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Societies of South Peru in the Context of Climatic and Environmental Change, Late Pleistocene to Modern Age – Rio Tambo Projekt

Final Report Summary - TAMBO (Societies of South Peru in the Context of Climatic and Environmental Change, Late Pleistocene to Modern Age - Rio Tambo Projekt)

Project objectives

The objective of the completed project was to analyse changes in the climate and environment in the valley of the Tambo River (Peru) and the coastline surrounding its mouth that occurred from the late Pleistocene to modern times, and the impact of these changes on the range and changes of human settlement patterns. We traced not only the processes of adapting to living in this region by human groups, but also the evolving global climate changes and thus the vegetation and the significance of periodical climate changes with only a regional or local (micro-regional) range.

Work performed

The project had an interdisciplinary character and required the close co-operation of a team of specialists in climatology, palaeogeography and geology, as well as archaeologists and experts from other disciplines, such as photogrammetry, palaeobotany and radiocarbon (14C).

During the preparatory work to initiate the project in 2008, the whole research area, i.e. the 229 km-long Tambo River valley and the final sections of its tributaries, was divided into three research zones. These had very different, absolute altitudes and thus various geographical and climatic conditions and, as it turned out, cultural contexts.

The Tambo project was conducted in two stages. Apart from the initial preparatory work, the first stage, which covered the period from April 2008 to March 2010, involved detailed survey of the research area. All traces of human settlement discovered in the study area (142 archaeological sites dating from the late Pleistocene/early Holocene to the colonial period) were catalogued and the climatic and geographical conditions of the region were scrupulously described. The project’s documentation, which has been transferred to the Peruvian side, is of great importance for the protection of the region's cultural heritage. It became the basis of the so-called Vice-ministerial Resolution (Resolución Viceministerial no. 365-2011-VMPCIC-MC), which declares 36 sites as national cultural monuments.

During the second stage of the project (April 2010 to March 2012), excavations on the previously selected archaeological sites as well as a specialist analysis of artefacts and geological/botanical samples were carried out.

The research conducted in the high altitude zone of the Andes, stretching from 3 700 to 5 000 m above sea level, concentrated on small rock caves and rock shelters - many of them with paintings - where the remains of hunter-gatherer communities were discovered. Cultural contexts recorded in these sites have provided nearly 16 000 stone and bone artefacts, which are mainly related to the late Pleistocene or early Holocene time periods. In addition, a significant amount of osteological, palaeobotanical and geological material was obtained, a representative portion of which is to be submitted for specialised laboratory analyses. Research was also carried out on volcanic activity in this region as well as on changeable vegetation cover.

Main results

In the course of research in this area, archaeologists noticed that a specific survival strategy had been developed by pre-ceramic age communities. It consisted of colonising - probably depending on the seasons or weather anomalies - two different altitude zones in terms of climate in this part of the Andes. The lower zone covered a river valley floor and the upper one was located in a peak area of valley, i.e. in the alpine Pampa. Moreover, the comparative analysis of the lithic tools obtained from these sites seems to confirm the earlier theories of some scholars about the existence of specialised production in the early Holocene. The research also allows for the creation of a sequence of lithic tool development. Significant differences in the type of material used for tool production were also found within the different fabrication periods.

During the fieldwork in the middle Tambo (3 700-1 100 m) deposits of volcanic ash and pumice from various eruptions of Huaynaputina and Ubinas volcanoes were located. The work conducted in the area enabled us to distinguish three separate fluvial ecosystems: freshwater (the upper course), saline water (the middle Tambo valley) and the area of mixed saline and freshwater (the lower course).

Excavations in the region confirmed the presence of stone structures and burial finds associated with the Huari civilisation. This fact is of great importance for the study of its expansion into the southern edge of Peru. At the same time, it sheds new light on the question of relations between settlement centres (enclaves) of this civilisation, which was concentrated in the upper part of the Osmore-Moquegua basin (Cerro Baúl) and the Huari homeland. What is more, the area in question also provided remains of the ceremonial and administrative centres dating back to the late intermediate period and Inca times.

The research conducted in the lower course of the Tambo River and the coastline around its mouth revealed the existence of a number of shell middens dating back to the pre-ceramic period. The majority of them were partly or entirely destroyed during the construction of a road between Punta de Bombón and the port town of Ilo (Moquegua district) in 2011. Therefore, it should be noted that - for this part of the coast - the project documentation only concerns hunter-gatherer-fishing groups.

Of particular importance in the study of the history of human settlement in this region was the work carried out on the multi-culture site of El Pino, located on Banduría Hill, situated on the Tambo estuary in the Pacific Ocean. The remains of several settlement phases (mostly burial grounds) recorded on the site stretch from the end of the pre-ceramic period, through the early farming communities, the expansion of the Tiahuanaco and the political entities developed on the Tiahuanaco tradition, to the expansion of the Inca and finally to the early colonial period. The extremely dry conditions prevailing in the region of the Atacama Desert's northern border resulted in the discovery of a large number of organic artefacts in a cultural context, in addition to pottery and stone objects. The discovery of a burial ground from the Formative Period (Siguas culture) with graves of local rulers and accompanying female burials, among others, sheds new light on the question of development in the area of early agricultural communities, as well as their contacts with areas lying much further north where the Nasca culture developed.

Moreover, vast burial grounds, as well as the remains of stone structures of the Tiahuanaco culture discovered on the El Pino site, are undoubtedly of great importance for further research on the geographical range of Tiahuanaco’s impact. This importance is not only due to the fact that the presence of this civilisation in the valley of the River Tambo has been confirmed but, more importantly, from a scientific point of view, because of the establishment of a settlement directly on the coast and therefore outside the Andes in a region under 100 m above sea level. This allows us to present a completely new picture of the mobility of highland human groups and their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

The project contractors have completed the planned research tasks. At the same time, some research procedures that developed in the course of the project, made further research activities easier. The scientific results shed new light on the question of the relationship between humans and the environment in this part of the New World.

The work carried out here is also the basis for further research on the history of human settlement in the southern region of the Central Andes zone, outlining the future direction and strategy for the development of interdisciplinary work on the evolution of the environment and human participation in this process.