Research in France.

Speaking to the BBC, he added: ‘We have a Eurocentric view of civilisation, but this shows we have to change our idea about what is culture and civilisation.’ 

Co-author Dr Antoine Dorison added: ‘It changes the way we see Amazonian cultures. Most people picture small groups, probably naked, living in huts and clearing land – this shows ancient people lived in complicated urban societies.’ 

The platforms were arranged in groups, often around a plaza (Picture: Stephen Rostain/AP)© Provided by Metro
The team found thousands of raised platforms in the middle of the rainforest (Picture: Bordway)© Provided by Metro

To conduct their research, the team flew over an area around 116 square miles, using the LiDAR to identify the remains of at least 15 settlements. 

They found around 6,000 rectangular platforms arranged in groups of three to six, often around a plaza, in cities across the region. Most were around 20m by 10m, but some were much larger. Researchers believe they were a mix of homes and buildings used for ceremonial purposes 

Unlike the Incas and Mayans, other complex Central and South American civilisations, people in the Amazon rainforest did not have stone to build from, meaning there are no remnants of the dwellings, only the platforms cut into hillsides.

However, more striking is the extensive network of roads and canals through the rainforest connecting the cities.

What is LiDAR?

LiDAR stands for light detection and ranging.

It is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure varying distances to the Earth.

These light pulses – combined with other data recorded by the airborne system – generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics. 

Excavations also revealed household items such as jugs (Picture: Bordway)© Provided by Metro

‘The road network is very sophisticated,’ said Dr Dorison. ‘It extends over a vast distance, everything is connected. And there are right angles, which is very impressive.’

The largest roads were 10m wide and stretched for up to 12 miles. They were also generally very straight, rather than following the terrain, requiring much more time, effort and engineering. 

Dr Antoine added the roads may have had a ‘very powerful meaning’, possibly linked to their beliefs.

After identifying the cities from above, the team was then able to investigate them on the ground, unearthing pits and hearths in the platforms, and digging up items including jars. 

The discovery of the cities has changed our understanding of early Central and South American civilisations (Picture: Bordway)© Provided by Metro

Yet little is known yet about how the people lived, or how their societies worked – although the presence of ditches around some of the cities suggest there may have been conflict between groups.

The team believes the canal network allowed them to manage water and drain fields around the cities used for growing crops. 

Another mystery yet to be solved is what happened to them. One cause may be the nearby volcano, which provided fertile soil for the people living in the area, but may have also forced them to leave the valley when it erupted.

The incredible find has not only changed what we know about human history in Central and South America, but also vindicated Professor Rostain’s entire career. 

The Upano in Ecuador (Picture: Getty )© Provided by Metro
Move over Incas, there’s a new civilisation in town (Picture: Getty/500px Prime)© Provided by Metro

He said scientists warned him long ago that no ancient groups lived in the Amazon, but that did not stop him spending decades researching the region.

‘I’m very stubborn, so I did it anyway,’ he said. ‘Now I must admit I am quite happy to have made such a big discovery.

‘It was a valley of lost cities. It’s incredible.’

The study is published in the journal Science. 

Story by Katherine Fidler: Metro

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