Category Archives: CHILE

Rare Inca Tunic Unearthed in Chile

Rare Inca Tunic Unearthed in Chile

Unku found in Caleta Vitor Bay. Top: sides A and B from the wearer’s point of view (photographs by Paola Salgado); bottom: illustration of the tapestry tunic from the weaver’s position and viewpoint (illustration by Paola Salgado).

A new study co-authored by a George Washington University research professor examines the Inka Empire’s (also known as the Incan Empire and the Inca Empire) instruments of culture and control through a well-preserved article of clothing discovered in a centuries-old Chilean cemetery.

Researchers excavating the burial site along Caleta Vítor Bay in northern Chile found a tunic, or unku (see above), which would have been worn by a man who commanded respect and prestige in the Inka Empire.

Unkus were largely standardized attire meeting technical and stylistic specifications imposed by imperial authorities.

The Caleta Vítor unku, however, goes beyond the strict mandates handed down by Inka leaders.

While the artisans who fashioned this unku clearly adhered to imperial design standards, they also included subtle cultural tributes unique to their provincial homeland.

Whoever wove the Caleta Vítor unku lived hundreds of miles south of the Inka capital of Cusco in an area absorbed into the Inka Empire in the late 15th century.

The weaver employed the techniques and unique style and imagery of an indigenous culture that existed long before the Inka conquest, creating a tangible symbol of provincial life in pre-colonial South America.

“It represents a study of a rare example of an excavated Inka unku tunic, whose context and technical features are providing an unprecedented understanding of imperial Inka influence in the provinces,” Jeffrey Splitstoser, an assistant research professor of anthropology at GW and a co-author of the study, said.

The paper is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientific community is perplexed by the discovery of a mummified Alien body in the Atacama desert

The scientific community is perplexed by the discovery of a mummified Alien body in the Atacama desert

The mummified alien body from the Atacama Desert is at the top of the list when it comes to findings that the science world shudders at the thought of.

When it was found in 2003, no scientist could come up with a proper explanation other than the fact that it was unquestionably out of this universe.

Professor Harry Nolan also thought this was evidence that a mutant had been unleashed into the wild after a series of unsuccessful trials.

Ramon Navia, an employee of the prestigious Institute for Exobiological Research, has claimed on record that this is evidence of a very small mummy that was cast off, but unfortunately, that hypothesis does not hold water either, as careful examination reveals that this isn’t your ordinary bipedal specimen that has been mummified.

Brian Fester, an amazing scholar, investigated and examined the skull inside, ultimately concluding that the remains of the body were either human or, more likely, alien fossils.

The scientific community is perplexed by the discovery of a mummified Alien body in the Atacama desert

According to him, the beast must have had grey skin because it was unaffected by the atmosphere, and the elongated skull could indicate that it came from South America because their ancestors were known to have the head shape.

Some may also speculate that this is an infant who was mummified several years ago, but no one has a definitive response.

Remains of a woman from 800 years ago were found in a Wooden canoe

Remains of a woman from 800 years ago were found in a Wooden canoe

Remains of a woman from 800 years ago were found in a Wooden canoe
An illustration of a deceased young woman lying in a wampos (ceremonial canoe) with a pottery jug near her head.

Up to 1,000 years ago, mourners buried a young woman in a ceremonial canoe to represent her final journey into the land of the dead in what is now Patagonia, a new study finds. The discovery reaffirms ethnographic and historical accounts that canoe burials were practised throughout pre-Hispanic South America and refutes the idea that they may have been used only after the Spanish colonization, according to the authors of the study.

“We hope this investigation and its results will resolve this controversy,” said archaeologist Alberto Pérez, an associate professor of anthropology at the Temuco Catholic University in Chile and the lead author of the study, published Wednesday (Aug. 24) in the journal PLOS One.

Canoe burials are well attested and are still practised in some areas of South America, Pérez told Live Science. But because wood rots rapidly, the new finding is the first known evidence of the practice from the pre-Hispanic period. “The previous evidence was important and was based on ethnographic data, but the evidence was indirect,” he said.

The archaeological site in northwest Argentina was excavated between 2012 and 2015 before a well was built at the location, which is on private land.

The burial described in the study, at the Newen Antug archaeological site near Lake Lacár in western Argentina, indicates that mourners buried the woman on her back in a wooden structure crafted from a single tree trunk that had been hollowed out by the fire.

The same burning technique has been used for thousands of years to make “dugout” canoes known as “wampos” in the local Mapuche culture, and evidence suggests that Indigenous people prepared the woman’s remains so that she could embark on a final canoe journey across mystical waters to her final abode in the “destination of souls,” Pérez said.

Pre-Hispanic burial

The woman’s grave is the earliest of three known pre-Hispanic burials at the Newen Antug site, which archaeologists excavated between 2012 and 2015, before a well was built at the location, which is on private land. The location is at the northern extreme of the region known as Patagonia, which consists of the temperate steppes, alpine regions, coasts and deserts of the southern part of South America.

Radiocarbon dating indicates the woman was buried more than 850 years ago and possibly up to 1,000 years ago, while her sex and age at death — between 17 and 25 years old — were estimated from her pelvic bones and the wear on her teeth, according to the study. (Evidence suggests the Mapuche have lived in the region since at least 600 B.C.)

A pottery jug decorated with white glaze and red geometric patterns, placed in the grave by her head, suggests a connection with the “red on white bichrome” tradition of pre-Hispanic ceramics on both sides of the Andes mountains, the researchers found. This is the earliest known example of this type of pottery being used as a grave gift, according to the study.

Canoes known as wampos in the Mapuche language were constructed by hollowing out a single tree trunk with fire, with thicker walls at the bow and stern.

Given its age and the humid climate, the burial canoe has rotted away, and only fragments of wood remain. But tests suggest that the fragments came from the same tree — a  Chilean cedar (Austrocedrus chilensis) — and that it had been hollowed out with fire.

Shells found in the grave show that her body was placed directly on a bed of Diplodon chilensis, a type of freshwater clam that was likely brought from the shores of Lake Lacár more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) away, the researchers wrote.

The young woman was buried more than 800 years ago in a wampo, or ceremonial canoe, that researchers think symbolized a boat journey to the land of the dead.

In addition, the position of the body — with the arms gathered above the torso, and the head and feet raised — indicates that the woman was buried inside a concave structure with thicker walls at the ends, which correspond to the bow and stern of a canoe, Pérez said.

Taken together, these aspects suggest the woman was interred in a traditional canoe burial representing the Mapuche belief that a soul must make a final boat journey before it arrives in the land of the dead. “The material evidence all goes in the same direction, and there is a whole battery of ethnographic and historical information that accounts for it,” Pérez told Live Science in an email.

Destination of souls

According to Mapuche belief, the destination of the deads’ souls was “Nomelafken” — a word in the Mapuche language that translates to the “other side of the sea” — and the newly dead would make a metaphorical boat journey for up to four years before they arrived at a mythical island called Külchemapu or Külchemaiwe, Pérez and his colleagues wrote in the study.

A historical report from the 1840s by the Chilean politician Salvador Sanfuentes remarked that local people “site the graves of their dead on the bank of a stream to allow the current to carry the soul to the land of souls” and that ceremonial canoes were buried as coffins to carry the dead on this journey, the researchers wrote.

The metaphor of the recently deceased making such a canoe journey to a final destination seems to have been prevalent throughout South America in pre-Hispanic times, and possibly for thousands of years, Pérez noted.

“We infer that this was a widespread practice on the continent, although it is little known to archaeology due to conservation problems,” such as the degradation of wood in humid climates, he said. “The antiquity of these practices is uncertain, but we know such navigation technologies were used there more than 3,500 years ago, so we can estimate that date as a potential time limit.”

The new study has great scientific importance for archaeological and anthropological research in the Patagonia region, said Nicolás Lira, an assistant professor of archaeology, ethnography and prehistory at the University of Chile who wasn’t involved in the research.

“The findings … are of exceptional preservation for the humid environment of the region, where rivers and lakes shape the landscape in an interconnected [river] system that facilitated and encouraged navigation,” Lira told Live Science in an email. 

Juan Skewes, an anthropologist at Alberto Hurtado University in Chile who wasn’t involved in the study, said the Newen Antug burial was “strong evidence” of a shared cultural tradition between the east and west “slopes” of the Andes. 

Meanwhile, historical and ethnographic records suggest such canoe burials represented a symbolic relationship between the Mapuche people and bodies of water, but that relationship wasn’t their only consideration, Skewes said. For example, “trees are part of almost every aspect of the Mapuche’s daily life, Skewes said. “Aside from having associations with mortuary practices, they are linked to childbirth and to the memories of the dead.” That might mean that the construction of a burial wampo from a single tree could have had extra meaning, in addition to the canoe’s symbolic function during the final voyage of the dead, he said.

The 7,000-Year-Old Elongated Skull Mummies Of Chile

The 7,000-Year-Old Elongated Skull Mummies Of Chile

The Chinchorro culture existed on the coast of present-day northern Chile and southern Peru as much as 9,000 years ago, and interestingly they purposefully mummified their dead.

Mummification first arose about 7,000 years ago, making them 4,000 years older than the same practice carried out in Egypt.

The brain and other organs were removed on purpose, and replaced with vegetable matter. There is also evidence that the mummies were not immediately buried after death, but were carried on litters and proudly displayed for extended periods of time; a practice that the famous Inca also did.

The 7,000-Year-Old Elongated Skull Mummies Of Chile

They also practised mummification in all classes of their society, and often the elderly, children and even fetuses were given the most elaborate levels of preparation.

Most other cultures that did this practice reserved it solely for the elite.

What intrigued me even more than the fact that these ancient people performed mummification was that many of their skulls appeared to be elongated, as shown in these photos from the Iquique museum, located on the coast of Chile.

I have been studying the subject of cranial deformation, especially in Peru for many years.

Cranial deformation was a technique practised all over the world, and was most prevalent about 2000 years ago, mainly at the royal levels of society.

In Peru, the Paracas culture is perhaps the most famous, as well as the ancient people of Tiwanaku and the Inca.

Some early results show that many of the elongated skulls from Paracas had natural red hair.

The above skull from Iquique is strikingly similar to those found in Paracas, yet could be several thousand years older.

The only DNA analysis of elongated skulls to my knowledge is being carried out by me and Peruvian associates. Initial results from our US-based geneticist stated:

“Whatever the sample labelled 3A has come from – it had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far. The data are very sketchy though and a LOT of sequencing still needs to be done to recover the complete mtDNA sequence.

“But a few fragments I was able to sequence from this sample 3A indicate that if these mutations will hold we are dealing with a new human-like creature, very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans.

“I am not sure it will even fit into the known evolutionary tree. The question is if they were so different, they could not interbreed with humans. Breeding within their small population, they may have degenerated due to inbreeding.”

Palaeontologists Unearth 139 Million-Year-Old Pregnant Dinosaur Fossil in Chile

Palaeontologists Unearth 139 Million-Year-Old Pregnant Dinosaur Fossil in Chile

Archaeologists in Chile have unearthed the fossilized remains of a 13ft-long pregnant ichthyosaur from a melting glacier -marking the first time a complete ichthyosaur has been found in the country.

The 139-million-year-old fossil was carefully collected by helicopter following an expedition in March and April this year by the University of Magallanes (UMAG) in the Tyndall Glacier area of Chilean Patagonia.

Named ‘Fiona’ by scientists at the University of Manchester, the 139-million-year-old fossil died when she was pregnant and still had several embryos in her belly.

Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that lived in the age of dinosaurs, and Fiona is the only pregnant female of Valanginian-Hauterivian age – between 129 and 139 million years old from the Early Cretaceous period – to be excavated on the entire planet.

Dr. Dean Lomax, a palaeontologist working on the study, said: ‘The fact that these incredible ichthyosaurs are so well preserved in an extreme environment, revealed by a retreating glacier, is unlike anywhere else in the world.

The remains of the creature, which researchers from the University of Manchester have named Fiona, were unearthed from a melting glacier deep in Patagonia.

‘The considerable number of ichthyosaurs found in the area, including complete skeletons of adults, juveniles, and newborns provides a unique window into the past.’

Now, researchers are keen to find out what information they can gather from the incredibly rare find.

Fiona was first found in 2009 by Dr. Judith Pardo-Pérez, a Magellanic palaeontologist and UMAG researcher.

The team hopes to compare the ichthyosaurs found in the Tyndall Glacier with those previously found in Chilean Patagonia.

Collecting this specimen was not easy, as the glacier is within a 10-hour hike or horseback ride. The expedition lasted 31 days and was described by the researchers as an ‘almost titanic challenge.’

‘At four meters long, complete, and with embryos in gestation, the excavation will help to provide information on its species, on the palaeobiology of embryonic development, and on a disease that affected it during its lifetime,’ said Dr. Judith Pardo-Perez, who led the study.

Alongside Fiona, 23 other new specimens were discovered during the expedition, making the Tyndall Glacier the most abundant ichthyosaur graveyard in the world, according to the team.


Alongside Fiona, 23 other new specimens were discovered during the expedition, making the Tyndall Glacier the most abundant ichthyosaur graveyard in the world, according to the team.

Fiona will now be prepared in the palaeontology laboratory of the Río Seco Natural History Museum in Punta Arenas, where it will be temporarily stored for later exhibition.

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.”