Published On: December 20, 2016

Stonehenge in Brazil

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As the foreman for a cattle ranch in the far reaches of northern Brazil, a city called Calçoene in the state of Amapá, Lailson Camelo da Silva was cutting trees to convert forest into pasture when he stumbled across a bizarre arrangement of towering granite blocks.

“I had no idea that I was discovering the Amazon’s Stonehenge,” said Lailson, 65, as he gazed at the archaeological spectacle located very close to the Equator. “It makes me wonder. What other secrets about our past are still hidden in Brazil’s jungles?”

Today, experts have determined that Lailson’s discovery is in fact genuine; they are artifacts created by an indigenous culture about 1000 years ago. After conducting radiocarbon testing and carrying out measurements, scholars in the field of archaeoastronomy determined that the megaliths were deliberately arranged into an astronomical observatory, a similar conclusion reached about Stonehenge in England.

Lailson Camelo da Silva, caretaker

Lailson Camelo da Silva, caretaker

This astonishing discovery in Amapá is remarkable for several reasons. First, as Lailson said, as these huge blocks are just being analyzed now, will there be more discoveries? Second, with radiocarbon dating providing the age of the massive stones, we now know complex civilizations were living in the Amazon region five hundred years before the Portuguese arrived in Brazil.

The authentication of the granite blocks, along with other archaeological discoveries in Brazil in recent years — including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks — are changing earlier views of archaeologists who believed that the Amazon region had been untouched by humans except for small, nomadic tribes. Instead, some scholars now assert that the world’s largest tropical rain forest supported a population of as many as 10 million people before the epidemics and large-scale slaughter by European colonizers.

Back in the late 19th century, the Swiss zoologist Emílio Goeldi had spotted megaliths — large monumental stones — on an expedition along Brazil’s border with French Guiana. Other scholars, including the American archaeologist Betty Meggers, also came across such sites, but concluded that the Amazon was inhospitable to complex human settlements.

Brazil's Stonehenge?

Brazil’s Stonehenge?

“These sun stones found by Mr. da Silva near a stream called the Rego Grande are yielding clues about how people in the Amazon may have been far more sophisticated than previously assumed. We’re starting to piece together the puzzle of the Amazon Basin’s human history, and what we’re finding in Amapá is absolutely fascinating,” said Mariana Cabral, an archaeologist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, who together with her husband, João Saldanha, also an archaeologist, has studied the site in Calçoene.

Lailson says he first stumbled on the site while hunting wild boar as a teenager in the 1960s, but had subsequently avoided the area. “The place initially felt sacred, like we didn’t belong here,” he said. Lailson now guards the granite blocks as its caretaker. “But it was impossible to miss it during the deforestation drive of the ’90s, when the priority was to burn down trees.”

About 10 years ago, after securing government funds to protect the stones, Brazilian archaeologists, led by Ms. Cabral and Mr. Saldanha, began excavating the site, which measures 30 meters in diameter. There are 27 blocks of granite, each up to 4 meters tall, standing upright in a circle. They identified a river about four kilometers away where the granite blocks may have been quarried. They also found ceramic burial urns, suggesting that at least part of the site may have been a cemetery.

The couple’s colleagues from Amapá’s Institute of Scientific and Technological Research discovered that one of the tall stones seemed to be aligned with the sun’s path during the winter solstice. After identifying other points in the site where stones could be associated with the sun’s movement on the solstice, the researchers began piecing together a theory that this sacred site could have served various ceremonial and astronomical functions connected to agricultural or hunting cycles, making it a close cousin to the Stonehenge site in England.


Calçoene pottery at the Amapá State Scientific and Technological Research Institute in Macapá, Brazil.  Credit: Dado Galdieri for The New York Times

Representatives of the Palikur, an indigenous people still living today in Amapá and French Guiana, have recently stepped forward to say that their ancestors had frequented this sacred site. Ms. Cabral said that evidence of a large settlement here is not yet certain, in contrast with other sites in the Amazon like Kuhikugu, at the headwaters of the Xingu River, where researchers have drawn parallels to the legends surrounding the mythical Lost City of Z, long an irresistible lure for explorers and adventurers.

Located in the middle of the Inga River, not far from the city of Inga, stands one of the most interesting archaeological findings in Brazil. The Inga stone covers an area of two hundred and fifty square meters. It is a vertical construction 46 meters long and up to 3.8 meters high. The Inga stone displays carvings that are still today waiting to be deciphered. Researchers have found several carvings, figures, fruits, animals, and other unknown figures, but most importantly carved on the Inga stone are the Milky way and the constellation of Orion.

John McKim Malville, a solar physicist at the University of Colorado, who writes extensively on archaeoastronomy, emphasized how his field of study is moving away from focusing exclusively on astronomical functions to interpretations that include the ceremonies and rituals of ancient cultures. In that sense, the site in Calçoene offers a cryptic glimpse into Amazonia’s past. “These stones are quite extraordinary, and in their irregularity may have their own unique meaning, different from other megalithic sites around the world,” Dr. Malville said. The site reflects the importance in Amazonian cultures of animism, the attribution of a soul to entities in nature and inanimate objects. He added, “We can only speculate what these stones mean.”

[Research for this article comes from The New York Times and the Ancient Code website.]



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