The Amazonian Geoglyphs: A Window onto an Ancient Landscape

Brazil currently has one of the most vibrant economies in the world. As well as the obvious benefit to Brazilian society, this has had some detrimental effects: the Amazon rainforest is steadily being cleared by encroaching populations and the hunger for wood and land. However, the cleared land has revealed something unusual: etched into the earth in some parts of the Amazon basin are massive lines and embankments. These have baffled researchers who had previously considered the Amazon basin to be a pristine, untouched landscape. The Amazonian “geoglyphs” have attracted considerable international attention, and are the basis for full-time research from some Brazilian archeologists.

Geoglyphs are fairly common across the globe. Some of the more notable examples are the “White Horse” in Uffington, Great Britain, and those created by Native Americans who lived long ago in the Great Basin Desert of the southwestern United States. The most famous, prominent, and complex geoglyphs, however, are certainly the Nazca Lines in Peru. These were discovered in modern times when the first planes flew over the Nazca Desert. The pilots were astonished to see below them gigantic images and geometric lines. The forms included a monkey, a spider, a hummingbird, and many other creatures, some of them recognizable from local pottery decoration. There are hundreds of designs, made by scratching through the dark surface of the desert floor to the lighter material below. The designs are so huge that they are not discernible from the ground — the largest is more than 200 meters across.

Maria Reiche, who spent most of her life charting and deciphering the lines, concluded that they served an astronomical purpose, and were oriented to places where significant celestial bodies set and rose at the solstices. Reiche’s protégé, Phillis Pitluga, has demonstrated that one of the most prominent designs, the spider, is a map of the Orion constellation.

The Amazon designs are physically relatively close to the Nazca Lines. Around three hundred and twenty have so far been discovered in Brazil, and a further seventy in Bolivia. Of course, many more certainly lie under the vegetation. If deforestation continues (which is likely, despite international efforts to slow it), more lines are expected to emerge. Efforts to catalogue and preserve the geoglyphs are now underway, though the effort is hampered by the rapid expansion of farming. Many of the glyphs are now sundered by roads and other modern features.

Though the lines are associated with ancient settlements, they appear not to be fortifications, as was originally thought. Instead, researchers have concluded that they probably served some sort of ceremonial or scientific function, similar perhaps to Stonehenge and other ritual circles in Europe and around the Mediterranean. According to radiocarbon dating, the lines are around 2,000 years old, and were rebuilt a number of times in the intervening years. Of course, it is possible that the original plans stem from much longer before.

Unlike the Nazca Lines and other prominent geoglyphs, the Amazonian lines do not obviously represent figures. They are mostly geometric in form: diamonds, rectangles, ovals and circles. Their precision, however, has startled researchers. The conclusion is that their creators must have used highly sophisticated sighting methods to create such vast shapes with such accuracy.

The discovery of the geoglyphs has completely upended the traditional views of the history of South America. While Central America hosted the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and the western coast of South America was home to the highly organized Incas, the Amazon basin has traditionally been viewed as a cultural backwater, forested since the dawn of humanity. Now it is clear that the landscape as recently as a thousand years ago looked very different. Charles C. Mann, an author who writes about pre-Colombian America notes that the discovery indicates that the Amazon basin was “much more thickly populated than previously thought.” In a New York Times interview, he commented that “these people purposefully modified their environment in long-lasting ways.”

It is clear that the coming years will be exciting for archeologists in the region. A Brazilian scientist interviewed by the New York Times, Tiago Juruá, says, “This is a new frontier for exploration and science. The challenge now is to make more discoveries in forests that are still standing, with the hope that they won’t soon be destroyed.”

[ image: University of Exeter ]

Author of No Solid Ground: Renewable Contentment and Sustainable Happiness in an Age of Uncertainty.

Author of No Solid Ground: Renewable Contentment and Sustainable Happiness in an Age of Uncertainty.