New Discovery of Peru’s Ancient Civilization

James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., D.Sc., co-author of the study and a world acclaimed archaeologist at FAU's Harbor Branch, who is the foremost authority on ancient textiles and materials such as those used in basketry. (Image:  Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute)
James M. Adovasio, Ph.D., D.Sc., co-author of the study and a world acclaimed archaeologist at FAU's Harbor Branch, who is the foremost authority on ancient textiles and materials such as those used in basketry. (Image: Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute)

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.

Figure showing the relationship of the mound to the excavated areas beneath. (Image: via Tom Dillehay)

Figure showing the relationship of the mound to the excavated areas beneath. (Image: Tom Dillehay)

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.

Lead author of the paper published in Science Advances, Tom Dillehay, Rebecca Webb Wilson University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, said in a statement:

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).

Location map of the study area and shorelines 15,000 and 10,000 years ago. (Image: via Vanderbilt University)

Location map of the study area and shorelines 15,000 and 10,000 years ago. (Image: Vanderbilt University)

The team used NOAA water depth data and historic sea level data to reconstruct the ancient shoreline. Second author Steven Goodbred said:

Excavating deep beneath the Huaca Prieta mound. (Image: via Tom Dillehay)

Excavating deep beneath the Huaca Prieta mound. (Image: Tom Dillehay)

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:

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).

Simple unifacial (one-sided) stone tools used for cutting and scraping. (Image: via Tom Dillehay)

Simple unifacial (one-sided) stone tools used for cutting and scraping. (Image: Tom Dillehay)

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:

Basket remnants retrieved from the site were made from diverse materials including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton and were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World. (Image: via Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute)

Basket remnants retrieved from the site were made from diverse materials, including a local reed that is still used today by modern basket makers. More elaborate baskets included segments made from domesticated cotton that were colored using some of the oldest dyes known in the New World. (Image: Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute)

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:

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.

A 10,500-year old fragment of a mat woven from rush stalks. (Image: via Tom Dillehay)

A 10,500-year-old fragment of a mat woven from rush stalks. (Image: Tom Dillehay)

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:

Local fisherman using nets to catch fish and sharks left stranded following a storm surge. They will also build blinds made of reeds staked with dead pelicans to attract live ones, which they would catch and club. (Image: via Tom Dillehay)

Local fisherman using nets to catch fish and sharks left stranded following a storm surge. They also build blinds made of reeds staked with dead pelicans to attract live ones, which they catch and club. (Image: Tom Dillehay)

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