Villages were linked by roads that lined up with the Sun's movement. Credit: © M. Hekenberger

The Amazon was densely populated before Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, confirms new evidence unearthed in Brazil1. The finds lay to rest the notion that the region was pristine forest when the explorer landed in 1492.

Support had been growing among archaeologists for the idea that parts of pre-Columbian Amazonia had sophisticated settlements, but hard evidence was lacking.

Now Michael Heckenberger, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, and his colleagues have excavated and mapped 19 villages, roads, trenches, bridges, agriculture, open parklands and working forests in the Upper Xingu region of central Brazil. "The folks who lived there were clearly not simple," says Heckenberger.

The area's indigenous people are still around today, but in much smaller numbers - one reason for the misconceptions about their past. "Cultural anthropologists were extrapolating backwards," explains archaeologist Jim Petersen of the University of Vermont in Burlington. "Heckenberger's work helps us understand, virtually for the first time, that there was a higher degree of cultural complexity than today."

Road map

The team mapped the area using global-positioning technology. They found a regular pattern of villages with large central plazas linked by 20-metre-wide, curbed roads that line up precisely with the movement of the Sun.

The old roads (red) show links and clusters similar to todays pathways (blue). Credit: © M. Hekenberger

This implies a complex society capable of advanced engineering. Some of the villages could have housed up to 5,000 people, Heckenberger estimates. The roads divided the region into a patchwork of cultivated land, fallow fields, open spaces and managed forest. Satellite images of the area bear the lasting stamp of this land use.

Alhough there was probably some untouched forest in the region, Heckenberger reckons that most was managed by the inhabitants and kept for cultural and symbolic, rather than economic, reasons. "It was probably very important to them just as Central Park is important to New Yorkers," he says.