Chilean Desert Human Remains Reveal Its Early Farmers Fought To The Death | Science
Around 1000 BC, some gatherers decided to try farming in one of the driest places on earth, the Atacama Desert, which lies between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, in the current north of Chile. When agriculture began, murderous violence increased and remained high for centuries. Desert dwellers attacked and killed each other with maces, knives, and hunting weapons, possibly fighting for scarce water and fertile land.
This is according to a new analysis of human remains from graves between 3,000 and 1,400 years old, which included dozens of individuals whose hair, flesh and organs were still intact, due to the aridity of the desert. . The victims suffered broken ribs, broken collarbones, facial mutilations and puncture injuries to the lungs, groin and spine. At least half of the injuries appear to have been fatal shots.
“The patterns and frequencies of fatal trauma… are amazing,” says Tiffiny Tung, an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved in the research.
The study, to be published next month in the Anthropological Archeology Journal, also outlined the possible reasons for the bloody times, which take into account cultural traditions, climate change and scarce resources. According to Tung, who studies conflict in ancient South America, the results are instructive for any society, including ours. “We can look to these other populations from different times and different places to try to understand… these intense outbreaks of violence versus relative calm, relative peace,” she said. “What are the most important forces at play that make people want to hurt, maim or kill another person?” “
Atacama is a prime location to investigate the triggers of deadly conflict, as hundreds of well-preserved human remains have been exhumed, spanning nearly 9,000 years of episodic violence and social change. For decades, Vivien Standen, lead author of the new study, has examined these individuals, kept in the museum at his university in Tarapacá, Chile. “This collection was excavated many, many years ago. Today, we no longer dig cemeteries, ”emphasizes Standen, a biologist anthropologist.
The collection includes one of this year’s additions to the UNESCO World Heritage List: Chinchorro Mummies, the oldest mummies in the world, which come from fishermen-gatherers who lived along the coast between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago. For religious reasons, the ancient community deliberately made some of these mummies. But others were accidents: the sandy and salty desert prevented decomposition and cooked the corpses into natural mummies. Previously, Standen and his colleagues found that about a quarter of adults in this period had suffered injuries, such as broken bones and stab wounds. However, most of these injuries had healed, meaning the person died of another cause some time later. While these coastal foragers have fought and received beatings, it seems they rarely fought to the death.
Standen wanted to know if this pattern held up 1,000 years later when agriculture first appeared in Atacama. At this time, seafood was becoming less reliable, due to climate change affecting El Niño events. Some communities have moved from a day’s march inland to oases and narrow river valleys fed by melting mountain snows.
In this context, “at the edge of the Atacama Desert… you have a valley, a green space. And then you have nothing. And then you have another small valley, ”explains Bernardo Arriaza, co-author of the study and anthropologist from the University of Tarapacá. Along these meager stretches of greenery, the old groups built villages, irrigated fields, and planted corn, chillies and other crops, likely borrowed from non-desert farming villages to the north and east.
It was “a pretty remarkable time overall, and there are so many changes happening,” said Christina Torres, a professor at the University of California, Merced, who studies the skeletal remains from the Atacama sites, but was not involved in the new research. “This is the first time that so many people have come together, come together. So it’s no surprise that there is conflict, and we would see it manifest in various ways. “
To understand the rates and types of violence, Standen’s team returned to their museum collection to analyze 194 adult remains, dated between 1000 BC and 600 AD. border with Peru. Some of the cemeteries were monumental mounds made of shrubs, branches, and dirt. Others were mass graves dug in the ground. By the time archaeologists unearthed the remains, most of the corpses had deteriorated into bone fragments. But, about 30% had surviving soft tissue, naturally mummified like the earliest Chinchorro individuals.
“The [preservation] of the bodies is great, so we can see the real people who lived in that environment, ”Standen said.
Looking for markers of interpersonal violence, his team examined loose bones and x-rayed the mummies. They found scarred wounds, indicating that the victims survived the attacks, as well as perimortem trauma or injuries sustained at the time of death, which were likely the cause of death. Half of the injuries appeared fatal, compared to about 10% for older coastal pickers.
With the start of agriculture, “Everything is more deadly. Everything is more explosive, ”says Arriaza.
Both males and females were beaten. But notably, in another study, the team found little sign of trauma in children and infants, buried during the same period. “We don’t see too much child abuse,” Arriaza adds.
Beyond the general patterns, specific injuries stood out. A scarred cheekbone suggests a middle-aged man has recovered from a punch that shattered bones. Still sporting wavy brown hair, the face in his twenties was probably struck by a sledgehammer. Another skeleton showed a puncture wound in a vertebra, indicating that the individual had been stabbed in the back. “You really get a feel for how intimate violence can be,” Tung says. It’s not just about broken bones. There is a more human story to be told.
She wonders, “Do they know this other person who committed this violence against them?”
Although the scientists cannot answer definitively, they have found clues suggesting a familiarity between the perpetrators and the victims. To determine whether the violence was targeting locals or strangers, the researchers extracted powder from the bones and teeth of 31 injured people and 38 people with no signs of trauma. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, geochemist Drew Coleman measured the strontium isotope ratios in samples. This value varies depending on where a person lives and how much seafood they eat.
Based on these chemical signatures, the Atacama tombs did not contain any aliens, say from the Amazon or the high Andes. Whether injured or not, almost everyone looked like they were residents of the river valley or the nearby coast. But, some of these locals had slightly higher strontium ratios, typical of high seafood diets, while others had lower values, suggesting they were eating valley food. This could mean that the conflicts were between traditional fishermen and beginning farmers.
Researchers have found further evidence of violence from this period. The graves contained spear throwers, knives, and other possible weapons. The rock art, carved on the cliffs of the valley, depicted figures made of sticks, wearing headdresses and wielding bows and darts. In a village along another river to the south, locals erected massive defensive walls and stored sling stones behind, presumably as ammunition to rain down raiders.
Archaeologists have also sought to explain why local groups fought to the death, simply because some of them took up farming. They believe that a number of factors have contributed. Given the remnants of ancient times, the inhabitants of the area were prone to violence – probably spontaneous brawls, beatings and domestic violence. But from 1000 BC. Around AD, external pressures unleashed frenzied and murderous assaults. Fishermen were faced with less reliable catches, due to changes in the El Niño cycle. Fertile land and water for agriculture have always been scarce on the fringes of the driest and hottest desert on Earth. In the face of climate change and famine, communities have probably fought for water, land and food.
Living there, “You’re going to be very limited in terms of where you can go, how much you can develop and use the resources. You have the ocean on one side. You have the desert on the other … This could be one of the reasons we are seeing some of the dramatic violence that my colleagues have been able to document, ”says José Capriles Flores, archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved. in the study, but has already collaborated with researchers.
“We’re talking about these kinds of brutal and marginal environments. People have to respond as best they can, ”says Torres.
But just because events unfolded in a violent manner did not mean that fate was inevitable for the early farmers of Atacama – or for anyone facing harsh ecological conditions, Tung points out.
“It’s never just the weather,” she says. “As humans, we make decisions about how to allocate resources. We have social norms and cultural practices.
“These are really powerful in determining whether or not there will be outbursts of violence, and also in determining who is participating in the violence,” says Tung. She believes those deaths, long ago in the Atacama Desert, are worth remembering amid our current climate crisis – as global temperatures continue to rise, resources become scarce and communities grapple with tough decisions.