Washington D.C. - By unearthing ancient fragments of sea shells, cutting tools, and the bones of butchered seabirds, researchers have found what appears to be the oldest evidence of maritime-based societies in the New World. Radiocarbon dating of these and other artifacts, excavated by two groups of researchers at two different sites near the coast of Peru, extends the South American record of maritime exploitation by a thousand years to between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, the time when much of the New World was probably first occupied. The two reports will appear in the 18 September issue of Science.
Since rising sea level submerged coastlines bordering the Americas between 18,000 and 5,000 years ago, archaeologists have found little evidence of how the earliest people in South America (or elsewhere in the Americas) adapted to living along the shore. The findings from the two sites, named Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Tacahuay, suggest that the people who dwelled there "possessed a fairly sophisticated knowledge of exploiting coastal areas," says Daniel Sandweiss of the University of Maine, who led the excavation at Quebrada Jaguay. The other was led by David Keefer of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, CA.
The two excavations help clarify a newly emerging picture of Paleoindian societies in which members exploited a wide variety of resources. Although the first discoveries of Paleoindian sites suggested that the inhabitants relied solely on hunting big game animals, a growing body of evidence indicates that the earliest Americans used a more diverse set of strategies for survival. Paleoindian sites in North and South America have typically been recognized by the presence of spear points used for hunting large animals. But there are no such tools at Quebrada Jaguay or Quebrada Tacahuay. In fact, without carbon dating, says Sandweiss, it would have been very difficult to know how old these sites actually were.
The artifacts from Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Tacahuay include remains of cormorants, boobies and a pelican, clams, mussels, and crustaceans, anchovies and drums (both small schooling fish which may have required the use of specialized fishing nets), cutting tools, and even part of a house built partially into the ground. Many of the bones were burned and showed cut marks, indicating that the animals were butchered. Evidence of catastrophic floods and debris flows at Quebrada Tacahuay suggests that the site's inhabitants abandoned it for about 3500 years and that El Niño was active during this time.
After tracing obsidian flakes found at Quebrada Jaguay to their probable source up in the Peruvian highlands, Sandweiss and his colleagues propose that this site may have been occupied by foragers from the highlands who spent part of their time collecting food on the coast before eventually settling there more permanently. Quebrada Tacahuay, on the other hand, does not appear to contain evidence of any links with other settlements, either inland or elsewhere on the coast.
Quebrada Jaguay and Quebrada Tacahuay, together with another recently discovered coastal site in California, are the earliest coastal sites in the Americas to be reliably dated. Because of the rise in sea level and the lack of obvious Paleoindian tools it's taken scientists longer to find coastal sites like these. "We had to have faith that they were there," says Sandweiss.
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