Beneath Huaca Prieta, an earthen mound ceremonially constructed nearly 8,000 years ago in the north of Peru, researchers were shocked to find traces of complex coastal-dependent societies from almost 15,000 years ago. The discovery challenges scientists' current theories of how and when the first complex societies developed in South America.
Until recently, archaeologists believed that early human settlers walked through an ice-free passageway where modern-day Alaska and Canada is, and then made it down the coast around 13,000 years ago.
The recent discovery in Peru, along with the famous Monte Verde in Chile, have challenged this theory by indicating human activity in South America at least 1,500 years earlier than believed, which places the migration before ice had cleared in Alaska and Canada.
Beneath Huaca Prieta, remains of hearth fires, stone tools, animal bones, and even woven baskets suggest the presence of settled communities that had a deep knowledge of their environment.
“This looks like people settling in. As old as this is, you're probably not looking at the first peoples on the landscape” Loren Davis, an Oregon State University archaeologist said.
Among the most significant aspects of the discovered site is the evidence that the community was highly dependent on fishing and coastal food sources. The site pre-dates previous estimates for the development of fishing, since relatively complex technologies such as hooks, nets, and boats did not yet exist. Although researchers did not find any of these technologies, they found evidence of creative and environmentally adaptive fishing strategies. The researchers suspect that the community trapped and clubbed marine creatures that were stranded in the numerous tidal pools, eliminating the need for more advanced technology.
There is also evidence that the community grew crops, like chilies, squash, avocado, and various medicinal plants in addition to harvesting seafood.
"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," said James M. Adovasio at Florida Atlantic University.
The evidence of a coastal dependent community suggests that the earliest people in South America might have migrated slowly along the coast and been much more settled than previously believed. Archaeologists have been torn as to whether early societies in the continent were coastal, or whether they were agriculture-dependent in the highlands.