Category Archives: CHILE

Evidence For Biggest Earthquake In Human History That Caused 66-Ft Tall Tsunamis Found In Chile

Evidence For Biggest Earthquake In Human History That Caused 66-Ft Tall Tsunamis Found In Chile

Archaeologists have found evidence of the largest known earthquake in human history — a terrifying magnitude-9.5 megaquake that caused a 5,000-mile-long (8,000 kilometres) tsunami and prompted human populations to abandon nearby coastlines for 1,000 years, a new study finds.

Evidence For Biggest Earthquake In Human History That Caused 66-Ft Tall Tsunamis Found In Chile
The earthquake sent waves as high as 66 feet and 5000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

The earthquake struck about 3,800 years ago in what is now northern Chile when a tectonic plate rupture lifted the region’s coastline. The subsequent tsunami was so powerful, that it created waves as high as 66 feet (20 meters) and travelled all the way to New Zealand, where it hurled car-size boulders hundreds of miles inland, the researchers found. 

Until now, the largest earthquake ever recorded was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, which hit southern Chile with a magnitude between 9.4 and 9.6, killing up to 6,000 people and sending tsunamis barreling across the Pacific Ocean.

The rupture that caused the Valdivia earthquake was enormous, extending as far as 500 miles (800 km) in length. But, as scientists detail in research published April 6 in the journal Science Advances, the newly discovered ancient megaquake was even bigger, coming from a rupture roughly 620 miles (1,000 km) long.

“It had been thought that there could not be an event of that size in the north of the country simply because you could not get a long enough rupture,” study co-author James Goff, a geologist at the University of Southampton in England, said in a statement

Like the Valdivia earthquake, the ancient quake was a megathrust earthquake, the most powerful type of earthquake in the world. These earthquakes occur when one of Earth’s tectonic plates gets forced, or subducted, underneath another.

The two plates eventually get locked into place by friction, but the forces that caused the plates to collide continue to build. Eventually, so much strain gathers that the point of contact between the plates rips apart, creating a gigantic rupture and releasing energy in the form of devastating seismic waves. 

Evidence for the giant quake was found in marine and coastal items — such as littoral deposits (boulders, pebbles and sand native to coastal regions) and marine rocks, shells and sea life — that the researchers discovered displaced far inland in Chile’s the Atacama Desert. 

“We found evidence of marine sediments and a lot of beasties that would have been living quietly in the sea before being thrown inland,” Goff said in the statement. “And we found all these very high up and a long way inland, so it could not have been a storm that put them there.”

To get a better sense of what brought these deposits so far from the sea, the researchers used radiocarbon dating. This method involves measuring the quantities of carbon 14, a radioactive carbon isotope, found inside a material to determine its age.

As carbon 14 is everywhere on Earth, deposits easily absorb it while they form. The half-life of carbon 14, or the time it takes for half of it to radioactively decay, is 5,730 years, making it ideal for scientists who want to peer back into the last 50,000 years of history by checking how much-undecayed carbon 14 a material has.

After dating 17 deposits across seven separate dig sites over 370 miles (600 km) of Chile’s northern coast, the researchers found that the ages of the out-of-place coastal material suggested that it had been washed inland some 3,800 years ago. 

Further evidence also came in the form of ancient stone structures that the archaeologists excavated. These stone walls, built by humans, were found lying beneath the tsunami’s deposits, and some were lying backwards, pointing toward the sea, suggesting that they had been toppled by the strong currents of the tsunami’s backwash.

“The local population there were left with nothing,” Goff said. “Our archaeological work found that a huge social upheaval followed as communities moved inland beyond the reach of tsunamis. It was over 1,000 years before people returned to live at the coast again, which is an amazing length of time given that they relied on the sea for food.”

As this is the oldest known discovery in the Southern Hemisphere of an earthquake and tsunami devastating human lives, the researchers are excited to probe the region further. They think their research could better inform us of the potential dangers of future megathrust quakes.

“While this had a major impact on people in Chile, the South Pacific islands were uninhabited when they took a pummeling from the tsunami 3,800 years ago,” Goff said. “But they are all well-populated now, and many are popular tourist destinations. So when such an event occurs next time, the consequences could be catastrophic unless we learn from these findings.”

Drowned Stone Age fishermen were examined with a forensic method that could rewrite prehistory

Drowned Stone Age fishermen were examined with a forensic method that could rewrite prehistory

Human bones dating to the Stone Age found in what is now northern Chile are the remains of a fisherman who died by drowning, scientists have discovered.

Drowned Stone Age fishermen were examined with a forensic method that could rewrite prehistory
Archaeologists unearthed the skeleton in a coastal area near Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The man lived about 5,000 years ago, and he was around 35 to 45 years old when he died. Scientists found the skeleton in a mass burial in the coastal region of Copaca near the Atacama Desert, and the grave held four individuals: three adults (two males and one female) and one child. 

The man would have been about 5 feet, 3 inches (1.6 meters) tall when alive, and his remains showed signs of degenerative diseases and metabolic stress, researchers reported in the April 2022 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The bones revealed traces of osteoarthritis in his back and both elbows; the back of his skull had evidence of healed injuries from blunt trauma; his teeth and jaws were marred by tartar, periodontal disease and abscesses; and lesions in his eye sockets hinted at an iron deficiency caused by ingesting a parasite found in marine animals, according to the study. 

Other marks on the arm and leg bones where muscles were once attached told of repetitive activities related to fishing, such as rowing, harpooning and squatting to harvest shellfish. If the individual was a fisherman, perhaps he died by drowning, the researchers proposed.

When forensic teams examine modern skeletons that were found without any soft tissue attached, experts can confirm drowning as the cause of death by looking inside large bones for delicate microscopic algae, called diatoms, which live in watery habitats and soil.

When a person drowns, inhaled water can enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body after the lungs rupture, even reaching the “closed system” of bone marrow through capillaries, the authors reported. Looking at diatom species in bone marrow can thereby reveal if the person ingested saltwater. However, this method had never been used to examine ancient bones.

Algae, sponge spines and parasitic eggs

For the new study, the scientists decided that the modern diatom test was too “chemically aggressive,” and in removing bone marrow from samples, it also destroyed small particles and organisms that weren’t diatoms. Such particles could be highly significant for analyzing Stone Age bones, according to the study.

The researchers, therefore, adopted “a less aggressive process” that eliminated residual bone marrow in their samples, while preserving a wider range of microscopic material absorbed by the marrow, which could then be detected by scanning electron microscopy (SEM).

Their SEM scans revealed a microorganism jackpot. While there was no marine material clinging to the outside of the bones, the scans showed that the marrow contained plenty of tiny ocean fossils, including algae, parasitic eggs and broken sponge structures called spicules. This variety of marine life deep inside the man’s bones suggests that he died by drowning in saltwater. 

It’s possible that the cause of death was a natural disaster, as the geologic record in this coastal region of Chile preserves evidence of powerful tsunamis dating to around 5,000 years ago, the scientists reported. But with ample skeletal evidence that the person was a fisherman, the more likely explanation is that he died during a fishing accident, they said.

Damage to the skeleton — missing shoulder joints, cervical vertebrae that were replaced with shells and a broken ribcage — could have happened when waves pummeled the drowned man’s body and then washed it ashore, the researchers explained.

Interior analysis of the man’s bones revealed traces of microscopic sea life, such as parasite eggs and algae. This image shows a degraded unicellular green alga that lives in marine ecosystems.

As to why the man was buried in a mass grave, “what we can assess from similar contexts is that they probably belonged to the same family group,” said lead study author Pedro Andrade, an archaeologist and a professor of anthropology at the University of Concepción in Chile.

The individuals likely shared an ancestor but weren’t immediate family members, as the dates of the skeletons spanned about 100 years, Andrade told Live Science in an email. 

By expanding the range of the modern diatom test to include a broader selection of microscopic marine life in their search through the interior cavities of prehistoric bones, “we’ve cracked open a whole new way to do things,” study co-author James Goff, a visiting professor in the School of Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. 

“This can help us understand much more about how tough it was living by the coast in prehistoric days — and how people there were affected by catastrophic events, just as we are today,” Goff said.

Applying this method across other archaeological sites in coastal areas with mass graves could offer game-changing insight into how ancient people survived — and often died — while living under potentially perilous conditions, Andrade told Live Science.

While there are many coastal mass burial sites worldwide that have been investigated by scientists, “the fundamental question of what caused so many deaths has not been addressed,” Goff added. 

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

A recent study of geological deposits and archaeological remains has identified a massive earthquake and tsunami that wiped out communities along the coastline of Chile’s the Atacama Desert around 3,800 years ago. Studying the ancient disaster—and people’s responses to it—could help with modern hazard planning along the seismically active coast.

A long-forgotten disaster

Broken walls and toppled stones reveal the calamity that struck Zapatero, an ancient community in what’s now northern Chile, about 4,000 years ago. The people who lived along the coast of the Atacama Desert 5,700 to 4,000 years ago built villages of small stone houses atop massive piles of shells (Zapatero’s shell-filled midden is two meters deep and spans six square kilometres). Usually, these houses stood adjacent to each other, opening onto inner patios. People buried their dead beneath the houses’ floors. The cement floors were made from algae ash, seawater, and shells—the same material that held the stone walls together.

But stones and mortar failed in the face of the ocean’s power. One house at Zapatero stands in ruins, with the stones from its walls toppled inland as if struck by a giant wave. Another lies with its stones scattered back toward the sea, in exactly the pattern you’d expect from “strong currents associated with tsunami backwash,” University of Chile archaeologist Diego Salazar and his colleagues say. In a third house, the floors are covered in a layer of washed-in sand laden with the remains of marine algae and echinoderm spines, mingled with chunks of rock, shells, and sediment ripped up from the ground.

A tsunami wiped out ancient communities in the Atacama Desert 3,800 years ago

Elsewhere on the Zapatero midden, Salazar and his colleagues found similar layers of sand and ripped-up ground left behind by an ancient tsunami, along with channels gouged out by the tsunami’s strong, sudden current. When the archaeologists radiocarbon-dated shells from these layers, they found that many of the shells were actually older than the ones in undisturbed layers underneath—evidence that something had churned up the ground and ripped these older shells from their resting places to deposit them on the surface.

The same story is written in ruins and sediment at other archaeological sites along a several-hundred-kilometre stretch of the Atacama coastline. In recent surveys, Salazar and his colleagues also found geological evidence of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the region: layers of sandy, shell-laden seafloor sediment lifted several meters above sea level by seismic upheaval. The researchers radiocarbon-dated shells in these uplifted chunks of ancient coastline, along with shells and charcoal in the layers just above and below the tsunami deposits, and narrowed the date of the ancient disaster to around 3,800 years ago, give or take a century or two.

Combined, the geological and archaeological evidence points to a natural disaster of epic proportions: a rupture along a 1,000-kilometer stretch of the fault system where the Nazca Plate is slowly sliding under the South American Plate. The estimated magnitude 9.5 megathrust earthquake would have shoved parts of the coastline upward and triggered a tsunami 19 to 20 meters high along a huge stretch of the Chilean coast (and all the way across the Pacific in New Zealand, where geologists have also found deposits from a tsunami of about the same age).

The combined earthquake and tsunami struck a devastating blow for ancient people who lived close to the Pacific Ocean with a hyperarid desert at their backs. Archaeological evidence reveals that people abandoned the coast for centuries after the disaster.

Abandoned villages and scattered camps

The Atacama Desert is a hard place to live. It’s the driest desert in the world outside Antarctica, with less than 1 millimetre of rain a year. But people have lived—and thrived—here for at least 12,000 years. In part, they’ve pulled it off by turning to the sea.

Just offshore, the Humboldt Current wells up with nutrient-rich water, fueling a rich, teeming coastal ecosystem that’s still one of the world’s most productive fisheries. Thanks to the long, slow tectonic collision between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, the region is also fraught with seismic hazards. But for millennia, people traded that sporadic, long-term risk for the riches of the ocean. They left behind archaeological evidence of their presence and their adaptations to life in this unique environment.

But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami 3,800 years ago, people deserted the settlements of shell middens and stone houses that dotted the Atacama coast. The sea has always been vital to life in the Atacama, but it’s clear that, for centuries, no one wanted to live too close.

Above the layers of sand and debris from the waves, mixed with toppled walls, there’s little or no trace of human activity at sites like Zapatero. The only evidence speaks of very short visits: small hearths and a sparse scattering of artefacts lying atop flood debris and broken stone walls. When people had to return to the ruins of their ancestors, they clearly didn’t want to stay long.

Archaeologists can see the wariness in the abandoned buildings and short-lived camps at places like Zapatero, but they can also read it in larger-scale changes that span the whole north Chilean coast. In one 100-kilometer stretch near Taltal, an area of northern Chile rich in archaeological sites, a survey revealed a 65 per cent decrease in the number of settlements after around 3,800 years ago.

Northeast view of the Zapatero archaeological in the Taltal region of northern Chile.

That date marks not only the estimated arrival of the tsunami, but the boundary between two archaeologically distinct cultures, Archaic IV (5,700 to 4,000 years ago) and Archaic V. After that boundary, settlements are scarcer, and both homes and cemeteries tend to be farther inland and on higher ground. Close to shore, what settlements there are get smaller, with fewer artifacts left buried and scattered.

Ancient mine gets the shaft

Even very important resources, like the iron oxide mine at San Ramón, were abandoned.

“Iron oxide was used as a pigment for several reasons, including the realization of pictures on stones that can be found in several sites along this region of the coastal Atacama Desert,” University of Chile geologist Gabriel Easton, a co-author of the recent study, tells Ars. These pigments appear to have been important for local communities and were involved in their rites and ceremonies.

A 3 centimetre-wide vertical crack in the wall of the mine probably dates to the earthquake 3,800 years ago, and after that, work here seems to have stopped. “The San Ramón 15 archaeological site constitutes one of the most ancient [pieces of] evidence of mining activity in the Americas, exploited since 12,000 years ago, and abandoned after around 4,000 years ago, most possibly because of the effects caused by the earthquake in the region,” Easton tells Ars.

But this is still a seismically active zone, and the risk of a major earthquake or tsunami is real. That’s why Salazar and his colleagues say the 3,800-year-old disaster they’ve revealed is important not just to our understanding of the past but our plans for the future. Most of the hazard assessments for coastal northern Chile are based on historical data that goes back just a few centuries, but the fault system in the region runs on a much larger temporal scale. Data about ancient quakes and tsunamis like the one that reshaped society here 3,800 years ago could offer a longer-term perspective to hazard planners.

Unfortunately, the Indigenous people who still live in the Atacama, including the Changos (recently recognized by the Chilean government after years of effort) lost much of their history, traditional culture, and lore to the ravages of European conquest, epidemics, and centuries of marginalization. But learning how their ancestors responded and adapted could help all of us prepare to face the next disaster.

According to Salazar and his colleagues, the aftermath of the ancient Atacama disaster is a reminder that resilience doesn’t mean a “return to the pre-shock state” but rather “the capacity of human communities to absorb changes… allowing for their long-term adaptation.”

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China

A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in Japan and China has found evidence of goose domestication in China approximately 7,000 years ago.

Modern Chinese domestic geese (Anser cygnoides domesticus).

In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes their study of goose bones found at Tianluoshan—a dig site in east China.

Over the past several years, scientists have debated the timeline of the domestication of birds—most have suggested that chickens, which are believed to have once been a type of junglefowl, were the first to be domesticated, though there is still much debate about when it first occurred.

Estimates have ranged from five to ten thousand years ago. In this new effort, the researchers have found evidence of the domestication of wild geese, as far back as 7,000 years ago.

The team found goose bones at the Tianluoshan site and used radiocarbon dating to find out how old they are.

They have also studied the bones in other ways to learn more about their characteristics, such as the age of the birds at death.

The bones were found at what had once been a settlement of stone-age people who were both hunter/gatherers and farmers—they grew rice to supplement their foraging efforts.

The researchers found 232 goose bones at the site, four of which were from goslings ranging from 8 to 16 weeks old.

They suggest this shows the birds were hatched near the site because it is believed that wild geese did not live in that area at the time the birds were alive.

They also found evidence suggesting that the birds had been locally bred based on chemicals in their bones that likely came from a local water source. And all of the adults were approximately the same size, which indicates captive breeding.

7,000-Year-Old Evidence of Geese Domestication Found in China
Goose bones were found at Tianluoshan, China.

The researchers suggest that the evidence they found provides strong evidence for the domestication of geese in China nearly 7,000 years ago.

A finding that could mean that geese were the first birds to be domesticated.

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago

A new study has confirmed saltwater drowning as the cause of death for a Neolithic man whose remains were found in a mass grave on the coast of Northern Chile. The method developed to solve the 5000-year-old cold case opens up new possibilities for assessing the remains of our prehistoric ancestors.

New Study Suggests Fisherman Drowned Some 5,000 Years Ago
The Neolithic fisherman in the burial site

The scientists believe it will help archaeologists understand more about past civilisations in coastal regions and the human stories behind the remains they discover.

Modern forensics can confirm drowning as the cause of death in recent victims by testing for diatoms inside the bones of the victims. Diatoms are a group of algae found in oceans, freshwater and soils. If they are found inside the bones of victims’ bodies, it is likely that they drowned.

This is because if they had died before entering the water, they would not have swallowed any saltwater. The test has never been successfully tried to determine drowning in saltwater on prehistoric human remains, until now.

In addition to the diatom test, the research team, led by the University of Southampton, carried out a wide-ranging microscopic analysis of bone marrow extracted from a man found in a 5000-year-old mass burial site.

This allowed them to search for a greater range of microscopic particles that could provide more insight into the cause of his death.

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, found a variety of marine particles that suggested he drowned in saltwater. These particles included fossilised algae, parasite eggs and sediment, which would not have been detected by the standard diatom test.

Professor James Goff of the University of Southampton, who led the study said, “mass burials have often been necessary after natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods or large storms.

However, we know very little about whether prehistoric mass burial sites near coastlines could be the result of natural disasters or other causes such as war, famine and disease. This gave us our light bulb moment of developing an enhanced version of a modern forensic test to use on ancient bones.”

After scanning archaeological papers for records of mass burial sites near coastlines, Prof Goff and his team worked with Prof Pedro Andrade of the Universidad de Concepción in Chile.

Prof Andrade had previously studied an archaeological site known as Copaca 1, 30 kilometres south of Tocopilla on the Chilean coastline. The site area contains a grave with three well-preserved skeletons.

The individual they studied was a male hunter-gather aged between 35 and 45. The condition of his bones suggested he was a fisherman as there were signs of frequent harpooning, rowing and harvesting of shellfish.

This made him the ideal candidate to study for signs of drowning and for evidence of the event that led to his death.

Genevieve Cain, Prof Pedro Andrade and the fisherman

“By looking at what we found in his bone marrow, we know that he drowned in shallow saltwater,” Prof Goff continued. “We could see that the poor man swallowed sediment in his final moments and sediment does not tend to float around in sufficient concentrations in deeper waters.”

Based on their initial findings, the team believe that he died in a marine accident rather than in a major catastrophic event. This is partly because the bones of the others he was buried with did not contain marine particles so it is unlikely they all died by saltwater drowning.

The team advise they could shed more light on this by testing other human remains on the site and studying geological records for evidence of natural disasters in the area.

Most importantly, scientists believe this new technique can be used for ancient mass burial sites around the world to get a richer picture of the lives of people in coastal communities throughout history.

“In taking more time over the forensic technique and testing for a broader range of beasties inside the prehistoric bones, we’ve cracked open a whole new way to do things,” Prof Goff continued. “This can help us understand much more about how tough it was living by the coast in pre-historic days – and how people there were affected by catastrophic events, just as we are today.”

“There are many coastal mass burial sites around the world where excellent archaeological studies have been carried out but the fundamental question of what caused so many deaths have not been addressed. Now we can take this new technique out around the world and potentially re-write prehistory.”

Prof James Goff and the fisherman

Brutalised skeletons of ancient farmers who ‘battered each other to death in world’s DRIEST desert’ found

Brutalised skeletons of ancient farmers who ‘battered each other to death in world’s DRIEST desert’ found

Grisly human remains of ancient farmers who worked in one of the world’s driest deserts have been examined as part of a new study. The battered skeletons were found in the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile and date back 3,000 years.

Lethal wounds could be seen on some of the skulls

The brutal conditions of their dry workplace weren’t the only thing they had to deal with though.

The skeletons show how the farmers lived in a time of social tension that led to violence and murder.

The researchers write in their study: “The emergence of elites and social inequality fostered interpersonal and inter- and intra-group violence associated with the defence of resources, socio-economic investments, and other cultural concerns.

“This study evaluated violence among the first horticulturalists in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile during the Neolithic transition between 1000 BCE – 600 CE. Furthermore, it analyzed trauma caused by interpersonal violence using a sample of 194 individuals.”

The 194 skeletons investigated were all adult and came from ancient cemeteries in the desert’s Azapa Valley.

This was said to be one of the richest and most fertile valleys that the ancient farmers could have been based in.

The skeletons are creepily well preserved because of the dry conditions and some even have soft tissue and hair.

Around 21% of the skeletons also showed evidence of “interpersonal violence”.

This includes skull holes and fractures that would have caused extreme pain.

Around 10% likely died from lethal blows.

Weapons like maces, sticks and arrows could have caused the trauma.

The researchers write: “Some individuals exhibited severe high impact fractures of the cranium that caused massive destruction of the face and neurocranium, with craniofacial disjunction and outflow of brain mass.”

The fights could have been over land, water and resources.

The full study findings can be found in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

The farmers could have been fighting over land and resources
194 skeletons were studied for the research

In other archaeology news, a ship that sank after it was hit by gigantic stone blocks following an earthquake 2,200 years ago has been found in Egypt.

A new analysis of the remains of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh has revealed he may have been brutally murdered on the battlefield.

And, human skeletons have been discovered on a 1717 pirate shipwreck just off the coast of Cape Cod in the US.

Modern crocodile’s ‘grandfather,’ 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil

Modern crocodile’s ‘grandfather,’ 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil

A 150-million-year-old fossilized skeleton discovered in the mountains of southern Chile was determined to be the ancestor of the modern crocodile, the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences announced on Friday.

Fossilized bones of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis are pictured, in Buenos Aires

The species, named Burkesuchus mallingrandensis, was found in 2014 in an Andean fossil deposit near the Patagonian town of Mallin Grande by Argentine and Chilean researchers. Since then it has been analyzed at the Argentine Museum of Natural Sciences (MACN) in Buenos Aires.

The specimen is a “grandfather” of current crocodiles and should allow scientists to understand how they evolved, the museum said.

Technicians Marcelo Isasi, Marcela Milani, and palaeontologist Nicolas Chimento work on the excavation of pieces of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis, in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia

Scientists believe the fossil will help them understand how these reptiles went from being terrestrial to aquatic. Along with other fossils, the discovery supports the idea that South America was the cradle of evolution for crocodiles.

About 200 million years ago “crocodiles were smaller and did not live in water. Palaeontologists always wanted to know what that transition was like,” Federico Agnolin, who found the specimen, told Reuters.

“What Burkesuchus shows is a series of unique traits, which no other crocodile has because they were the first that began to get into the water, into freshwater,” Agnolin said.

Modern crocodile's 'grandfather,' 150 million years old, discovered in Chile fossil
Palaeontologist Fernando Novas holds the fossil skull of the Burkesuchus mallingrandensis

According to the MACN, crocodiles appeared at the beginning of the Jurassic period, around the time of the first dinosaurs.

In a few million years they got into the water, thanks to the existence of warm and shallow seas. South America is known for its richness in marine crocodile fossils.

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive

The more we delve into Chile’s desolate Atacama Desert, the more we discover, Phenomena both mystifying and wonderful, occasionally bordering on alien. But in this incredibly dry place, it wasn’t just the climate that was unforgiving. Its ancient human inhabitants, making do in a parched place not best suited to hosting them, traded in whatever they could get their hands on.

Sometimes, it seems, that was the brilliant feathers of colourful birds brought unceremoniously to a desert they didn’t belong to, but were destined to be buried within. What we consider acceptable interactions with animals under our care was very different back then, says anthropological archaeologist Jose Capriles from Pennsylvania State University.

“Some of these birds did not live a happy life. They were kept to produce feathers and their feathers were plucked out as soon as they grew in.” Capriles is something of a specialist when it comes to discovering the exotic oddities of pre-Columbian American culture.

This is how the mummified macaws would’ve looked when they were alive.

This time, his mother – Eliana Flores Bedregal, an ornithologist by profession – came along for the ride, co-authoring a new study examining the life and death of over two-dozen mummified and partially mummified parrots found within the Atacama Desert.

In total, at least six species of parrots originally recovered from five of the desert’s archaeological sites were studied in the research, with the remains variously dating from between 1100 to 1450 CE.

Mummified Parrots Found In The Atacama Desert Transported Hundreds Of Miles While Alive
Researchers identified a mummified Blue-Fronted Amazon parrot, recovered from an ancient cemetery in the Atacama Desert.

“The feathers of tropical birds were one of the most significant symbols of economic, social, and sacred status in the pre-Columbian Americas,” the authors write in their study.

In the Andes, finely produced clothing and textiles containing multicoloured feathers of tropical parrots materialized power, prestige, and distinction and were particularly prized by political and religious elites. Behind the folds of this marvellous drapery, the colourful birds likely lived a miserable existence in captivity, far from the Amazonian rainforests that were once their home.

Sometimes, the feathers were plucked elsewhere and imported into the Andes in special containers, but the remains of the 27 parrots and macaws analyzed here suggest many other birds were specifically brought to the desert for their vibrant plumage.

The feather trade in the region dates back much longer than this, at least to the Chinchorro mummies of around 5050 BCE. Thousands of years later, feathers were still a cherished feature used in garments, hats, headdresses, and other ornaments.

Most of the mummified birds examined in the new study were originally recovered from an archaeological site called Pica 8, located close to an oasis community within the Atacama Desert that still exists today.

Mummified scarlet macaw.

Once upon a time, though, the people here buried their birds alongside themselves.

“Most birds were placed in direct association with human burials,” the researchers write, noting the parrots’ tails were often removed.

Sometimes the animals were positioned in elaborate stances, with beaks opened and tongues sticking out, perhaps tied to ritualistic practices invoking parrots’ ability to mimic human speech. Others had their wings spread as if to forever soar in the afterlife.

During their life on Earth, it seems many had their wings broken and their feet strapped, although the researchers also observe care was taken with some of the animals, with evidence of clipping of their beaks and claws, in addition to healing processes for fractures sustained by the parrots.

“We have absolutely no idea why they were mummified like this,” Capriles says.

“They seem to be eviscerated through their cloaca (a common excretory and reproductive opening), which helped to preserve them. Many times, they were wrapped in textiles or bags.”

What is certain is that it can’t have been easy to get these grounded birds to the desert. Transported by llama caravans, it’s likely the journey from the Amazon would have taken months, the researchers think, although it’s possible some of the birds were procured from regions closer to the desert.

Once there, they were held as valuable pets, treasured for their wondrous palette of feathers, with each enticing shade certain to be stolen.