25 Jan

Map of the Week: Lost Amazonian City Found in Ecuador

By: Phoebe Hill

This map displays the sprawling remains of a recently discovered ancient agrarian city situated in the Upano Valley in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Using data from the novel remote sensing technology – light detection and range (LiDAR) – researchers were able to compile a clear picture of 300 km2 of the Upano Valley, a region where the Andean and Amazonian ecosystems meet. The findings, in conjunction with two decades of interdisciplinary research, revealed a sprawling, heavily anthropogenic urban landscape previously hidden beneath lush vegetation. 

More than 6,000 earthen plazas and platforms were discovered, alongside an extensive road network and lands modified for agriculture. The road system is the most notable feature, seen on the map as black dashed lines. The roads, generally running in straight lines, connected sites at a regional scale, testifying to the interconnected, organized nature of the society. Further findings show areas of mixed residential and agrarian lands, making the city the oldest and largest agrarian urban center known in the Amazon rainforest. It is believed to have been constructed about 2,500 years ago and occupied for more than 1,000 years. The population, estimated at upwards of 30,000 people, was likely supported by farming of the fertile volcanic soil, the product of the near-by Sangay stratovolcano.

This discovery contradicts long-held assumptions about civilization in the dense Jungle regions of South America. General consensus in archeology largely limited pre-hispanic human presence in the region to nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles, believing large, agrarian settlements to be constrained by the so-called difficult jungle conditions. Such large-scale, complex urban societies were thought to be limited to upland regions. The map above shows otherwise, with areas of densely concentrated settlements visible as splotches of bright red, connected to each other by roads which stretch over kilometers. Moreover, the swathes of agricultural lands, either terraced or drained, point to the agrarian nature of this amazonian civilization. 

This research is part of a slew of findings enabled by new technologies, namely LiDAR, which have helped deconstruct old scientific misconceptions regarding landscape and civilisation in the pre-hispanic Americas. Such discoveries have emphasized the extent and scale of pre-hispanic landscape modification, showing that long-standing archeological and scientific understandings, often rooted in coloniality, have overlooked the reality of complex, densely-populated, urban societies. Maps enabled by new technologies, such as the one above, help paint a more accurate picture of the many diverse civilisations which developed, thrived, and ultimately collapsed in the pre-hispanic Americas.