Two remarkably well-preserved Ice Age sites on the northern coast of Peru have provided a rich record of an ancient civilization that was inhabited by humans nearly 15,000 years ago during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene ages. These are among some of the earliest humans to populate the Western Hemisphere.
The groundbreaking discovery was made in Huaca Prieta, which is the home to one of the earliest and largest pyramids in South America. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been discovered; these include stone tools, remains of plants and marine animals, including fish and sea lions, and elaborate hand-woven baskets.
When you put all the finds together, they strongly suggest that late-Ice Age and early-Holocene humans were well established in the area for several thousand years, even though they were known to be very mobile at that time. This also indicates that they were more advanced than originally thought and had very complex social networks.
“It may be that we’ve captured, archeologically, an instance where people just did not move quickly down the coastline, but rather settled in for a good long while.”
For years, archaeologists have argued over the origins and emergence of complex society in Peru. Questions like: Did it first happen in the highlands where they were dependent on agriculture, or did it happen on the coast with groups who were dependent on seafood?
The sites are sealed and covered by two ritual mounds called Huaca Prieta and Paredones. These two mounds are located on the Sangamon Terrace, which is a raised, flat, natural platform of land right on the shoreline. However, during the Ice Age, before the glaciers melted, the sea level was much lower and the shore further away (about 15 km to the west).
The team used NOAA water depth data and historic sea level data to reconstruct the ancient shoreline. Second author Steven Goodbred said:
“We wanted to see how far Huaca Prieta was from the shore 10,000 to 15,000 years ago to see if it made sense for these people to be using marine resources, And it did.”
The mounds are around 7,500 years old; however, this new discovery has found long before the mound-builders, there was an earlier wave of humans that made the terrace their home. They arrived at least 15,000 years ago and had occupied the area until roughly 9,000 years ago.
This also fits in with the timeline of other sites that have been discovered along the Pacific coast. This reinforces the theory that one of the ways humans migrated into the Americas was to follow the coast. James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., D.Sc., co-author of the study, said:
“The mounds of artifacts retrieved from Huaca Prieta include food remains, stone tools, and other cultural features such as ornate baskets and textiles, which really raise questions about the pace of the development of early humans in that region, and their level of knowledge and the technology they used to exploit resources from both the land and the sea.”
Because of the region’s arid climate, the organic remains have been well preserved. The ancient peoples had a rich, varied diet of marine life and wild plants native to the foothills to the east. A few remains of deer and birds from the mountain forests were also found; however, it appears they were eaten less frequently.
The marine life they were feeding on included fish, shellfish, sea birds, and sea lions. With no evidence of fishhooks, harpoons, or bifacial stone tools, it is unlikely they were seafaring people. Instead, it is thought that it is likely they trapped or clubbed marine animals in the wetlands (where they washed in with the tide or a storm surge and had become stranded).
The native plants they consumed included avocados, chili peppers, and beans, as well as the rushes used to weave the mats found at the site. The authors suggests that because there was food from both the sea and the foothills, the people who lived there traveled back and forth to both locations to hunt and gather, and then brought the food back to eat. Advoasio explained that:
“These strings of events that we have uncovered demonstrate that these people had a remarkable capacity to utilize different types of food resources, which led to a larger society size and everything that goes along with it, such as the emergence of bureaucracy and highly organized religion.”
After collecting their ingredients, they would have used simple unifacial stone tools; these would have been made on the spot to scrape away any scales and to cut meat and plants. The presence of distant plants and a few stone tools made from non-local materials indicated the possibility that the campsites on the Sangamon Terrace had been used longer than usual.
Dillehay explained that coastal migration was generally thought to have happened relatively quickly. This was because the next beach is always easy to find and doesn’t require a lot of lifestyle changes. However, to explore that far into the interior and become familiar with such a wide variety of local marine resources wouldn’t have made a lot of sense if they weren’t planning to stay for very long:
“Our data is indicating that these people pretty intimately knew the different environments of the area, and that takes time, experimentation, and knowledge.”
“What’s remarkable is that the lifestyle we describe still exists today.
“There are still fisherfolk who work the seashore and wetlands, still using very similar technologies like knocking off a stone flake from a cobble to scrape the scales off fish. So there’s a continuity of this very rustic coastal adaptation.”
Dillehay goes on to explain that far too much time has passed to consider the fisherfolk descendants or even to describe them as sharing a culture; however, the persistence of these survival strategies over so many millennia does offer a unique window into humanity’s very distant past.
Advosasio’s focus was on the excavation of the extensive collection of basket fragments. These were made from a variety of materials, including a local reed which is still used today. Some baskets that were discovered may date back as far as 11,000 years, while others made from domesticated cotton using some of the oldest dyes known are around 4,000 years old. Adovasio explained that:
“To make these complicated textiles and baskets indicates that there was a standardized or organized manufacturing process in place, and that all of these artifacts were much fancier than they needed to be for that time period.
“Like so many of the materials that were excavated, even the baskets reflect a level of complexity that signals a more sophisticated society, as well as the desire for and a means for showing social stature.
“All of these things together tell us that these early humans were engaged in very complicated social relationships with each other, and that these fancy objects all bespeak that kind of social messaging.”
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