Satellite Imagery Locates Prehistoric Paths

The data is so new that the scientists haven't had time to analyze it much. They will get into that next week in Costa Rica. But what's clear in the earliest images, Sheets says, is that the pathways lead to several areas, including a graveyard, a spring and a source of stones used to build modest structures.

No one knows yet how far they go, because the images still don't cover enough of the surrounding area, but that information should emerge soon.

Sacred Trails?

It is both fortuitous and mysterious as to why the paths, particularly the one leading to the graveyard, should be so straight. In some areas, it was not the most convenient course, because the people had to go straight down an embankment, for example, cross a stream and go straight up the other side.

In some areas there are side paths that lead straight off the main pathway, and then stop abruptly for no apparent reason.

Scientists thought initially that the people always followed the same path out of fear of getting lost in the dense forest, but Sheets says he never really bought that idea. There had to be another reason, and although he isn't sure, he thinks it probably had to do with religious or ceremonial rites, partly because the cemetery played a major role in the lives of these people.

The graveyard was a site of lavish feasting, after which the pots used to prepare the meals were smashed and left behind, where archaeologists found them so many years later. It's not clear why, but Sheets speculates that the smashing of the pots may have been a ceremonial sacrifice to buried ancestors.

They shared at least one thing with their ancestors. When the Arenal volcano erupted, it always did so with fury, spreading deadly ash over a wide area. Yet somehow these people survived, outlasting the Aztecs and the Mayans, until the Spanish Conquest at about 1500.

That fact has led to some interesting speculation. Perhaps this was not an isolated village at all, but part of a larger network of villages that offered support to each other during times of need. That might help explain how the people survived numerous eruptions.

But nobody knows that yet. Sheets plans to follow those pathways as far as he can, picking his way through the forest with the help of a high tech satellite, uniting the distant past with the future. Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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