The Amazonian El Dorado

In the Llanos de Moxos, between San Ignacio de Moxos and Loreto, the heavily forested landscape is crossed with more than 100km of canals and causeways and dotted with hundreds of lomas (artificial mounds), embankments and fanciful prehistoric earthworks depicting people and animals. One anthropomorphic figure measures more than 2km from head to toe – a rainforest variation on Peru’s famed Nazca Lines.

The discovery of the lomas has caused scientists to look at the Beni region with entirely new eyes: what was previously considered to be a wilderness never touched by humans, save for a few dispersed tribes who inhabited the region, is now thought to have been an area where a vast, advanced civilization farmed, worked and lived in a highly structured society with sophisticated cities.

It is believed that the ceramic mounds came from the large numbers of people who lived on them and who ate and drank from pots, which were then destroyed and buried to improve soil stability. Archaeologists say that the sheer amount of pots indicates the complexity of this lost society.

Romantics associate the prehistoric structures of the Beni with the legendary Paitití tribe, and infer that this ancient Beni civilization was the source of the popular Spanish legends of the rainforest El Dorado known as Gran Paitití. The Paitití were said to be an Inca tribe associated with the cultural hero Inkarri who, after founding Cuzco, retired to the Amazon to found another great but mysterious civilization in an unknown location. Though some Inca fragments were found in northern Bolivia during excavations in 2003, the Inca origin of the Moxos sites remains doubtful; the most accepted theory is that if Paitití existed at all, its most likely location is Peru.

Archaeologists continue their research into this fascinating part of history, but one thing is for sure: once you know what lies here in terms of world history, you’ll never look at the forests of the Beni in the same way again.