The ancient people who reshaped the Amazon

In a stretch of the Bolivian Amazon known as the Llanos de Moxos, the sultry port of Loma Suárez takes its name from a notorious rubber baron who built a mansion and ranch beside a loma (hill) overlooking the Ibare River. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Nicolás Suárez and his brothers were among the richest – and most ruthless – people in Bolivia, ruling over a vast swathe of the Amazon Basin with terrifying violence, according to my guide Lyliam González. “They owned everything around here,” she said.

The eponymous hill is now topped with a mausoleum for one of the brothers, Rómulo – but I was more interested in the grassy mound itself. Around 10m in height, with a dirt path and a cluster of trees at the base, it appeared natural and nondescript. Yet it is actually man-made, one of thousands of earthworks built by remarkable but little-known ancient societies.

The Amazon prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492 is commonly depicted as a pristine wilderness dotted with small, simple communities. The Llanos de Moxos (or “Mojos”) elegantly rebuts this notion. Spanning 120,000 sq km of tropical savannah, rainforest and snaking waterways in north-east Bolivia, the region – which is roughly the size of England – has been inhabited for 10,000 years, initially by hunter-gatherer communities. Around 1000 BCE, more complex societies started to develop.

In response to the highly challenging environment – including dramatic seasonal floods – these people built networks of earthwork structures: hills; elevated residential and ceremonial platforms; raised fields to protect against rising water levels; plus causeways, canals, aqueducts and reservoirs. Pioneering US archaeologist Kenneth Lee – who first visited the region in the 1950s while working for Shell and ended up dedicating his life to the study of the earthworks (a museum in the nearby city of Trinidad, the Museo Etnoarqueológico Kenneth Lee, now bears his name) – estimated there were as many as 20,000 earthworks, with the largest villages home to 2,000 people or more.

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