Drones to scan for evidence of ancient civilizations in Amazonia

Scientists seek to detect earthworks and geoglyphs beneath the canopy of vegetation in the search for evidence of complex ancient human settlements in the Amazon rainforest.

A UK-led initiative to scan the Amazon rainforest for new signs of ancient settlements was announced at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. The project, which has already been awarded $1.9m grant from the European Research Council, will include conducting laser scans via drone.

A major goal of the project is to understand the extent to which pre-Columbian populations built and flourished as far back as 3,000 years prior to the arrival of Europeans.

More than 400 geoglyphs have already been exposed by deforestation, suggesting collective, organized human behavior—an argument that has been an ongoing debate within New World archaeology.

“Although humans have lived in Amazonia for the last 13,000 years, until recently, the long-accepted paradigm has been one of a noble savage living in harmony with the ancient forest, with negligible impact on the forest,” said Dr. José Iriarte of the University of Exeter, the lead researcher of the project. “Such a view was widely shared, not only among archaeologists, but also by most tropical ecologists whose interpretations of the biodiversity and ecological change were based on the assumption that this forest environment was largely pristine.” 

But, “based on mounting archaeological evidence that suggest the presence of complex Amazonian societies,” Iriarte continued, “at the other end of the spectrum are those that propose that the Amazon Basin was densely populated, perhaps up to 10 million inhabitants, and so intensively managed that by 1492 there was no such thing as  a “virgin forest”— instead, it was a cultural parkland.” 


geoglyphsamazonGeoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area, Acre. Site dated to c. AD 1283. Sanna Saunaluoma, Wikimedia Commons


Among other objectives, Iriarte hopes to test this idea of large, complex and hierarchical societies in the Amazon, known as the “cultural parkland hypothesis’, by conducting an intensive study of four distinct regions across the Amazon, implementing a battery of state-of-the-art techniques from the social and natural sciences, including archaeology, archaeobotany, ethnohistory, and paleoecology, in conjunction with remote sensing technology. Most notably, he and his team will be mounting LiDAR and multi-spectral sensors on UAVs (drones) beginning in the Fall of 2015 to scan large areas, comparing what they find to landscapes with areas already known to exhibit evidence of anthropogenic (human) manipulation of the landscape.

“It is only by applying this interdisciplinary approach that we can provide a holistic understanding of the origins of the modern Amazonian landscapes,” said Iriarte.

Even if and when Iriarte and his team come up with strong evidence supporting the ‘cultural parklands hypothesis’, they also hope to find answers to some other key questions. Issues of conservation and sustainability play a salient role.

“How did the 1492 Columbian encounter affect these landscapes and cultures?” asks Iriarte. “And did pre-Columbian land use have a lasting affect on the modern forest and, if so, how does the knowledge of the legacy of Late pre-Columbian groups inform modern conservation and sustainable agricultural practices for the future of the Amazon and other tropical regions of the world?” 

Irarte suggests that the outcome of the project could potentially guide policy-making in terms of land management and sustainability, and influence many other decisions that could otherwise be insufficiently informed without understanding past human management of the landscape. 


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