By JACK STRIPLING

Sun staff writer
 April 24. 2006 6:01AM

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University of Florida archaeologist Michael Heckenberger began making periodic trips to the Amazon in South America in 1991, and seems to smugly relish shattering romantic notions about the region and its history.

“I don’t think we saw a piranha any time we were there,” said Heckenberger, who’ll be featured in a segment on the History Channel tonight at 9 p.m.

Stories of the Amazon, told from the 1500s through today, have invariably depicted the Amazon as a sort of untapped Garden of Eden or a “green hell” infested with savages.

The primitive picture of native Amazonians forged in the 16th century and perpetuated into present day is off the mark, Heckenberger says. In the centuries leading up to colonization, the Amazon was an interconnected society of roads and commerce, he says. In many ways, the “jungle” of the 1500s was as functional as some European towns of the same period, he says.

“They had astronomy, engineering, architecture,” Heckenberger said. “Amazonia was not just stone-aged, frozen at the dawn of time.”

So is there a lost city of the Amazon, buried well beneath the thick understory of the jungle? That was the question the History Channel had for Heckenberger when they recently accompanied him into the Amazon to film a program largely based on his work that airs tonight.

The answer to the History Channel’s question is a somewhat unsatisfying “yes and no.” There’s no evidence of massive pyramids or golden cities like Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, the early 20th-century British explorer, might have hoped to find. But vast excavations of pottery and evidence of moats and walls long buried beneath the surface denote a civilization far more advanced than archaeologists ever previously thought existed in the Amazon.

Hovering over a computer monitor in his UF office Thursday, Heckenberger traces his finger across a map of the Upper Xingu region of the Amazon in Brazil, projected on his screen. The green and purple map shows small circular clusters connected by straight, deliberate lines. The clusters were once villages, some as large as 1,000 people, and the lines were once roads connecting them into something akin to a city.

“Nothing is unconnected,” he says emphatically. “The whole bloody landscape is connected.”

The connections reveal that the native Amazonians in this area, now stretched across a territory about the size of Massachusetts, were once part of a network nearly twice the size.

Through mapping analysis and radiocarbon dating of artifacts, Heckenberger and his crew have discerned that the “clusters” of native Amazonians all operated during the same period. They had a vibrant agricultural and fishing economy. They cleared stretches of forest for parks and roads, according to Heckenberger’s research.

“This is like Gainesville,” his says, circling the map with his index finger.

But throughout the 16th century, colonizing forces along the Amazon River and the eastern coast of Brazil forced indigenous people back into the central region of the continent, and at the same time spread disease that crippled the population, Heckenberger says.

“By 1700-1750, most of the groups living along the Amazon – lights out,” he said.

Historians have mistakenly assumed that the scattered, disconnected villages that formed after a series of disease outbreaks told the whole story of the region’s history, Heckenberger said. Now comes the task of filling in those gaps in history, and Heckenberger is doing that with the help of the modern-day Kuikuro people who live in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil.

The Kuikuro, descendants of some early native Amazonians, have pointed Heckenberger toward some of the once vibrant and heavily populated sites that comprise his research. They’ve also become his friends, he says. Several years ago, Heckenberger was “adopted” by a Kuikuro family, granting him the indigenous name “Maikajanna.”

Much has changed in the Upper Xingu region even during the 15 years Heckenberger has studied there. What once were quiet villages are now bustling communities with the hum of power generators and the roar of motorcycles breaking through the steamy jungle air.

Technology, it seems, can’t be kept at bay anywhere for too long.

“Just like everywhere else,” Heckenberger said, “kids want a Walkman.”

Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@ gvillesun.com