Monday, July 4, 2011

The Lost Cities of the Amazon

Remember the tales of El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold, the South American Shangri-La?

If only we could trace the legend back, and find out who started it.
That individual, whoever he was (I’m assuming it was a he) has a lot to answer for.

Five hundred years ago,  Francisco de Orellana, the Spanish explorer, travelled the length of the Amazon River searching for it.
He didn’t find it.
But he did survive.
And, in that, he was lucky.
Because many hundreds, perhaps thousands, – didn’t.

The legend arose in the sixteenth century and persisted, in one form or another, right down to the third decade of the twentieth.

The conquistadors of the mid-1500’s exchanged tales of causeways and grand roads, of great cities, of thousands upon thousands of Indians, and of heaps and heaps of gold.

And I have written earlier in this space about Percy Fawcett and his mysterious disappearance:

That was in 1925.
Fawcett’s El Dorado was a place he called The Lost City of Z.
He lost his life trying to prove it existed.

Back in those days, mankind was still engaged with one of the most monumental tasks in history, mapping the world. 

And vast swaths of it remained unexplored, forming a fertile environment in which rumor and legend could grow.

But, as time went by, and the men (and women) who followed Fawcett found nothing but sweltering jungle, poisonous snakes, primitive tribesmen and disease-carrying bugs, the idea of a great civilization hidden in the heart of the Amazon began to fall into disrepute.

Scientists declared that the region could never have supported an advanced civilization.  They began to look upon the Amazon Rainforest as nothing more than a wasteland, a sort of verdant Sahara. The existence of El Dorado came to be regarded as just about as likely as the existence of Atlantis.

But then, after about a hundred years of believing the maps were complete, and a hundred years of archeologists telling us there was nothing there, guess what?

Turns out, there was.

Okay, okay, it may be a bit fanciful to equate the recent discoveries in Kuhikugu with El Dorado.

But one thing is for certain: they’ve shot the hell out of a lot of theories.

Michael Heckenberger is a professor of historical anthropology at the University of Florida.

In recent years he’s been excavating there.

And has hypothesized that Kuhikugu might possibly have given rise to the legend? 

Could be.

But, in reality, there wasn’t one settlement in the heart of the Amazon; there were more than twenty.

They covered an area of almost 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles ) and had a total population in the neighborhood of 50,000.

The settlements were built around large, circular plazas and surrounded by enormous ditches.
They were linked by a number of roads, and those roads were constructed in a carefully-organized, gridlike pattern.

According to carbon dating, the civilization flourished from about 200 AD up until around 1600 when diseases brought into the new world by Europeans, virtually wiped them out.

They lived, according to Heckenberger, in an area more akin to a large park than an untouched rainforest.
They built in wood, rather than stone.
They bridged a number of great rivers.
They built moats in wetland areas.
And they cultivated vast tracts of land.

Okay, we’re not talking about the Roman Empire here, or even the Mayan.

But, considering the way most of the world lived back then, it’s still  pretty impressive.

And, until the modern age, the achievements of the people who once lived in Kuhikugu have remained unsurpassed in the region.

Leighton - Monday


  1. I find it fascinating that when explorers discover virgin territory, the impetus is hoards of gold.

    "They lived, according to Heckenberger, in an area more akin to a large park than an untouched rainforest.
    They built in wood, rather than stone.
    They bridged a number of great rivers.
    They built moats in wetland areas.
    And they cultivated vast tracts of land."

    This is a testimony to man's ingenuity rather than his greed. Coming upon the artifacts, in situ, of a real community is endlessly fascinating. Imagination can run wild thinking about the lives that played out right where the anthropologist is standing.

    I keep referring to Rome because I am not well - traveled but in that city I took a tour of what was a pre-Christian community that was discovered under St.Peter's. I stood on a street outside the home of an Egyptian family, traders, who represented the family business there before Julius Caesar met Cleopatra. Think of what those stones could tell!

    Far more exciting than gold and worth more in the long run.


  2. Jun, my husband, was entranced with this Leighton. Brilliant post, he instructs me to tell you and more on lost cities please - Cara

  3. I've been sadly remiss in learning about South America, but I am certainly learning about Brazil from you, and it is breathtaking in its beauty, and history, and of course, shocking in its poverty and cruelty. Thank you for these posts.

  4. Hi Cara,
    Say hello, for me, to Jun.
    And tell him I'll try to oblige sometime soon.

  5. Leighton, I study South American history every day, and the richness of its past still amazes me. You teach me so much! Thanks again and again.

  6. It's mutual, Annamaria.
    You've taught me as well.
    I can't wait for your next book!

  7. Great post, Leighton. The Lost City is one of the indelible myths, and I think very few of us are immune to it.

  8. Hi Leighton - thank you, it is too late for me to become an archiologist - although I hope to some day be able to spell it correctly - but this piece hit the spot. I am such a sucker for old mysteries. Thanks again.


  9. Terrific piece, Leighton. Too bad Ronald Coleman never got to see it. It might have saved him a trip.