Experts are divided over how ancient people lived in what is now Brazil, and they're turning to a drone to help them learn the answers. "While some researchers think that Amazonia was inhabited by small bands of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators who had a minimal impact on the environment, and that the forest we see today is pristine and untouched for thousands of years, mounting evidence is showing this may not be the case," researcher José Iriarte tells the BBC. Instead, the "cultural parkland hypothesis" says that "Amazonia may have been inhabited by large, numerous, complex, and hierarchical societies that had a major impact on the environment."
To help settle the issue, a British-led team is sending a drone over the Amazon to seek out geoglyphs: ancient shapes built into the ground for reasons that remain uncertain. Deforestation has already turned up 450 of the patterns, which offer evidence of people working together as they altered their environment, the BBC reports. The drone could add to that number by using lidar, a technology which scans beyond the forest leaves and into the ground. Learning about the past could offer lessons for present conservation work. The land may not be the "virgin wilderness" we assume, Iriarte says, per Science. Past human interaction could still be influencing what grows in the region: "The very biodiversity that we seek to safeguard may itself be a legacy of centuries or millennia of human intervention."