Scanning Tech Helps Archaeologists Find Amazonian “Mound Villages”

radial settlements connected by human-made causeways discovered in amazon

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Laser scanners helped archaeologists find “mound villages” in the Amazon, Science Alert reported. The villages are arranged in circular formation and could date back to 1700 BCE. Amazonian landscape archaeology is a burgeoning field.

Amazon river with fields and land in aerial view
Landscape archaeology allows modern archaeologists to assess, interpret, and analyze archaeological finds as they determine how to separate out the landscape from the ancient structures. Photo By Alexandr Vorobev / Shutterstock

According to Science Alert, archaeologists are using some recent technology to help them unveil hidden wonders of the Amazon. “Using remote laser scanners mounted on helicopters, archaeologists have been able to peer below the forest canopy of the Amazon, revealing the layouts and links of ancient villages laid out like clock faces,” the article said.

“While these so-called mound villages had been spotted before, the new surveying technology has revealed exactly how they were organized at scale, and the data were gathered without the need for laborious work and excavation on the ground.”

New discoveries are happening all the time in the Amazon. Using landscape archaeology as a practice of discovery only dates back to the 1990s and it yields new findings often.

The Erickson Survey

Petroleum engineers in the 1960s were flying over a part of northeastern Bolivia when they thought they saw man-made mounds and causeways on the ground below. Archaeologists went to the site on foot and confirmed it, but that was only the first step.

“The extent to which they covered the area was not fully understood until the 1990s when University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Clark Erickson began a formal survey of the area, an area called the Beni, specifically,” said Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center. “Erickson found that there were thousands of mounds, and there were thousands of kilometers of raised causeways connecting them.

“Hundreds of square miles had been altered by human hands, and it was as early as 800 CE.”

Dr. Barnhart said that Erickson used landscape archaeology, which is when archaeologists try to see the bigger picture of human impact over an entire landscape, rather than standard excavation. Erickson’s findings were historical, including raised field agriculture, zigzagging walls, large and small mounds connected by proper causeways, and canals that boats used for travel.

Radial Settlements

One of Erickson’s findings included settlements or villages arranged in circular patterns, much like those uncovered through laser scanners. Erickson and his team found large mounds with causeways leading out in radial patterns to smaller areas.

“The Beni has large mounds, and they’re called forest islands,” Dr. Barnhart said. “They’re the epicenter of these large causeways with smaller mounds connected by smaller causeways. We see a big mound, a couple of big causeways, and then off of those are little causeways going to little mounds.”

In a way, they look like the spokes on a wheel. Dr. Barnhart said they’re probably chiefdoms that had populations radiating out from their centers with one community connected to another by the longer causeways, which Erickson found during his expedition.

The causeways were especially impressive because they number in the thousands, he said. The major ones spanned several miles in length. Minor causeways that connected the smaller mounds to the larger mounds were likely families who had built their own sort of ancient driveways straight to the city center.

Archaeologists are making new discoveries in the Amazon all the time thanks to careful excavation and new technologies.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Edwin Barnhart contributed to this article. Dr. Barnhart is director of the Maya Exploration Center. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin and has over 20 years of experience in North, Central, and South America as an archaeologist, explorer, and instructor.