Travel writer and journalist Shafik Meghji explores the Llanos de Moxos, an area of the Bolivian Beni that offers a new perspective on the early inhabitants of South America.
It didn’t take long to find the skull. An hour after leaving Puerto Ballivián, a scruffy Amazonian port in the Llanos de Moxos, the Reina de Enin shuddered to a halt on a placid stretch of the chocolate-brown Ibare River. A brilliant yellow butterfly fluttered across the deck of the weather-beaten catamaran, which resembled a Mississippi paddle steamer fallen on hard times. Two fishermen paddled by in a canoe, their wake unsettling a saucer-sized turtle resting on a floating branch. As I clambered into an idling motorboat, kingfishers, egrets, and crested oropendolas – black birds with striking blue irises and bright yellow tails – flashed overhead.
The riverbanks were dense green walls, but my guide Eduardo located a barely perceptible opening and navigated us into a narrow channel. It felt like entering a cave. The thick canopy blocked out the sunlight, a stagnant odor wafted out of the black water, and sinuous creeper-draped branches spread across our route. Eduardo knelt at the front of the boat, wielding a paddle in one hand, a machete in the other. Insects swarmed over us, nipping at exposed flesh. A woodpecker tapped away repetitively. “During the rainy season, the water level rises 1.5m, which makes for a much smoother journey,” Eduardo explained as we bumped over semi-submerged logs. “In the dry season, the water recedes so much you can simply walk along the route.”
After 20 minutes we reached a sunny lagoon filled with water lilies. Herons, storks and cormorants perched on the shoreline, and a three-toed sloth clung to an overhanging branch. On the far side rose a dome-shaped hill or loma, 10 meters in height and lightly sprinkled with trees. At first glance, it looked natural, a mere wrinkle in the landscape. Yet, the loma was man-made, one of an estimated 20,000 earthworks built by a little-known culture a millennium ago.
We landed at its base, and I stepped onto a muddy beach, expecting to sink. Instead, there was a crunch under foot: the ground was covered by pottery fragments, from fingernail-sized chips to chunks larger than a dinner plate. I attempted to tip-toe around them, but they were impossible to avoid. These potsherds were not merely waste, Eduardo told me. Rather, they were used to stabilize and expand the lomas.
Most of the Llanos de Moxos earthworks have been swallowed by the forest, but the family who lived here had cleared and cultivated the land. At the top of the hill, which was roughly the size of a football pitch, were two ramshackle huts, a pigsty, and a rusted 1950s motorbike. A skeletal mongrel raised its head but swiftly returned to its nap. An even skinnier cat showed greater interest, sniffing at our boots. No one else was home; Eduardo thought the family was probably out fishing. Behind the huts was a grove of pomelo, mango, cacao, and lemon trees. The skins of two caimans and a hollowed-out armadillo carcass were draped across the branches like clothes on a washing line.
Nearby, a causeway led to another loma, which, like most of its counterparts, was unoccupied and thus blanketed with near-impenetrable foliage. “Before the 1990s, there was not much information about this ancient culture,” said Eduardo. “We didn’t learn about it in school or university. Now we have more information. We know they built these hills to be safe in the rainy season, usually one hill per family. The lomas are generally 5-20 meters high; this one, for sure, was once 10 meters higher than it is today but has been eroded. And all over these hills you can find pieces of pottery.”
As we looked around, I spotted two near-intact pots poking out of the soil. More emerge every year, rising to the surface during the rainy season, like daffodils in the spring. “This is nothing,” said Eduardo, leading me to a patch of earth marked out with twigs in which another half-buried pot jutted out at a 45-degree angle. Inside a jawbone with a set of yellow-brown teeth grimaced back at me. The teeth were child-sized and, although discolored, remarkably well preserved. They were also profoundly unnerving. “I found this urn last week,” said Eduardo. “Sometimes you find whole skeletons inside.”
Alongside the pottery, the ground was strewn with rubbish: plastic bottles and packets, old sandals, scraps of paper, chewed-up bits of rubber, rusted metal, and disintegrating polystyrene blocks. Flooding, erosion, and rainfall were blending the modern detritus with the ancient relics, incorporating some of the resulting mixture into the loma and dispersing the rest through the surrounding waterways. Perhaps in another thousand years visitors will sift through the Coke bottles and Lays packets and marvel at the long-forgotten culture that produced such treasures.
As we walked back to the motorboat, I lagged behind. When no one was looking, I guiltily slipped a couple of pottery fragments, their ribbed sides worn smooth over the centuries, into my pocket.
The Llanos de Moxos confounds expectations about Bolivia. Although often described as an “Andean” country, northern Bolivia, a third of the total landmass, lies within the Amazon basin, wedged between Brazil and Peru. The eastern part takes its name from a great meandering river, the Beni. The western side of the Beni region resembles the Amazon of popular imagination, with dense tropical rainforests. East of here, by contrast, stretch the Llanos de Moxos (or Mojos), 120,000 sq km – almost the size of England – of seasonally flooded savannah veined with waterways.
Today, the Llanos de Moxos is sparsely populated and dominated by cattle ranches. But the region has been inhabited for 10,000 years, initially by hunter-gatherer communities. Around 1000 BCE, complex societies began to develop. When we think of South America’s ancient cultures, images of Inca temples typically spring to mind. The Llanos de Moxos societies were quite different. In response to a highly challenging environment – fluctuating water levels, poor soil, no domesticated animals or sources of stone – they built thousands of earthworks: canals, causeways, aqueducts, levees, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and dykes, as well as lomas. In 2022, researchers even discovered the remains of a 22-meter pyramid.
The structures were multi-functional, used as homes and fields, for religious ceremonies and burial grounds. The largest villages had around 2,000 inhabitants. According to archaeologist Clark L Erickson, author of Amazonia: The Historical Archaeology of a Domesticated Landscape, the earthworks involved the “mass movement of soils, transformation of local topography, soil enrichment, and change in vegetation composition.” Their scale can only really be appreciated from the air, where the serpentine bends, straight-sided squares and rectangles, sharp zigzags, and near-perfect circles look like doodles on a giant green canvas.
Academic interest in the Moxos is relatively recent. The first excavations took place in the 1910s, but the extent of the earthworks only started to become apparent half a century later. Many credit a Texan, Kenneth Lee, with playing a key role in increasing understanding of the Moxos culture. An engineer and geologist for Shell, Lee visited the region in the 1950s in search of oil. Flying over in a helicopter, he noticed geographical features that appeared man-made and decided to investigate further. Lee subsequently dedicated the rest of his life to studying this lost culture, earning himself the nickname “the beloved gringo of the Beni.”
The museum that bears his name receives few visitors. It is just outside Trinidad, the capital of the Beni, and once a hub of the brutal Amazonian rubber boom. Beyond the faded sign was a replica loma and representations of artificial lagoons and raised fields. Inside were musical instruments and wooden masks, the latter depicting stylized but realistic human faces, as well as an incredible range of ceramics: bowls, plates, urns, and other vessels of various sizes and shapes decorated with geometric patterns.
More artifacts turn up every year, but the museum has limited capacity. A Trinidadian told me a burst river bank recently washed a cache of pottery onto her land. “The authorities weren’t interested, so I’ve kept them,” she said. “Many people have bits of pottery. I sometimes use them as plant pots.”
The earthworks challenge the idea that the Amazon prior to 1492 was an untouched wilderness and elegantly rebut the notion sophisticated societies could not have developed here before the arrival of Europeans. These views were shaped by the conquistadors, who encountered communities devastated by diseases brought over by the Spanish and Portuguese to which they had no immunity.
The Llanos de Moxos paints a more nuanced and intriguing picture. Its archaeological sites suggest the region was home to far more people – perhaps as many as a million – and far more complex societies than previously assumed. Moreover, for around a thousand years, these societies created “one of the largest, strangest, and most ecologically rich artificial environments on the planet,” to quote Charles C Mann, author of 1491: The Americas Before Columbus.
Although most of the earthworks have been reclaimed by the forest, some around Trinidad have been repurposed. A half-hour drive northwest took me to Loma Suárez, a grassy mound named after a notorious rubber baron, where I killed a few hours as I waited for my transfer to Chuchini, a nature reserve on another loma 5km further north. Nearby, two men loaded gas canisters onto a rusted, patched-together vessel named the Mary Celeste.
Thankfully, Chuchini’s motorboat was rather more shipshape. We set off at noon with Efrem, whose family owns the reserve, pointing out colorful birds and lurking caimans. After 15 minutes we turned off the Ibare onto a Moxeño-built channel fringed with reeds and spindly trees that led to a shimmering lagoon overlooked by a squat green hill.
Miriam, Efrem’s wife, showed me round the loma, whose flat, grassy summit contained accommodation blocks, a semi-open dining area, a football pitch, and a playground, while trails led into the surrounding rainforest. The reserve was created in 1973 after Efrem’s parents learned of the area’s archaeological and environmental significance. More than 1,500 artifacts have since been excavated. “The name ‘Chuchini’ means ‘Den of the Jaguar’,” said Miriam, “one of around 100 mammal species you find here. There are also 200 species of birds.” The family’s foresight protected the area from the deforestation, poaching, ranching, commercial agriculture, and fishing that has destroyed much of the Beni.
The reserve relies on tourism. Day-tripping Trinidadians come to swim, lounge in a hammock, or walk the jungle trails. Foreign travelers often stay longer and take part in volunteer programs. A qualified vet, Efrem had a wildlife rehabilitation center. Among his patients were racoon-like coatis, several monkeys, and two handsome toucans, their orange-and-yellow beaks so unnaturally bright I mistook them for plastic models.
After a lunch of pique a lo macho, a gut-busting combo of steak strips, chips, onions, peppers, eggs, and chili sauce, Efrem showed me his one-room museum, which displayed some items from the reserve. Large pots contained human remains, including a set of adult teeth. Others were decorated with inter-connected lines and patterns that archaeologists have speculated might represent ancient maps.
There were also figurines: the torso of a woman who appeared to be wearing a spotted bikini, and a one-legged man with a protruding belly button, prominent nipples, and almond-shaped eyes. “Some claim these are ‘Asian’ features and that the Moxos civilization had an Asian origin,” said Efrem, raising a skeptical eyebrow at a doggedly persistent form of ignorance, whose holders refuse to credit Indigenous cultures with the ability to produce anything of sophistication, and instead tout outlandish theories of foreign – or even extraterrestrial – assistance.
Overnight I experienced the region’s extreme climatic conditions. The generator stopped at 11:30pm, the fan shut down, and the heat ramped up. I laid in bed like a starfish, my body on fire. Over the previous days, I’d acquired rings of swollen, overlapping mosquito bites – 53 in total. It took all the willpower I possessed not to scratch them as I lay for hours, desperately willing sleep.
I must have drifted off eventually because an almighty storm woke me at 6am. Gale-force winds shook the room so violently that my phone toppled off the bedside table. It was a surazo, Miriam later explained over breakfast, a frigid Antarctic wind that blows across central Bolivia between May and August, plunging temperatures and depositing downpours.
There was nowhere to shelter on the motorboat back to Loma Suárez, and moments after setting off, I was drenched. Hundreds of water lilies had choked the canal overnight and soon got entangled in the outboard motor, forcing us to paddle through a carpet of green. By the time we reached the open waters of the Ibare, the rain was coming down in sheets. As the motor finally kicked back into life and we picked up pace, raindrops drove into my face like hailstones.
Soaked and frozen, I felt a profound sense of respect for the inhabitants of the Llanos de Moxos, ancient and present-day, who had not only carved out an existence here, but managed to flourish.
This is an edited extract from Shafik Meghji’s Crossed off the Map: Travels in Bolivia, which was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year 2023.