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Hidden shell middens reveal ancient human presence in Bolivian Amazon

Date:
August 28, 2013
Source:
Public Library of Science
Summary:
Previously unknown archeological sites in forest islands reveal human presence in the western Amazon as early as 10,000 years ago, according to new research.
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Details of recovered burnt earth, shells and bone remains from excavations at SM1. A) Thin section from Unit VI; aragonitic and micritic shell fragments cemented together; a bone is visible in the upper left corner (cross polarized light, XPL); b) Pomacea shells found at a depth of 110 cm; c) Impact scar between refitted fragments of a Blastocerus dichotomus tibia found at 160 cm. Mineral dendrites covering the edges of bones and surface damage indicate a percussive blow; d) Mandibular fragment of Mazama sp. found at a depth of 70–75 cm; e) Fragment of burnt earth found at a depth of 140 cm with incised parallel lines, probably culturally-modified; f) Units IV and V as observed in the excavations; Unit V is a layer of well cemented shells surrounded by loose fragments that form Unit IV.
Credit: Image courtesy of Public Library of Science

Previously unknown archeological sites in forest islands reveal human presence in the western Amazon as early as 10,000 years ago, according to research published August 28 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Umberto Lombardo from the University of Bern, Switzerland and colleagues from other institutions.

The study focuses on a region in the Bolivian Amazon thought to be rarely occupied by pre-agricultural communities due to unfavorable environmental conditions. Hundreds of 'forest islands'- small forested mounds of earth- are found throughout the region, their origins attributed to termites, erosion or ancient human activity. In this study, the authors report that three of these islands are shell middens, mounds of seashells left by settlers in the early Holocene period, approximately 10,400 years ago.

Samples of soil from these three mounds revealed a dense accumulation of freshwater snail shells, animal bones and charcoal forming the middens. The mounds appear to have formed in two phases: an older layer composed primarily of snail shells, and an overlying layer composed of organic matter containing pottery, bone tools and human bones. The two are separated by a thin layer rich in pieces of burnt clay and earth, and the uppermost layer of deposits was also seen to contain occasional fragments of earthenware pottery.

Radiocarbon analysis of two middens indicates that humans settled in this region during the early Holocene, approximately 10,400 years ago, and shells and other artefacts built up into mounds over an approximately 6,000 year period of human use. The sites may have been abandoned as climate shifted towards wetter conditions later. Lombardo adds, "We have discovered the oldest archaeological sites in western and southern Amazonia. These sites allow us to reconstruct 10,000 years of human-environment interactions in the Bolivian Amazon."


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Journal Reference:

  1. Umberto Lombardo, Katherine Szabo, José M. Capriles, Jan-Hendrik May, Wulf Amelung, Rainer Hutterer, Eva Lehndorff, Anna Plotzki, Heinz Veit. Early and Middle Holocene Hunter-Gatherer Occupations in Western Amazonia: The Hidden Shell Middens. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (8): e72746 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072746

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Public Library of Science. "Hidden shell middens reveal ancient human presence in Bolivian Amazon." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 August 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130828211130.htm>.
Public Library of Science. (2013, August 28). Hidden shell middens reveal ancient human presence in Bolivian Amazon. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 29, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130828211130.htm
Public Library of Science. "Hidden shell middens reveal ancient human presence in Bolivian Amazon." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130828211130.htm (accessed May 29, 2015).

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