by Stan Lehman
Associated Press Writer
Tue Jun 27, 11:04 PM ET
ABCNews Website / from
SAO PAULO, Brazil - 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 rainforest inhabitants were more sophisticated than
Granite blocks are seen in
Amapa, Brazil, on May 10, 2006. A grouping of 127
granite blocks along a grassy Amazon hilltop may be the
vestiges of South America's oldest astronomical
observatory, according to archeologists who say the find
challenges long-held assumptions about the region's
The blocks, some standing
as high as 3 meters (9 feet), are spaced at regular
intervals around the hill like a crown some 30 meters
(100-feet)in diameter, near the village of Calcoene just
north of the equator near the coast of Amapa state, which
borders with French Guyana in far northern Brazil. (AP
Photo/GOVERNO DE AMAPA, Gilmar Nascimento)
The 127 blocks, some as high as 9 feet tall, are spaced at regular
intervals around the hill, like a crown 100 feet in diameter.
On the shortest day of the year — Dec. 21 — the shadow of one of the
blocks, which is set at an angle, disappears.
"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. "We may be also looking at the remnants of a
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 rainforest may have been more sophisticated than previously
"Transforming this kind of knowledge
into a monument; the transformation of something ephemeral into
something concrete, could indicate the existence of a larger
population and of a more complex social organization," Cabral
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.
Last month, archaeologists working on a hillside north of Lima,
Peru, announced the discovery of the oldest astronomical observatory
in the Western Hemisphere — giant stone carvings, apparently 4,200
years old, that align with sunrise and sunset on Dec. 21.
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." 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.
Scientists not involved in the discovery said it could prove
valuable to understanding pre-Columbian societies in the Amazon.
"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
"The traditional image is that some
time thousands of years ago small groups of tropical forest
horticulturists arrived in the area and they never changed —
(that) what we see today is just like it was 3,000 years ago,"
Heckenberger said. "This is one more thing that suggests
that through the past thousands of years, societies have changed
quite a lot."