Famed for its jaguars, orchids, and horrifying parasites, the Amazon is just as famous for what it lacks: human presence. For many years, the prevailing wisdom has been that throughout history, the Amazon rainforest has only been sparsely occupied by nomadic tribes. However, new evidence of permanent and complex human settlement is emerging from the forest floor. The role of these geoglyphs, trenches carved into the ground 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, are largely mysterious, but they may share characteristics with the Nazca Lines.

Researchers first became aware of the geoglyphs in the 1970s. As deforestation accelerates, more and more  of the gigantic geometric shapes are coming to light. These discoveries are helping to upend traditional notions of the Amazon as a primordial, pristine wilderness. Large portions of Amazonia may in fact be a second-growth forest that regenerated after European warfare and disease wiped out massive portions of the native population.

The first Spanish explorers to the region reported finding settled towns and cities with palisades, roads, and fortifications. Though their accounts have usually been dismissed as exaggerations, their descriptions may in fact provide an accurate portrait of a lost civilization. According to geographer William Woods, “If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it."

Image via Google Maps. For a history of the search for civilizations in the Amazon, read Finding the Lost City.

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