Ancient Builders of the Amazon | Full Documentary | NOVA | PBS

NOVA PBS Official
15 Feb 202353:32
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TLDRRecent archaeological discoveries are reshaping our understanding of the ancient Amazon, revealing sophisticated civilizations that thrived thousands of years ago. The script describes the uncovering of vast agricultural systems, urban centers, and monumental architecture, challenging previous assumptions of the Amazon as a pristine wilderness. It highlights the work of archaeologists like Michael Heckenberger and Carla Jaimes, who have found evidence of intensive agriculture and urban planning in the Llanos de Mojos. The use of lidar technology has been pivotal in uncovering hidden settlements and structures, such as the 5,000-year-old pyramid at Monte Grande. These findings not only rewrite the history of complex societies in South America but also emphasize the sustainable relationship ancient Amazonians had with their environment, a lesson relevant to the current challenges of preserving the rainforest.

  • 🌳 The ancient Amazon was once thought to be a pristine wilderness with no significant civilization, but new discoveries are challenging this notion.
  • πŸ™οΈ Archaeologists are now uncovering evidence of vast ancient agricultural systems, urban centers, and monumental architecture in the Amazon, indicating advanced societies that transformed the landscape.
  • πŸ‘₯ The traditional view of the Amazon as home to only small, mobile groups has been upended by findings of large, stable populations capable of constructing complex structures.
  • 🌾 Ancient Amazonian societies practiced intensive agriculture, creating raised terraces to protect crops from floodwaters and using unique soil management techniques.
  • 🏺 The discovery of pottery and tools suggests that these societies had developed a range of basic technologies and were not merely hunter-gatherers.
  • 🏰 Lidar technology has revolutionized the study of the Amazon, revealing hidden outlines of ancient settlements and urban complexes beneath the dense rainforest.
  • πŸ” Archaeologists like Carla Jaimes and Michael Heckenberger are leading the way in uncovering the ancient history of the Amazon and challenging long-held assumptions.
  • 🌎 The Amazon was home to multiple distinct cultures with unique styles, such as the builders of the Monte Grande pyramid in Peru, which predates the pyramids of Egypt.
  • 🧬 The study of ancient Amazonian societies is not only reshaping our understanding of the past but also informing present-day Indigenous communities' efforts to preserve their heritage and rights.
  • 🌿 The ancient Amazonians' relationship with the rainforest was one of active management and coexistence, a model that contrasts with the destructive practices of modern deforestation.
  • πŸ“š Archaeological findings in the Amazon are supporting Indigenous claims to the land and helping to reconstruct the rich history and cultural identity of Indigenous peoples.
Q & A
  • What was the long-held assumption about the ancient Amazon by historians and archaeologists?

    -Historians and archaeologists long assumed that the ancient Amazon was a wilderness with no civilization, barely any people, and nature untouched by human hand.

  • What recent discoveries have challenged the old assumptions about the ancient Amazon?

    -Recent discoveries have revealed huge ancient agricultural systems, urban centers over a thousand years old, and mysterious monumental architecture, indicating the existence of complex societies in the ancient Amazon.

  • What is the significance of the Llanos de Mojos in the Bolivian Amazon for archaeology?

    -The Llanos de Mojos is significant because it is the site of extensive archaeological research revealing the remnants of an ancient culture, including geometric markings, raised terraces, and earthworks that suggest intensive agriculture and complex societies.

  • How did the ancient people of the Llanos de Mojos protect their crops from floodwaters?

    -The ancient people of the Llanos de Mojos constructed raised terraces, which were large, geometrically shaped earthworks that helped protect their crops from floodwaters.

  • What is the significance of the Cotoca mound in the Llanos de Mojos?

    -The Cotoca mound is significant because it was revealed through lidar technology to be a collection of mounds forming an urban complex, challenging the notion that there were no cities in the pre-Columbian Amazon.

  • What does the discovery of the 70-foot pyramid at Cotoca suggest about the ancient Amazonian societies?

    -The 70-foot pyramid at Cotoca suggests that the ancient Amazonian societies had civic ceremonial constructions and possibly administrative functions, indicating a level of social organization and complexity not previously acknowledged.

  • How did the ancient Amazonians transform the landscape to support agriculture?

    -The ancient Amazonians created terra preta, a rich dark earth, by composting ash, crushed bones, pottery shards, and vegetable refuse into the soil around their communities, transforming acidic jungle sands and clays into fertile soil capable of sustaining intensive agriculture.

  • What evidence suggests that the ancient Amazonians managed the rain forest?

    -Evidence of ancient forest management by Amazonians includes the gathering of certain trees in groves for occasional harvesting, the propagation of specific species in concentrated areas, and the creation of a semi-domesticated landscape that was shaped by human actions without destroying the forest.

  • What is the significance of the Monte Grande site in Peru?

    -Monte Grande is significant because it contains a massive pyramid built over 5,000 years ago, which predates the pyramids of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This site rewrites the history of complex societies in South America and highlights the importance of Amazonian Indigenous people in the cultural history of the continent.

  • How has the recent archaeological work in the Amazon affected Indigenous communities today?

    -Recent archaeological work has helped Indigenous communities reclaim their history and establish their rights to the land. It has also brought together scientists and Indigenous people in a common cause to oppose the destruction of the Amazon and has given archaeology extra relevance to Indigenous people by reminding them of what was lost due to colonization.

  • What lessons can be learned from the ancient Amazonian civilizations about coexistence with the rain forest?

    -The ancient Amazonian civilizations demonstrate that humanity and the rain forest can coexist sustainably. They managed the forest without destroying it, domesticated and cultivated a variety of plants, and created a semi-domesticated landscape that supported their societies for millennia.

🌳 Rediscovering the Ancient Amazon

Historians and archaeologists once believed the Amazon was an untouched wilderness. Recent discoveries have revealed the existence of complex ancient societies with agricultural systems, urban centers, and monumental architecture. These findings challenge previous assumptions and reshape our understanding of Amazonian history.

🏞️ The Llanos de Mojos: A Hidden History

Bolivian archaeologist Carla Jaimes has uncovered evidence of ancient culture in the Llanos de Mojos. Her research has identified raised terraces for agriculture and earthworks mistaken for natural hills, suggesting a society that actively transformed the landscape. The discovery of pottery and artifacts indicates a population that used local resources creatively.

🏺 Lidar Reveals an Ancient Urban Complex

The use of lidar technology in the Amazon has led to the discovery of a vast urban complex at Cotoca, consisting of multiple mounds and structures. This challenges the notion that the pre-Columbian Amazon lacked urbanism. The complex, which includes a 70-foot pyramid, suggests a society with advanced social organization and ceremonial practices.

🌐 Indigenous Continuity and the Legacy of the Ancient Amazon

The archaeological work in the Amazon is not only uncovering the past but also empowering Indigenous communities today. By involving Indigenous people in the research process and sharing findings locally, archaeologists are helping to reclaim and preserve cultural heritage. The discoveries also support Indigenous land rights and highlight the sustainable relationship ancient societies had with the rainforest.

🏞️ The First Amazonians and Their Impact

Archaeologist Gaspar Morcote has found evidence of some of the earliest humans in the Amazon, dating back 12,600 years. These early inhabitants left behind tools, food remnants, and rock art, indicating a deep connection with the natural world. The discovery of these ancient pathways and settlements provides a timeline for human arrival in the region and sheds light on the evolution of Amazonian societies.

🌾 Agriculture and the Creation of Terra Preta

Despite the naturally infertile soils of the Amazon, early inhabitants developed agriculture and created terra preta, a rich, dark earth through composting. This soil, combined with the cultivation of root crops like manioc, supported dense populations and complex societies. The ancient Amazonians' agricultural practices were sophisticated and adapted to their environment, leading to a semi-domesticated landscape that has influenced the region's biodiversity.

🏺 Monte Grande: A Pyramid Older Than Egypt's

Peruvian archaeologist Quirino Olivera's excavations at Monte Grande have revealed a 5,000-year-old pyramid, predating those of Egypt. This monumental structure, with its mysterious stone spiral, challenges previous beliefs about the capabilities of ancient Amazonian societies. The pyramid's construction and the surrounding mounds suggest a society with advanced architectural skills and complex spiritual beliefs.

🌿 The Lost Civilizations and Their Legacy

The ancient Amazonian civilizations were wiped out by European diseases and violence, leading to the loss of up to eight million Indigenous lives. The once-thriving urban complexes and agricultural systems were reclaimed by the rainforest. Today, the few remaining Indigenous peoples are using archaeology to reclaim their history and assert their rights to the land, as the Amazon faces new threats from deforestation and exploitation.

🌱 A United Front for the Amazon's Future

The revelations about the ancient Amazon civilizations have brought scientists and Indigenous people together to protect the rainforest. The knowledge of past sustainable practices and the recognition of Indigenous rights are crucial in the fight against systematic destruction. The legacy of the ancient Amazonians offers hope for a future where humanity and the rainforest can coexist once again.

The Amazon refers to the vast tropical rainforest in South America, which is the largest and most biodiverse rainforest on the planet. Historically, it was believed to be an untouched wilderness with no significant human civilization. However, recent archaeological discoveries have revealed the presence of ancient Amazonian societies with complex agricultural systems and urban centers, challenging previous assumptions.
Archaeologists are scientists who study human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. In the context of the Amazon, archaeologists have played a crucial role in uncovering the hidden history of ancient civilizations that once thrived in the region, debunking the myth of the Amazon as an untouched wilderness.
Lidar is a remote sensing technology that uses laser light to measure distances and create high-resolution 3D images of the Earth's surface. In archaeology, lidar is used to digitally clear away vegetation and reveal hidden structures or landscapes beneath. The script highlights the revolutionary impact of lidar in uncovering the outlines of ancient human settlements in the Amazon, leading to groundbreaking discoveries about pre-Columbian civilizations.
πŸ’‘Terra Preta
Terra Preta, or 'dark earth' in Portuguese, is a type of soil found in the Amazon that does not exist naturally but was created by ancient inhabitants. It is rich in nutrients due to the careful composting of ash, crushed bones, pottery shards, and vegetable refuse mixed into the soil around their communities. This soil transformation allowed for intensive agriculture and the sustenance of large populations, contrary to previous beliefs about the fertility of Amazonian soils.
πŸ’‘Plant Domestication
Plant domestication refers to the process of selectively breeding and cultivating plants over a long period to develop desired traits, such as larger fruits or higher yields. In the Amazon, early inhabitants domesticated or semi-domesticated more than 80 species of plants, including manioc, cacao, tobacco, and papaya. This practice began around the same time as the Neolithic Revolution in the Middle East but led to different agricultural and societal developments in the Amazon.
πŸ’‘Indigenous People
Indigenous people are the native inhabitants of a particular region, who have a deep cultural and historical connection to their ancestral lands. In the context of the Amazon, Indigenous peoples have lived in the rainforest for millennia, and their ancestors were responsible for creating the complex societies and agricultural systems that recent archaeological findings have uncovered. Today, Indigenous communities continue to live in the Amazon and are increasingly engaged in efforts to protect their lands and cultural heritage.
πŸ’‘Urban Complexes
Urban complexes refer to interconnected networks of human settlements, including towns and villages, that share social, economic, and political ties. In the Amazon, the discovery of urban complexes challenges the traditional view of the region as a wilderness devoid of significant human development. These ancient urban centers were part of a sophisticated system that supported large populations and complex societies.
πŸ’‘Forest Management
Forest management refers to the intentional care and control of forest ecosystems to achieve specific goals, such as enhancing biodiversity, maintaining soil fertility, or supporting human livelihoods. Ancient Amazonians practiced forest management by cultivating certain trees in groves and transforming the landscape into a semi-domesticated environment that supported their agricultural practices and way of life.
πŸ’‘Cultural Heritage
Cultural heritage encompasses the tangible and intangible aspects of a society's past and present, including historical sites, artifacts, traditions, and knowledge. For Indigenous Amazonian communities, their cultural heritage is deeply connected to the land and the legacy of their ancestors. The recent archaeological discoveries in the Amazon have helped to reaffirm their historical presence and rights to the land, as well as to restore and preserve their cultural identity.
πŸ’‘Environmental Impact
Environmental impact refers to the effects that human activities have on the natural environment, including changes to ecosystems, biodiversity, and land use. The ancient Amazonian societies demonstrate a model of living in harmony with the environment through sustainable agricultural practices and forest management. In contrast, the modern-day destruction of the Amazon rainforest for mining, agriculture, and other uses has had severe environmental consequences, highlighting the importance of learning from the past to inform present-day conservation efforts.

Historians and archaeologists once believed the Amazon was an untouched wilderness with no significant civilization.

Recent discoveries have revealed the existence of ancient Amazonian agricultural systems, urban centers, and monumental architecture.

The ancient Amazon had complex societies that reshaped the landscape with extensive agricultural systems.

Archaeologist Carla Jaimes has uncovered evidence of ancient culture in the Llanos de Mojos region of the Bolivian Amazon.

Ancient raised terraces, possibly built to protect crops from flooding, suggest intensive agriculture in the Amazon.

Lidar technology is revolutionizing archaeology by revealing hidden outlines of ancient human settlements beneath the Amazon forest.

The discovery of a large mound called Cotoca in 2019, indicated the presence of an ancient urban complex in the Amazon.

The Amazon was home to complex societies that did not fit the standard model of urban societies based on Western historical experiences.

Archaeologist Gaspar Morcote has found stunning paintings left by some of the first humans in the Amazon, dating back 12,600 years.

Ancient Amazonians domesticated or semi-domesticated more than 80 species of plants, paralleling the Neolithic Revolution in the Middle East.

The creation of 'terra preta', a rich dark earth, allowed ancient Amazonians to sustain intensive agriculture despite the naturally infertile Amazonian soils.

Ancient Amazonians managed the rain forest, gathering certain trees in groves and creating a semi-domesticated landscape.

The Monte Grande site in Peru reveals a massive pyramid over 5,000 years old, challenging previous beliefs about the Amazon's ancient inhabitants.

The pyramid at Monte Grande is considered a tomb of a religious leader and embodies profound beliefs about life, death, and the cosmos.

The history and achievements of ancient Amazonian civilizations are being unearthed, challenging the narrative of them as mere hunter-gatherers.

The scale of the destruction brought by European conquest has given archaeology's exploration of the past extra relevance to Indigenous people today.

Indigenous communities are using archaeology to reclaim their history and support their rights to the land in the face of ongoing deforestation and exploitation.

The ancient Amazonian civilizations' ability to coexist with the rain forest for millennia offers a lesson for humanity's potential future relationship with the Amazon.

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