Saturday science subject: Ancient rainforest settlements

Parts of the Amazonian rainforest weren't quite as pristine as everyone might think in the past. According to the New Scientist, archeologists have found evidence that an indigenous urban society had cleared and occupied "huge swathes" of the rainforest 600 years ago. Michael Heckenberger from the University of Florida found the settlements after living with the Kuikuro people in Brazil in 1993, and he reportedly returns with colleagues every year to "trace the extent of the pre-European settlements with a GPS transmitter in hand."

What has emerged from this work is a digital map of two complex and dense urban clusters, right in the heart of the jungle. The clusters are connected by roads and each has a distinct central element. In one case this is a ceremonial plaza; in the other a residential plaza.

The next largest residential centres are 3 to 5 kilometres to the south-east and north-west of each centre; slightly smaller centres are between 8 km and 10 km from the centres, to the south-west and north-east.

Each of these "towns" had its own central plaza and was protected by an earthen wall. They were surrounded by smaller, non-walled residential hamlets.

The towns, villages and hamlets were interlinked by roads, the largest of which followed the direction of the sun at the mid-year solstice.

How big are the settlements? The New Scientist says Heckenberger and his colleagues have studied two urban clusters and found evidence of another 13, altogether covering an area of "more than 20,000 square kilometres"—roughly the size of New Jersey. The New Scientist says the settlements likely disappeared following the arrival of European settlers in the early 16th century.

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