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Lost Civilization in the Congo Basin by Mike Fay and Richard Oslisly

When I arrived in extreme northern Congo back in the 80’s, there wasn’t a single road in the vast floodplain of the Congo River, the forest virgin and giant.  This is where the cryptozoologists ventured to find the last dinosaurs, in this place where, they said, humanity had seldom ventured.  Little was known about the...

When I arrived in extreme northern Congo back in the 80’s, there wasn’t a single road in the vast floodplain of the Congo River, the forest virgin and giant.  This is where the cryptozoologists ventured to find the last dinosaurs, in this place where, they said, humanity had seldom ventured.  Little was known about the forest, the wildlife, the people. I was there to survey these virgin forests, but in order to do that I knew I had to get as deep as you could go, beyond the touch of man, or so I thought.

Image from Bing Maps or just let the map open and click on satellite view and zoom into a point but you wont see Bing imagery there

Download the Google Earth File with over 1000 sites here

or just let the map open and click on satellite view and zoom into a point but you wont see Bing imagery there.

Download the Map overlay network link to view Bing Maps on Google Earth here

This one you have to download and open in Google Earth.

I went to the village of Makao had a large population of Bambenzele Pygmies, most had never seen a rock, let alone a vehicle.  They would be my guides in the forest.  These guys could not imagine that humanity had the capacity to transform this forest to a human dominated landscape.  Their world consisted of how far they could walk in the forest.  They knew the paths and foods, just like the elephants and gorillas with whom they lived alone for maybe one hundred thousand years.

We were working against time, the entire map was cut up in blocks and logging companies were snapping up concessions, planning on cutting through the best of the best in 25 years.

In 1985, I set out to survey the area east of the upper Sangha River by foot, walking hundreds of kilometers trying to find the best places where forests were huge, wildlife abundant, and humans didn’t venture.  I found something strange, in many of the crystal clear creeks, deep in the forest, I was finding oil palm nuts.  The oil palm tree is a cultivated species, and there were none in this vast forest, so what were oil palm nuts doing where there was never any agriculture, no trace of humanity?  I asked the Bambenzele; they said they fell with the rain.  I collected samples from over 100 creeks and had them carbon dated.  To my astonishment, and others skepticism, some of these nuts were over 2300 years old and none dated younger than 900 years BP.  It seemed that agriculture had come and gone to a very large area of forest that was now supposedly virgin.  This would have meant that this forest had been cut, probably by Bantu whose migrations that, archeologists say, started over two millennia ago from the highlands of Cameroon all the way to the Cape of Good Hope in less than 1000 years. Over the next few years we discovered deposits of clay pottery and stone tool manufacture in these same forests.  So what happened to these people, why did they start to die out almost 2000 years ago and leave large areas of northern Congo quite empty of humanity?  Yes, some argue that oil palms grow naturally in central Africa, but in my experience the vast majority of extant plants were either planted by humans or weedy in nature post agriculture or grow in alluvial disturbance on large rivers and savanna edges.


In 1993 I got my first airplane to start exploring this vast forest from the air. One of the first places I went was Lac Telle, a perfectly round lake in the swamps. This is where the cryptozoologists suggested the dinosaur Moukele-mbembe still lurked. I flew over flooded savanna on the far reaches of Likouala aux Herbes and discovered something shocking, signs of ancient raised bed agriculture that covered extensive areas of grassy plains in this uninhabited forest.  How could that be?  I took Nick Nichols to this spot and he photographed it for the National Geographic Magazine in 1995.  The geometric forms were beautiful, elegant, and obviously of human construction.

Nick Nichols National Geographic Magazine 1995

Over the years I spotted many other similar locations like this from the air, hundreds of kilometers apart.  There were vast dike systems, raised beds, road beds.  It looked to me like an entire civilization had come and gone to these vast flooded plains.

Fast forward to 2016.   I use Google Earth for a lot of my work, not just to map stuff or navigate but also to explore.  As the amount of high-resolution imagery accumulates you can see more and more detail.  Outside of populated places there are land use planners, industrial companies, intelligence services, military and others who buy high-resolution imagery, which makes its way to Google Earth.

Cruising Google Earth, planning a trip from Gabon to the Central African Republic in my Cessna, I was reminded of the 1995 images we took of Lac Telle, and zoomed in and sure enough the same sites were clearly visible on Google Earth.

Image from Google Earth

Image from Google Earth

Image from Google Earth

So, I started to scour the high-resolution images available along the Congo River and was blown away for find a vast array of sites.  By the time I was done I had documented over 1000s sites of complex and sophisticated agrarian structures in moist savannas of coastal Gabon and on both sides of the middle Congo River, in eastern Central African Republic and in southeastern Angola over an area the size of Great Britain.  They were for me on the magnitude of civilization, millions of people may have inhabited these lands that are today very sparsely settled by humans.

Image from Google Earth

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

Image from Bing Maps

This is just the beginning.  You will see in the Google Earth file I have attached, where there is no high-resolution imagery the patterns continue, they are just not resolved enough to see the structures.  And when you overlay Bing maps, where Google doesn’t have high-resolution, a whole new world of sites is visible.

The peculiarity of these agrarian structures comes from their large numbers, the complete coverage of the landscape over large areas and their recurring location in areas of saturated savannas and their diversity in terms of shapes: ridges, dikes, buttes, rectangular and circular platforms of different sizes, many times connected by thoroughfares.

It would seem these people combined paddy and raised fields to control water flow and use in extensive wetland areas dispersed over an area of 120:000 km sq., not including the structures documented in eastern CAR which are found over thousands of square kilometers with extensive dike systems. We can assume the typical benefits in the paddy culture and in raised bed in these highly organic saturated plains: the possibility for permanent and year-round agricultural production.

Since 2015 in wet savannahs of the Gabon coast we have undertaken aerial reconnaissance and have also located a large number of agrarian structures.  In southern Angola I was going to participate in an expedition there and cruising Google Earth again was astonished to find similar structures in the floodplains of the upper Zambezi, although these look from the imagery to be of more recent origin.

The transition from this highly sophisticated paddy and raised field agriculture in the humid savannas in favor of today’s slash and burn agriculture based on continual deforestation in the same area begs many questions:

what was the architecture and function of these agricultural systems,

were these farms organized, were there towns and cities, commerce, government,

what human population could these farms have supported,

when exactly did the paddy and raised bed agriculture and the people who practiced it arise and go,

what tools did they use and how many people would it have taken to build such systems,

what were the climatic and anthropogenic factors that have contributed to the rise and fall,

what are the plants that have been grown and / or domesticated,

how many more sites are hidden in what is now forest,

how productive and permanent was the agriculture?

I am posting this Google Earth file of all of the sites that I have documented on Google Earth or Bing or other imagery, but it is like a turkey shoot, thousands more remain, in particular in the two polygons I include called Mbandaka Culture. The turquoise bookmarks are what look to be ancient agriculture and the green are the oil palm tree sites. When there are bs after the name that signifies importance (big).   Some may be strange natural geometry, but most, I am convinced, show ancient agriculture.  For you to decide; this is not a scientific paper, although some digs have already been undertaken in several of these sites with conclusive results.

Download the kml of over 1000 sites here

Download the map overlay kml for Google Earth here to view Bing Imagery

I invite one and all to add to the file, but I warn you it is addictive, you can while away hours and hours searching for new sites.  It is up to the archeologists and historians to tell us the reality of what I would call a lost civilization.   Just download the file, open it in Google Earth and then click on any bookmark to zoom to see the detail below. I have included a network link to permit overlay of Bing and other imagery on Google Earth.

All images below courtesy of Google Earth, Digital Globe and CNES/Airbus


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Meet the Author

J. Michael Fay
Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.