Hundreds of ancient earthworks that resemble those at Stonehenge have been discovered in the Amazon rainforest. The sites, which were discovered by scientists flying drones over the area, have proved that prehistoric settlers in Brazil cleared large wooded areas in order to create the large enclosures. These findings are the first of their kind, according to recent reports, and mean that the ‘pristine’ rainforest that has been celebrated by ecologists is in fact relatively new.
The sites are located in Acre state in the western Brazilian Amazon, and were previously concealed by trees. However, due to excessive deforestation, the earthworks have been uncovered by scientists from the UK and Brazil. Archaeologists have referred to the sites as ‘geoglyphs’, and claim that they probably date back to around the year zero. Using the latest technology, the team were able to reconstruct 6,000 years of vegetation and fire history surrounding two separate enclosure sites. This included a discovery that humans have been heavily altering bamboo forests for millennia, creating clearings which were eventually made to build the geoglyphs.
The initial research around the newly uncovered area was carried out by post-doctoral researcher at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, University of São Paulo, Jennifer Watling, whilst she was studying for a PhD at the University of Exeter. Dr Watling has claimed that the sites resembled Neolithic causewayed enclosures, which are commonly found at sites which include Stonehenge in Wiltshire, the main difference being that they are more regular. Despite these understandings, the function of the sites is currently unknown. Dr Watling said, “It is likely that the geoglyphs were used for similar functions to the Neolithic causewayed enclosures, i.e. public gathering, ritual sites. It is interesting to note that the format of the geoglyphs, with an outer ditch and inner wall enclosure, are what classicly describe henge sites. The earliest phases at Stonhenge consisted of a similarly layed-out enclosure.”
Even though Stonehenge is thought to be around 2,500 years older than the geoglyphs in Brazil, researchers have claimed that it is very likely that they represent a very similar period in social development. As archaeologists have spent time excavating the area, they have concluded that the enclosures are unlikely to represent the borders of villages, and it is currently believed that they were more likely to have been used intermittently, perhaps as ritual gathering places. The reasons behind this conclusion are due to there being no defensive features, for example, there were no post holes found, indicating that there were no fences put up.
The new discovery also discredits any previous assumptions that the rainforest ecosystems was previously untouched by humans. Dr Watling said, “The fact that these sites lay hidden for centuries beneath mature rainforest really challenges the idea that Amazonian forests are ‘pristine ecosystems’. Our evidence that Amazonian forests have been managed by indigenous peoples long before European contact should not be cited as justification for the destructive, unsustainable land-use practiced today. It should instead serve to highlight the ingenuity of past subsistence regimes that did not lead to forest degradation, and the importance of indigenous knowledge for finding more sustainable land-use alternatives.”
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