Up to a million people once lived in parts of the Amazon previously thought to have been uninhabited, according to new findings.
Working in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, a team led by archaeologists at the University of Exeter unearthed hundreds of villages hidden in the depths of the rainforest.
These excavations included evidence of fortifications and mysterious earthworks called geoglyphs.
The discovery supports the theory that millions of people lived in the Amazon prior to the arrival of Europeans – who eradicated much of the indigenous population through a combination of disease and warfare.
“The idea of Amazonia as a paradise that has never been touched by humans is not true,” Dr Jonas Gregorio de Souza, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter said.
In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Gregorio de Souza and his colleagues describe their exploration of a 1800 km stretch of southern Amazonia that was occupied by pre-Columbian “earth-building cultures” until around 1500.
Researchers have traditionally assumed ancient Amazonian communities stuck close to the region’s river systems.
Early estimates for the population of the Amazon prior to the arrival of Europeans were therefore fairly conservative – around one million for the entire region.
However, the new findings suggest the occupation of the Amazon was far more extensive, with settlements spreading far inland.
This gives weight to recent estimates that the population of the region was closer to ten million at the time of European arrival.
As with other parts of the Amazon and South America as a whole, the arrival of Europeans in the form of Portuguese explorers and colonisers likely led to the collapse of these once-flourishing societies.
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