Highest altitude archaeological sites in the world explored in the Peruvian Andes

University of Calgary archaeologist investigates human capacity for survival in extreme environments.

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

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