Armed with machetes, the group members make their way through the vegetation. On both sides, they cut off winding branches and majestic shrubs. In front of them, everything is only green, a dense, impenetrable green color. In the end, they bumped into a gray stone staircase that was artfully hand-carved.
John Lloyd Stevens and his team climb the stairs and exit onto a wide balcony decorated with majestic statues decorated with bas-reliefs and hieroglyphs. Architecture, sculpture, painting, and all the arts that adorned life flourished in this sumptuous forest, this American, fascinated by his discovery, will write in his diaries [Aventures de voyage en pays maya, éd. Pygmalion].
The Explorers Novel.
The year was 1839, and John Lloyd Stevens was one of the first white people to think of the ancient Maya ruins of Copán. [aujourd’hui au Honduras]. He was an explorer – or rather, we considered him to be.
Of course, he’s not really his first man “exploration” Kuban: The people of the area already know the place. It was Jose who led him into town, paving the way with his machete.
If the American could not offer any technical expertise to the other members of the expedition, he was, on the other hand, overwhelmed with curiosity and enthusiasm … and showed a certain tendency to pity. According to his story, the whole thing was an enigma, a vague and impenetrable mystery, as each moment thickened a little; The city was devastated, and only the screams of the raging monkeys in the trees came to shake the silence of the flooded city.
The legend of charming cities
The picture painted by the American in his memories of the Copan fits perfectly with the traditional Western view of the ancient cities, lost in the tropics. A vision that has been repeated continuously since the nineteenth centurye A century in novels, films and video games, those lost cities in the tropical jungle, where nature reclaimed its rights, from sites surrounded by legend, seem forever sacred and magical. A kind of warning from nature reminding us that she is always taking back her land.
City life in the middle of a tropical forest? Impossible, everyone was convinced of it. Besides, weren’t the ruins scattered all over the world proof that these cities were clearly always destined to fall?
This idea has prevailed for a long time, even among specialists. Moreover, its defenders relied on convincing arguments: to feed the population of a large city, it was necessary to practice a form of intensive agriculture incompatible with the wet, acidic and nutrient-poor soils of tropical forests. Add to this enormous environmental challenges, such as the need to clear large plots of land, which can lead to landslides and floods. And then, anyway, who would want to live among venomous snakes and swarms of mosquitoes? Certainly not city dwellers, anyway.
Huge and vibrant cities
But some time ago, the image of charming cities began to crumble. For several decades, archaeologists and anthropologists have worked to chart a new, more realistic view of tropical cities. According to them, Epinal’s image of ruins dotted with vineyards should give way to huge and vibrant cities, consisting of a vast network of communities.
Copán, the Mayan city that fascinated John Lloyd Stevens so much, had as many as 25,000 inhabitants about 1,500 years ago. This is more than the population of Munich in 1700 [et autant que celle de Paris à la fin du XIIe siècle]. But the Cuban was not the most populous. Not far from there, the Mayan city of Tikal [au Guatemala] It gathered over its entire circumference 200,000 people at the time of its zenith, on the ninthe century. Some specialists even mention 450,000 inhabitants.
But these two cities pale in comparison to Angkor, in present-day Cambodia, which, according to new estimates, would have amassed up to 900,000 inhabitants in a twelfth.e century. Then the city extended to more than 1,000 km2surrounded by 3000 km2 of cultivated land. In the middle of the rainforest.
Science neglected her
For comparison, the current Berlin surface does not even reach 900 km2 [quand celle du Grand Paris est de 814 km2]. “Angkor was the largest city in the pre-industrial era – in the whole world”, Remembers Patrick Roberts, who leads a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena [dans le centre-est de l’Allemagne]. This archaeologist and anthropologist is very interested in the lifestyles of tropical forests, a topic that has not been studied much so far.
Research is steeped in preconceptions. Patrick Roberts laments. Few of his peers are drawn to research projects in tropical forests – which he can fully understand. In these areas, the main excavations of ancient cities, which generally last several years, encounter great difficulties associated with climatic conditions: the density of vegetation, toxic species – animal and plant ones – and sometimes violent precipitation complicate the work of researchers. Not to mention the acidity of the soil, which makes it practically impossible to stabilize any organic matter. By comparison, uncovering an Egyptian or Sumerian city is a real pleasure.
This unequal treatment between regions remains especially evident in the world of German universities. At Ludwig and Maximilian University in Munich, for example, the ArchaeoBioCenter’s multidisciplinary team is exploring the relationship between humans and their natural environment and the implications of human activity on it, but no member of the group has studied the tropics. Friedhelm Hoffmann, a spokesperson for the center, regrets this shortfall, which is justified by N
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