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Unlocking Ancient Myth and Mystery: The value of spatial science in the search for Lost Civilisation

Updated: Nov 1, 2018

Thomas Searles

Registered Surveyor

(Article to accompany presentation of the same title delivered at the Spatial Information Day Conference Adelaide 2017)

Moray 'Agricultural research centre', Peru

The drive to find lost civilisations has captivated me for as long as I can recall. Many movies of my youth romanticised the endeavour with chests of jewels, bars of gold and glamorous accident-prone damsels in distress. These iconic rewards of the Hollywood treasure hunter were never my motivation, (although welcome fringe benefits I would concede). I found the vast mystic knowledge hidden among shadowy ancient ruins, dusty maps in forgotten languages and mathematical clues embedded in myth and legend far more intriguing. These things were deep and mysterious, existing just out of reach, teasing out my curiosity with a will to be discovered.


My drive was to unlock the secrets of the past and crack that ancient code. Many years have passed since my childhood fascination with ancient mysteries, and nothing has changed. In the last decade I have been captivated by emerging technologies within the spatial science disciplines that have played a pivotal role in the pursuit of some of these mysterious cultures and the rediscovery of the knowledge that was lost with them.


Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest, National Geographic (Mar2015).

The exploration of the Lost City of the Monkey God in 2012 was a showcase for the integration of spatial disciplines and for good reason. The Lost City is located within the eastern mountains of Honduras’ remote jungle. The city has been known by many names, often called Ciudad Blanca (the White City) and has an extensive exploration history. Conquistadores as far back as Hernan Cortes recorded hearing tales of the lost city and its great wealth. In an era of cultural exploitation, the search drew countless treasure hunters to the Honduran jungle. Many never returned. The myth grew as Lindbergh reported seeing the White City while flying over Honduras in 1927 and adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found the city shortly thereafter. Although Morde returned to the ports of Honduras with hundreds of artefacts, he died before further exploration could begin and without disclosing the location of his find.


Failed explorations continued until Douglas Preston’s team found the lost city in 2012 by using methodologies similar to a process of survey investigation. They digitised old maps and ascertained the likely location of sightings based on the native names of rivers and mountains. GIS teams evaluated the topography of descriptive landmarks in comparison to the real-world terrain. Finally, LiDAR flew over kilometres of dense rainforest, searching for geometric shapes, which would denote ancient construction. This description underplays the hardship endured by the exploration team who dealt with militant groups, serious injury and a previously unnamed flesh eating jungle disease. Exploration is not without risk.


The city they found was not built by Mayan, Aztec or Olmec. This finding was not only of a lost city but the rediscovery of a lost civilisation. Surprisingly, this is not a unique find, even for South America. A decade ago, deep in the Amazon jungle, a farmer unearthed geoglyphs resembling Stonehenge. They were so massive that they were indiscernible from the ground, but a drone flight confirmed their existence while discovering neighbouring glyphs. The newly discovered glyphs were connected to an ancient road. Using remote sensing, researchers were able to trace a network of ancient roads from the lost city to nearby farms and towns that were previous undiscovered. They discovered 28 towns in total that year and the discoveries have continued ever since.


Archaeologists Have Discovered More Than 450 Large Geometrical Geoglyphs in the Amazonian Rainforest Science News Journal (Feb2017)

Last year spatial science students from the University of Lima travelled to the Amazon to test algorithms designed to find geometric shapes captured through the jungle canopy by UAVs. During their test, they uncovered previously unknown ancient geoglyphs, and found the remnants of another lost city. This clearly demonstrates the value of spatial science in an era of discovery. Although I’m sure it has set the bar high for next year’s surveying students.


For many, the discovery of these ancient cities changed the perception of the Amazon. “Ancient Amazon Actually Highly Urbanised,” read the headline of Scientific American (Biello, 2008), while New Scientist (Pearce, 2015) published an article titled, “Myth of Pristine Amazon Rainforest Busted as Old Cities Reappear. When the conquistador Francisco de Orellana navigated the entire length of the Amazon in 1542, he was surprised at the population density. He noted with amazement there was one town that stretched for 15 miles without any space from house to house. He marvelled at their agriculture, commenting,


“The land is as fertile and as normal in appearance as our Spain.”

The idea that a civilisation with a population of millions could be lost so quickly in time may seem unlikely, however the explanation is simple and tragic. When Europeans returned after Orellana’s South American crossing, the population had been decimated. 90% of the native population died from the flu, small pox and other diseases and in some areas this number was even higher. The survivors took refuge in the jungle, possibly wishing to never return to a place of such unimaginable death and decay. The jungle regrew rapidly, consuming the remnants of farms, roads and towns, and with it, the knowledge of an entire civilisation. The documented events of Orellana’s travels became little more than myth for 500 years.

The destruction of this civilisation not only resulted in the loss of people and property but also the loss of knowledge. Every city needs professionals and trades, water and hygiene, government and protection, all refined and tailored to the environment. The keepers of this knowledge, the teachers, elders and professionals who were not killed by disease would have had to struggle to survive. Simply caring for loved ones, finding food, avoiding diseased areas, among other challenges would be consuming. How much knowledge was lost? A civilisation that farmed the same soil for a thousand years may have known a great deal about sustainable agriculture. What insights did the Shaman and healers have on natural medicine? From dentistry to spirituality, almost the entire knowledge base vanished. However, while the shaman’s wisdom or agrarian practices may be lost forever; secrets of construction can remain. The megalithic stones often remain intact for centuries and information from their size, shape and position can be extracted.


For example, the accuracy of square angles or more complicated geometric relationships, suggests knowledge of geometry. The position of these stones and their alignment to astronomical bodies can reveal the capacity of the culture to predict astronomical events, such as eclipses. A more detailed investigation may be needed to assess a pattern of megalithic carvings resembling triangles eight degrees apart and physically aligned to the celestial ecliptic. Could this possibly represent the trigon formed by the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter? By looking at the complexity of the calculations and the difficulty of construction, it is possible to estimate the level of advancement of the cultures technology.


Advancements in the technology of new cultures can be compared to stages in the technological evolution from cultures whose history is relatively well-documented, such as ancient Greece. ‘Gaps’ in the technological process, especially for construction and mathematical knowledge, could indicate the progression of technology and ideas was not linear or identical for these societies, or perhaps indicates some knowledge has been lost in time.


In 2016 I took a sabbatical to Central and South America to investigate this concept from a spatial science perspective. For a curious spatial scientist, there is an abundance of intriguing opportunities for investigation. From the acoustics of Chichen Itza to the architectural design of Tikal, the landscape is littered with magnificent structures. In South America, tourists are greeted at Lima airport with great banners displaying the statistics of Incan agriculture. ‘1 Million Hectares of terracing’ one banner proclaimed. Truly astonishing! 100-metre-wide terraces would require 100,000 kilometres of stone wall, twice the circumference of the earth. Then there is the excavation and fill. The environment must have added additional burden. Much of the terrain is steep and windblown, with precipitous cliffs at altitudes higher than Everest base camp and yet the terraces continue. The Inca and other Central and South American civilisation truly deserve respect for the magnitude and magnificence of their creations.


Although much is known from early Spanish accounts of the Inca, there is still mystery. Most historic text indicates the Inca primarily used stone tools and copper chisels, and had not invented a pulley system or the wheel. The obvious question is how did they quarry, shape and move megaliths in such huge volumes? The larger megalithic rocks of Cusco and the Sacred Valley regularly exceed 50 tons and are frequently cut from very hard rock such as andesite or granite. Copper will barely leave a mark against granite. When contemplating if the construction methodology is possibly unknown, it must also be considered in the 500 years since Pizarro arrived in South America, not a single megalithic rock has been quarried, shaped, transported or lifted into position.


Square angles, channels and drill holes, Tiwanaku Bolivis

The mystery deepens as the trail leads east to Tiwanaku. Stones unearthed from many metres below the surface are cut with long straight edges and curious symmetrical holes along their face. The quarry sites are littered with similar markings that appear very out of place among ‘stone age technology.’ These constructions are similar, but distinctly different to the walls of Koricancha, an Incan temple turned church and the museum of Cusco. I found the stonework of Koricancha so extraordinary because of its design strength. Throughout the complex, it appeared no two stones were cut identically or even symmetrically. Roughly rectangular in shape, they made a wall, where the joins are so fine they can barely be seen. The stones at angles and intersections often round the corner. On closer inspection, by eyeing the horizontal joins separating courses of stones, a noticeable ‘wave’ can be seen. The horizontal join between courses is not straight. In places, this deviates only millimetres from horizontal and takes many metres for the ‘wave’ to transition from concave to convex. It is neither uniform nor regular in arc radii or transition curve, yet they fit together perfectly.


Koricanchas mesmerizing construction.

Looking upward, the view is more astonishing. The joins in the vertical face of the stones are not plumb, or square to the course but slightly and uniquely angled. Every stone is unique in shape and not easy to describe in my basic Euclidian geometry. The first stone I measured was perhaps a biconcave trapezoid. The next stone was different. The unique shape of thousands of common faces between stones without a single square angle was quite a marvel. This precise arrangement of interlocking blocks does not contain the weakness of shear overcoming adhesion, as is the case in regular block and mortar construction. This makes the wall incredibly strong. Cusco is in a seismic zone where earthquakes of 6-7 magnitude are reasonably regular. In the mid-1600s, a quake levelled the city and killed over 5,000 people. More than once since the Spanish era, the churches and European construction needed to be rebuilt after earthquakes. The great quakes have left but a single noticeable crack on the rounded face of the great Koricancha wall.




Most noticeable of all construction achievements around Cusco is the precision of joins of the common stone walls that permeate the old city. The stonework is not just precise but ‘perfect’ so to speak. Often the crystals of one stone touch a neighbouring stone along the entire face of the join, meaning the limit of precision of the material has been reached. Even with a regular camera the precision can be captured against a standard measuring tape. The gaps between massive stone blocks, uniquely shaped, are a fraction of the size of the thin black line that separates millimetres on a rule.

The civilisations of Central and South America have waxed and waned for thousands of years. A quick Wiki search can reveal over 50 known separate cultures, spanning ten thousand years, have inhabited the Peru area alone, long before the Inca built their first stone wall. For many of these cultures, their understanding of the world, their motivations and their connection to the environment may be left in the dust, but the clues to their knowledge of construction, astronomy and math may be carved in stone.


The spatial community’s professional services have been vital to explorations of numerous lost civilisations this decade. The invaluable skill sets of existing and emerging technologies have truly created an era of rediscovery. It is an exciting time for any spatial scientist who never lost the curiosity of youth and drive to crack that ancient code.


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