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Point of Origin

Photo courtesy of Kurt Rademaker and Daniel Sandweiss

Point of Origin
Discovery of prehistoric quarries in Peruvian highlands could be key to understanding how humans first settled South America

About the Photo:  Last summer, University of Maine under-graduates (left to right) Louis Fortin and Benjamin Morris, and graduate student Kurt Rademaker (right) joined UMaine archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss on the excavation of a 3,700-year-old site in the Peruvian highlands, researching links between prehistoric inland and coastal habitation. Following the 12-day excavation, Rademaker and Morris headed higher to 16,400 feet, where they discovered prehistoric quarries and large deposits of obsidian eroding out of the mountainsides.

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High in the remote, arid mountains of southern Peru, University of Maine graduate student Kurt Rademaker struck anthropological gold last summer. He went there hoping to locate large deposits of obsidian, a volcanic glass used for millennia to make weapons and tools. He not only found entire hillsides of obsidian, but also several prehistoric extraction pits complete with the sticks used to pry obsidian out of the ground and places he describes as workshop sites.

These discoveries could be quite significant in fact, they could be huge if follow-up research helps to answer questions such as how the first inhabitants of South America got there, how they lived and how people in different parts of the continent interacted. Rademaker thinks important answers are to be found by following the obsidian.

Nearly a decade ago, UMaine Professor of Anthropology and Quaternary Studies Daniel Sandweiss found pieces of obsidian among the artifacts at an ancient fishing site on the Peruvian coast. That site, Quebrada Jaguay (Jaguay Canyon), was discovered in the 1970s, but Sandweiss was the first to excavate it extensively. First settled around 13,000 years ago, it is the earliest confirmed fishing site in the New World.

Richard Burger of Yale University chemically traced the obsidian that Sandweiss discovered at Quebrada Jaguay to a highland valley about 100 miles inland. That finding raised questions about the relationship between the two areas and the people who inhabited them.

"To find out if there was a connection, we needed both the site at the coast and specific sites (not just a general area) from the same time period in the mountains," says Sandweiss, an international authority on maritime adaptation and the influence of climate on cultural development in South America. "The idea was to go to the highland area where the obsidian was known to come from and look for sites that might be of the same age."

Peruvian Mountains
Peruvian Mountains

Louis Fortin, Benjamin Morris, and Kurt Rademaker
Last summer, University of Maine under-graduates (left to right) Louis Fortin and Benjamin Morris, and graduate student Kurt Rademaker (right) joined UMaine archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss on the excavation of a 3,700-year-old site in the Peruvian highlands, researching links between prehistoric inland and coastal habitation. Following the 12-day excavation, Rademaker and Morris headed higher to 16,400 feet, where they discovered prehistoric quarries and large deposits of obsidian eroding out of the mountain-sides.

Hammer Stones
Hammer stones used to break obsidian into small pieces, as well as wooden digging sticks for prying the volcanic glass out of the earth, were found at 15,800 feet above sea level in the remote Chumpullu Valley. Near the prehistoric extraction pits were thousands of tailings or chips, indicating where tools of obsidian had been made. Kurt Rademaker, undergraduate Benjamin Morris and two Peruvian colleagues mapped the boundaries of the obsidian source that spanned hundreds of acres. They also collected more than 100 rock samples for geochemical analysis.

Early inhabitants of Peru sought out naturally occurring outcrops of obsidian in order to extract the volcanic glass for tools and weapons.

Photos courtesy of Kurt Rademaker and Daniel Sandweiss

That's what took him and several researchers, including Rademaker, to Peru last year. After helping Sandweiss and his team excavate a site at about 12,000 feet, Rademaker and some of the others rented two horses and a burro, and went higher.

"As we were walking up the river valley, we started seeing pieces of obsidian at our feet," Rademaker says. "The higher we went, the more incredible it became."

At 16,400 feet, they stopped and settled in for two weeks of geoarchaeological surveying. The obsidian source they discovered in Quebrada Pulhuay spans hundreds of acres.

"It's a world of obsidian up there, literally mountains of it," says Rademaker, a native of Kentucky who came to UMaine in 2003 to conduct research with Sandweiss. "For years, archaeologists had been desperately searching for the source of this material, and we came to a place where we were falling all over it. We knew we were in the right spot."

Based on Burger's chemical analysis of obsidian tools and other objects found throughout Peru from various periods, the researchers knew that a large obsidian quarry area must exist. But on the only two previous scientific expeditions, in the 1980s and '90s, archaeologists focusing their searches in more accessible, lower elevations found only small outcrops of obsidian, with little evidence of serious mining.

"Kurt went up higher and to a different area of the source, and really found the mother lode," Sandweiss says. "He found where the obsidian came from and all the evidence needed to show that people were there working it. That is the exciting thing about what he has done. It explains why one of the two most important sources of obsidian throughout 13,000 years of Peruvian history had previously appeared to be a fairly minor source. Now we know exactly where to focus future investigations."

Obsidian was made into weapons, tools and jewelry. Most obsidian is black, but it also can be gray, red or nearly clear. When it is sliced, the surface is smooth and shiny; it is, after all, volcanic glass. Surgeons sometimes use obsidian scalpels because they are sharper than steel.

Rademaker says it was evident at several sites in the high mountains that obsidian had been extensively mined. "We found the actual digging sticks, pieces of wood that people had cut and used to pry out the rocks," he says.

Because these sites are well above the timberline, the wooden sticks had to have been brought there. Preserved by the cold, dry climate, they might have lain there for hundreds or thousands of years.

Also at the extraction pits, Rademaker and his team found hammer stones used to break the obsidian into smaller pieces so it could be carried away. Not far from the extraction pits were found thousands of obsidian chips, indicating where tools were made. The researchers also found tools, broken and intact.

The most common type of tool used by people in prehistory was the biface. Sharp on two edges, it could be used as either a knife or projectile point. Rademaker calls it "the Swiss Army knife of prehistoric tools" because of its versatility. Also common were long, thin blades used for cutting.

Obsidian chips found scattered around the workshop sites in the mountains varied in size, up to 10 inches. Those found at the coastal Quebrada Jaguay site were mostly tiny slivers. Sandweiss theorizes that some tools might have been made in rough form in the mountains, then taken to the coast for final shaping and sharpening.

Now that obsidian artifacts have been found in both places, the next step is to determine whether they are from the same period. Rademaker, who plans to pursue his doctoral degree at UMaine, is eager to return to Peru and continue his fieldwork.

"I want to do more thorough mapping and find out more about those sites, possibly through some excavations," he says. "If it turns out that we have found very old sites that are contemporary with Dan's site at the coast, then it would be worthwhile to do a complete highland-to-coast survey. We would try to trace a route between those two points to identify other sites that might fit into the early settlement system."

Such a survey could shed light on the seasonal migration patterns of the prehistoric people and what they were doing in different places at different times. It also could help settle the argument over when and how South America was settled.

"The traditional view is that the first people came down the interior, the spine of the Andes, hunting mammoths and other big animals," Sandweiss says. "Then, when the animals went extinct 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, people turned to other things like fish, small animals and plant foods.

"But this view has been falling apart over the last two decades," he says, "in part because it didn't make sense that they would just go after big animals. Also, we have been finding sites where people were clearly doing something else, like Quebrada Jaguay, where they were fishing. It seems they were very adaptable, able to make a living in many environments."

Perhaps people were coming down the coast at the same time others were moving through the interior of the continent, or turning traditional belief on its head maybe coastal settlers came first and then moved inland. Sandweiss says it is too early to speculate because so few sites have been found and researched. However, evidence of an obsidian connection between the mountains and the coast might prove to be an important clue, bringing scientists a step closer to definitive answers. It certainly raises a lot of questions.

"Already, we know so much more than we did before last summer," Sandweiss says. "We have the first real evidence of a material link between coast and highlands at the very beginning of occupation. This has the potential to be a very exciting and significant piece of the big picture of New World archaeology."

By Dick Broom
May-June, 2005

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