Tucked away in the dry scrub forests of northeastern Brazil, there’s an area of land larger than the island of Great Britain crammed full of ancient structures known locally as murundus. Standing 9 meters (roughly 30 feet) in diameter and 2.5 meters (over 8 feet) tall, the murundus are built out of more than 10 billion cubic meters (350 billion cubic feet) of earth – making them about 4,000 times larger in total than the Great Pyramid of Giza.
But who gave birth to this colossal feat of engineering? Some forgotten Amazonian tribe, lost to the mists of time? A civilization like the Mayans, whose cities still languish in the Guatemalan rainforest? Aliens?
No. It was termites.
For up to 4,000 years – about the same length of time as the pyramids have existed in Egypt – countless generations of termites have been building their mounds amongst the semi-arid vegetation. Hidden to outsiders until the last few decades, the 200-million-strong array has finally fallen victim to human development – and scientists have taken the opportunity to investigate the insect megastructures.
“For the people that live among them, the mounds are just part of the landscape, so they’re nothing unusual,” lead author Stephen Martin explained to Gizmodo. “[The] forest is very thorny, and the scale of the mounds so massive it is almost impossible to imagine that they are built by an animal.”
In their paper, published yesterday in Current Biology, the team of researchers describe how the vast collection of mounds – easily visible from space – were constructed.