In 1541, the Spanish Conquistador Franscisco Pizarro started up the Amazon river looking for the fabled El Dorado--the city of gold. Running out of food, he sent a party ahead, led by Francisco de Orellana and Friar Gaspar de Carvajal. Two years later, Orellana's crew came out on the Atlantic side of South America and returned to Spain.
Orellana and Carvajal had an interesting tale to tell when they returned. They met thousands of people along the Amazon river. They saw great walled cities, met and were attacked by huge parties of people, obtained abundant food. They said they walked on prepared highways that were 60 feet wide. Nobody believed them: and Carvajal's manuscript lay unpublished for 300 years. Even after it was published, scientists thought it was crazy.
The Amazon basin, it was believed, was not able to support cities. The soil was thin and acidic, and the people who lived there in the 19th and 20th centuries were hunter-fisher-himgatherers.
However, archaeological investigation by Michael Heckenberger and Eduardo Goes Neves have revealed that there are, indeed, remnants of ancient cities in the Amazon, and there is fertile ground, and there are highways 60 feet wide.
- PBS: The Search for El Dorado
- Buy the Lost Cities of the Amazon, direct from NatGeo.
- Lost Cities of the Amazon will premiere on Thursday, November 20, 2008, 9 pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. Check local listings.
The information that fully agricultural societies had been extant in the Amazon basin between 0-1500 AD sent a shockwave through the archaeological community, such that the literature won't fit on this page. In addition, Heckenberger and his associates have published widely on the societies. That literature is gathered in an associated bibliography.