Archaeologists have discovered the world's oldest pyramids - on the Atlantic coast of southern Brazil. Like the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, the South American ones seem to have been built for religious purposes. Some contain hundreds of human burials, complete with spectacular grave goods - including stone plaques, shell breast plates and beautifully made stone birds, fish, whales and other animals.
But although the functions of the Brazilian and Egyptian pyramids were to some extent the same, there was certainly no contact between ancient Egypt and Brazil, and the concept of building pyramids was invented quite independently in both places.
Dating from 3000BC, the oldest of the Brazilian pyramids predate the earliest Egyptian example by several hundred years. The construction techniques were also markedly different, each Egyptian pyramid being built in one operation, while the Brazilian ones were each built in several phases, possibly over many decades or even centuries. And, unlike the Egyptian stone pyramids, the Brazilian ones were built exclusively of sea shells.
That is why archaeologists in the past had never realised what they were. For years Brazilian prehistorians had thought that the sites were simply immense piles of domestic rubbish from settlements.
But research carried out over the past four years has revealed that the "piles of ancient rubbish" were in fact deliberately built square structures of roughly pyramidic design.
Initial research suggests that some of the structures were originally move 160ft high with bases covering up to 37 acres. And in terms of volume, they were much bigger than the earliest examples in Egypt, and almost as high.
The archaeologists estimate that originally there were around a thousand Brazilian pyramids - some apparently 5,000 years old, others less ancient - of which fewer than 10 per cent survive in various states of preservation.
Up to this century most had survived, but between the Twenties and the Sixties they were used as a source of raw material for road construction. One of the largest surviving examples - near the town of Jaguaruna in the Brazilian state of Santa Catatina - still covers 25 acres and stands 100ft high - perhaps up to 65ft less than its original height.
Archaeological research is now even showing that some of the Brazilian pyramids - like their Mexican counterparts - had structures on top of them, although the Brazilian examples are up to 3,000 years older than the ones in Central America.
"Our new research shows that Brazil's prehistoric Indians 5,000 years ago were more sophisticated than we had thought and were capable of producing truly monumental structures," said Professor Edna Morley, the director of the Instituto do Patrinionio Historico e Artistico National (National Heritage Institute) in Santa Catarina where most of the Brazilian pyramids have been discovered.
"These massive structures will help revolutionise the way we think about ancient Indian cultures," she said.
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