Network based systems

Laser imaging technology has identified a vast network of ancient cities in what is now the Bolivian Amazon


Using airborne LiDAR technology allowed scientists to map a vast network of urban settlements in the Bolivian Amazon.

According to an article published yesterday in the journal Naturethe 26 interconnected sites were built by the Casarabe culture, which occupied an area of ​​2,800 square miles between 500 and 1,400 CE

Detecting enduring evidence of these settlements has been made logistically complicated for researchers by the dense rainforest. Now researchers see the big picture and, using data captured by LiDAR, also known as light detection and ranging, have been able to digitally remove vegetation from the forest and produce a detailed model of the terrain under -lying.

Two previously known sites, Landivar and Cotoca, have been shown to be large urban centers fortified by concentric polygonal moats and connected to smaller, more distant settlements via elevated causeways up to several kilometers in length.

Other structures found include monumental civic-ceremonial architecture, such as stepped platforms, platform mounds, and conical pyramids reaching 72 feet in height. A sophisticated water management system includes reservoirs and canals connected to rivers.

The Riegl VUX-1 scanner with a Trimble APX-15 UAV GNSS, attached to the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter. Photo courtesy of H. Prümers / DAI.

In recent years, the LiDAR remote sensing method has been used to record hidden archaeological sites around the world. From a height of 650 feet, the beams that were fired over the forest bounced back, recording the distance to whatever they came in contact with. This high volume of data points was then combined by computers to produce detailed, high-resolution maps.

The degree of landscape engineering carried out by the Casabres suggests that large parts of what is now forest may have once been savannas before the arrival of European invaders. The fact that agrarian-based pre-Hispanic civilizations have been shown to live in a network of low-density urban settlements dispels the idea that this region of the Amazon was never sparsely populated. It also challenges the Westernized perception of the Amazon as untouched wilderness.

The project was a joint effort led by the German Archaeological Institute, the University of Bonn, the University of Exeter and the Ministry of Planning of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

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