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Letter From Peru

Connecting Two Realms

Archaeologists rethink the early civilizations of the Amazon

Monday, June 12, 2017

Spiral Temples Montegrande


The Amazon jungle wasn’t supposed to have been the site of something this big. The mound, known locally as Montegrande, spans more than two acres at its base and stands as tall as a five-story building. It sits today amid rice paddies and cow pastures outside the Peruvian city of Jaén. Although it was overgrown with bushes and taken for a natural hill by people living nearby, the few archaeologists who had ventured to this remote corner of the western Amazon basin could not ignore the fact that it bore the features of an ancient burial mound: It had steep sides and a round shape, and there are no other hills around it.


When archaeologist Quirino Olivera began excavating Montegrande (“big hill”) in 2010, he discovered that it was not only bigger, but also much older, than anyone had imagined. Once the vegetation had been cleared, he found pottery from a 1,000-year span of history near the surface. But just a few feet down, the ceramics disappeared, and Olivera began seeing evidence of architecture on an enormous scale. He uncovered sections of a long, semicircular wall, nine feet tall and coated in beige plaster, that was reached by a staircase made of boulders and packed earth. Later digging seasons, in 2012 and 2016, revealed a wide platform on the mound’s eastern side that would have faced the rising sun. The depth and form of the structure and the absence of ceramics signaled that the mound dates from the late preceramic era, some 3,000 years ago. It could only have been built by an organized, complex society with hierarchies of workers and an agricultural scheme robust enough to feed them. It would have to have been the kind of society that, according to standing theories, had not yet spread from the cool Pacific coast—where the first known cities of the Americas were already thriving—over the Andes and into the Amazon. And yet, only eight miles from the Marañón River, a large Amazon tributary, the mound conveyed a sense of permanence. Nothing this big, this old, had ever been excavated in Peru’s Amazon region. “It showed that complex worship, monumental architecture, and fixed societies had spread to the Amazon centuries earlier than once believed,” says Olivera. “The structure is saying: ‘We’re here. We live in a settled society.’” But was it the only one of its kind?


Archaeologists’ understanding of how people lived in the Amazon in ancient times has undergone a radical change in the last few decades. The old consensus was that the soil was too poor to support long-term settlement. It was thought that people moved from place to place, burning the forest and growing crops until the environment became too depleted, at which point they repeated the process. No one had found large ancient architecture in the Amazon, and its apparent absence supported the view that the area was sparsely populated and had no cities and that its people created little material culture beyond simple pottery. Spanish colonial accounts of big towns, thickly settled farmland, and flotillas of riverboats were seen as lies or exaggerations. This view, supported by research on the basin’s meager soil and mineral endowments, was promoted by the distinguished archaeologist Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution, who had worked mostly in Brazil and Ecuador from the 1940s almost until her death in 2012.


Meggers’ theory of Amazonian settlement applied mainly to the humid lowlands, but archaeologists working on the forested slopes of the Amazon’s western edge, where it meets the Andes, did not find evidence that contradicted her view. In the 1970s, Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solís excavated four sites near the town of Bagua, only 30 miles east of Jaén, and identified telltale signs of small-scale farming and pottery production, but, apart from a few minor mounds, no architecture on a scale that would indicate large, sedentary populations. Another researcher, Felipe Rojas Ponce, uncovered finely carved stone bowls at Huayurco, at the forested confluence of the Chinchipe and Tabaconas Rivers, but, again, no major public structures. The Amazon was seen as “the antithesis of culture,” says Ecuadoran archaeologist Francisco Valdéz, a place where a misguided “environmental determinism held that the soil was incapable of supporting large populations.” But scientific theses are naturally subject to revision. By the time Olivera began surveying sites for excavation, the Meggers view had already begun to crumble under the weight of fresh archaeological remains, which included mammoth ancient earthworks in Bolivia and road networks in Brazil.