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Lost Amazonian Towns Are Being Rediscovered With Google Earth

New evidence continues to demonstrate that the Amazonia was once home to hundreds of towns and millions of humans.

Archeologists continue to uncover the truth about Amazonia–that it’s not just virginal rainforest, but the long-forgotten home of an estimated 50 million people, with large networks of towns, infrastructure, and agriculture. And in some cases, these scientists are using tools available to anyone with access to satellite imagery.

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A study published this week in the journal Nature details how researchers used satellite imagery and ground exploration to unearth dozens of new fortified villages in Brazil. Led by University of Exeter archeology Ph.D student Jonas De Souza, the team estimates that between 1250 and 1500AD,  as many as one million people lived along a 1,120-mile stretch in the southern Amazonia at the head of the Tapajós river, one of the major tributaries to the Amazon.

[Image: Jonas Gregorio de Souza, et al]
Using Google Earth data, they identified dozens of earthworks, or geoglyphs, that once marked buildings. These imprints may not be visible to the naked eye, but they’re being rediscovered through satellite photos–and in some cases, technology like LIDAR, which uses laser pulses to see through vegetation. If it seems like you’ve been hearing more about the rediscovery of lost cities and structures, it may be because these technologies have led to many discoveries over the past few years–including a lost civilization in Guatemala and 200 massive geoglyphs in Kazakhstan, which were identified by an amateur sleuth using Google Earth.

[Image: Jonas Gregorio de Souza, et al]
De Souza’s paper doesn’t just detail this particular archeological discovery, though.  It proposes a predictive model for finding more of these towns using the findings and topographical data. The team’s model suggests they haven’t even found two thirds of the archeological sites in this area, and that there may be similar Pre-Columbian settlements distributed over the fluvial network that extends for about 155,000 square miles south of the largest rainforest in the world.

[Image: Jonas Gregorio de Souza, et al]
“The more [they] survey, the more [they] realize that different parts of the basin were more settled than we thought,” De Souza told New Scientist.

Much of the Amazon, long considered wild rainforest, is actually covered in vegetation that grew over agricultural land when these settlements were wiped out by disease brought by Europeans–who in 1542 chronicled cities “that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house, which was a marvelous thing to behold.” Those chronicles were thought to be fantasy tales–but the science of satellites is turning them into solid, albeit buried by nature, truth.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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