cold and bold: Ice Age people dwelled high in Peru's Andes
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[October 25, 2014]
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a bleak,
treeless landscape high in the southern Peruvian Andes, bands of
intrepid Ice Age people hunkered down in rudimentary dwellings and
withstood frigid weather, thin air and other hardships.
Scientists on Thursday described the world's highest known Ice Age
settlements, two archaeological sites about 2.8 miles (4.5 km) above
sea level and about 12,000 years old packed with artifacts including
a rock shelter, stone tools, animal bones, food remnants and
"What this tells us is that hunter-gatherers were capable of
colonizing a very extreme environment, the high Andes, despite the
challenges at the end of the Ice Age," said archaeologist Kurt
Rademaker of Germany's University of Tübingen, who led the study
published in the journal Science.
"And they did so quite successfully. It pushes back the date of
initial entry of humans to this kind of elevation."
The sites in an Andean locale called the Pucuncho Basin were
occupied by small numbers of people, probably only in the dozens.
"Bands of hunter-gatherers are small and not many could fit into the
rock shelter, perhaps just a few families," said University of Maine
archaeologist Dan Sandweiss, another of the researchers.
The researchers said the sites show high-altitude human habitation
was occurring nearly a millennium earlier than previously known.
"We look at the challenges and we say, 'Why would you do that when
you could just live somewhere else?'" Rademaker said. "Whatever
reason they initially went up there, there were reasons to stay
despite the challenges."
At that altitude, temperatures averaged 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3
degrees Celsius), solar radiation was high and oxygen was low. But
there also were animals like vicuña and guanaco - llama relatives -
and taruca deer to hunt, the rock shelter, water in streams, bogs
and wetlands, and stone like obsidian to make tools.
The tools included spear points, scrapers for working animal hides
and implements for cutting and butchering. "A lot of the stone tools
seem to be all about hunting and processing of animals," Rademaker
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The ceilings of the natural rock shelters were blackened with soot
from fires. The researchers found an abundance of animal bones as
well as potato-like starchy tubers that apparently were gathered
from lower elevations.
There also was art on the walls of the rock shelters including red
ochre pictographs of animals, with some entire wall sections painted
"We don't know whether they date back to the earliest occupation of
the site," Rademaker said.
An open-air site called Pucuncho 14,300 feet (4,355 meters) above
sea level yielded hundreds of tools. The Cuncaicha rock shelter
featured two alcoves and likely served as a base camp at 14,700 feet
Some experts think people need to acquire genetic adaptations over
many thousands of years to withstand such altitudes. But the fact
that people colonized these sites only about 2,000 years after
humans first entered South America may suggest otherwise.
"We have to re-examine that idea," Rademaker said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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