| 1 July 2006
Did ancient Amazonians build a 'Stonehenge'?
A grouping of granite blocks along a grassy Amazon hilltop may be the vestiges of a centuries-old astronomical observatory - a find archaeologists say indicates early rain forest inhabitants were more sophisticated than previously believed. The 127 blocks, some as high as 9 feet, are spaced at regular intervals around a grassy hilltop in northern Brazil, like a crown 100 feet in diameter.
On the shortest day of the year - December 21 - the shadow of one of the blocks disappears when the sun is directly above it. "It is this block's alignment with the winter solstice that leads us to believe the site was once an astronomical observatory," said Mariana Petry Cabral, an archaeologist at the Amapa State Scientific and Technical Research Institute.
Anthropologists have long known that local indigenous populations were acute observers of the stars and sun. But the discovery of a physical structure that appears to incorporate this knowledge suggests pre-Columbian Indians in the Amazon rain forest may have been more sophisticated than previously suspected.
Cabral has been studying the site, near the village of Calcoene, just north of the equator in Amapa state in far northern Brazil, since last year. She believes it was once inhabited by the ancestors of the Palikur Indians, and while the blocks have not yet been submitted to carbon dating, she says pottery shards near the site indicate they are pre-Columbian and maybe older - as much as 2,000 years old. While the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs built large cities and huge rock structures, pre-Columbian Amazon societies built smaller settlements of wood and clay that quickly deteriorated in the hot, humid Amazon climate, disappearing centuries ago, archaeologists say.
Farmers and fishermen in the region around the Amazon site have long known about it, and the local press has dubbed it the 'tropical Stonehenge' - referring to circular arrangement of stones outside Salisbury, England. Archeologists got involved last year after geographers and geologists did a socio-economic survey of the area, by foot and helicopter, and noticed "the unique circular structure on top of the hill," Cabral said.
"No one has ever described something like this before. This is an extremely novel find -- a one of a kind type of thing," said Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida's Department of Anthropology. He said that while carbon dating and further excavation must be carried out, the find adds to a growing body of thought among archaeologists that prehistory in the Amazon region was more varied than had been believed. "Given that astronomical objects, stars, constellations etc., have a major importance in much of Amazonian mythology and cosmology, it does not in any way surprise me that such an observatory exists," said Richard Callaghan, a professor of geography, anthropology and archaeology at the University of Calgary.
Brazilian archaeologists will return in August, when the rainy season ends, to carry out carbon dating and further excavations.
Sources: Associated Press, CNN (28 June 2006), The Independent (29 June 2006)
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