Research conducted at the highest-altitude Pleistocene archaeological sites yet identified in the world unveils new information on the ability for human survival in extreme environments.
The findings, published in today’s edition of the academic journal Science – co-authored by a team of researchers including University of Calgary archaeologist Sonia Zarillo – were taken from sites in the Pucuncho Basin, located in the Southern Peruvian Andes.
The primary site, Cuncaicha is a rock shelter at 4,480 metres above sea level, with a stone-tool workshop below it. There is also a Pucunchio workshop site where stone tools were made at 4,355 metres above sea level. Climatic conditions in both sites are tough, with factors including low-oxygen, extreme cold and high levels of solar radiation making life in the region challenging for any humans. Yet, the findings show that people were living in these high altitude areas for extended periods of time. Cuncaicha was occupied about 12.4 to 11.5 thousand years ago while the Pucuncho workshop dates to approximately 12.8 to 11.5 thousand years ago.
“We don’t know if people were living there year round, but we strongly suspect they were not just going there to hunt for a few days, then leaving,” says Zarillo. “There were possibly even families living at these sites, because we’ve found evidence of a whole range of activities.”
Archaeological evidence discovered at Cuncaicha includes signs of habitation including human skull fragments, animal remains and stone tools. “Hunters passing through an area will take the meat back to campsites and leave the carcass in the field,” says Zarillo. “In Cuncaicha we found remains representing whole animals, indicating they were living close to where the animals were killed. And the types of stone tools we’ve found are not only hunting tools but also scraping tools used for processing hides to make things like clothing, bags or blankets.”
A popular scientific theory regarding high altitude colonisation implies that people can live in high altitudes until genetic adaptation takes place, like the sort found in Andean people today. Andeans have genetically adapted to their high altitude environment, Zarillo notes. Key differences in the Andean people include higher metabolic rate, larger lung capacity and higher hemoglobin concentrations than the average person, all of which enable them to overcome lack of oxygen.
“Was this adaptation present 12,400 years ago? We don’t know for certain,” says Zarillo. “What we’re demonstrating is that these people either already developed that adaptation, or, it was possible for them to live in these altitudes for extended periods of time regardless. Finding this out is one of the goals of our future research.” Zarillo believes that other sites in the region have the potential for further ground-breaking revelations, partly because they’re extremely well preserved.
“Research really hasn’t been done here up until now, because it’s so remote,” she says. “Our team hiked up to three or four hours to get to these sites. That was a climb carrying all of our gear, camp equipment and food. And it freezes every night. Sometimes it snows. These are incredibly hard sites to access.”
Contributing Source: University of Calgary
Header Image Source: WikiPedia
This October, Alexandra Grassam, Senior Heritage Consultant at Wessex Archaeology and a volunteer Leader at the Pontefract Branch of the Young Archaeologists’ Club, attended a training weekend for all branch leaders held at the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. The Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) was setup up over 40 years ago and is currently run by the Council for British Archaeology. There are currently 65 branches based across the UK providing regular practical sessions for young people aged between 8 and 17 who are interested in archaeology. Alexandra began volunteering as a leader with the Pontefract YAC, who are based at Pontefract Castle in West Yorkshire, in 2010 and along with her fellow volunteers provide monthly sessions aimed at teaching the members all about archaeology and heritage in a fun and readily accessible way. The training weekends bring together the leaders from the various branches and this time the theme was ‘Industrial Treescapes in Ironbridge Gorge’. On the Saturday, participants took part in activities with an industrial theme devised and delivered by the Ironbridge YAC branch, which included making suspension bridges strong enough to run a toy train over. On the Saturday night, the leaders were treated to a torch light tour of the Iron Bridge, the world‘s first cast-iron bridge (built in 1779). Sunday morning saw the leaders take to the woods where they were introduced to the Archaeology of Woodlands resource pack. They then had the opportunity to undertake their own woodland survey, providing them with the chance to explore and identify further evidence for the industrial past which the Ironbridge Gorge is famous for. The aim of the weekend was to provide an opportunity to get all the branch leaders together to share ideas for activities and their experiences as volunteers. All departed from Ironbridge with lots of interesting and exciting ideas for future sessions. The Archaeology of Woodlands resource pack can be accessed from here: http://www.yac-uk.org/sites/www.yac-uk.org/files/node-files/Are_Trees_Archaeology_YAC_Resource_Pack_2014_lowres.pdf By Alexandra Grassam
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