Zooarchaeology of Peru and the Andes

Paleoindian and Archaic period uses of animals on the coast of Peru

People occupying the coast of southern Peru 10,700 years before the present hunted shore birds and some fishes such as anchovies. These data suggest a coastal migration of people from Asia. This work is being conducted by Susan deFrance and is reported in a recent article in the journal Science (Volume 281, pages 1833-1835). Related to this study is research by Elizabeth Reitz on the fish remains from a series of Archaic sites along the Peruvian coast indicating environmental changes during the early occupation. She identified fishes typically found in warmer water much further south than their present distribution.

Origins of animal domestication in the Andes

The central Andes is the center of animal domestication in the New World. Llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs were domesticated in the highlands approximately 6000 years ago. Llamas were primarily beasts of burden and were used to transport goods between communities living at different elevations and producing different crops and other goods. Both alpacas and llamas produce fine wool that is woven into warm garments and utilitarian objects such as bags and ropes. All three domesticates were sacrificed to the gods. Analysis of series of faunal samples from different time periods and elevations were needed to establish the timing and details of the uses of these animal as well as wild animals. A summary of this research is found in a chapter entitled Domestication of Andean mammals by Elizabeth Wing in the 1986 publication High Altitude Tropical Biogeography (Vuilleumier and Monasterio, eds.), Oxford University Press.

Tracking Llama and Alpaca Herding and Trade in the Southern Andes

Llamas and alpacas (camelids) were a subsistence and economic mainstay of Middle Horizon (AD 600-1000) and more recent cultures in the Peruvian Andes. However, despite their economic and cultural importance, prehistoric foddering practices and the locations of pasturelands are not well known. In particular, it is debated whether llamas and alpacas were herded primarily in high elevation habitats (>3500 masl) as they are today, or whether local herds were also maintained at lower elevation mid-valley and coastal locations. One of the few ways we can investigate this question is through chemical signatures preserved in ancient llama and alpaca bones, which record past diet, climate, and where an animal lived.

Fig 2: Camelid isotopic chemistry results (Thornton et al. 2011)
Fig 2: Camelid isotopic chemistry results (Thornton et al. 2011)

For her MA thesis, Erin Thornton and her collaborators (Susan deFrance, Michael Moseley and Patrick Ryan Williams) tested the chemical signatures in ancient llama and alpaca bones from southern Peru. They found evidence supporting camelid herding outside of the highlands, and further used the data to investigate ancient trade and tribute patterns (Thornton et al. 2011, IJOA). Thornton and deFrance are currently expanding upon this pilot study through funding obtained from the National Science Foundation (PI: Susan deFrance). This research will contribute to our understanding of prehistoric land use, animal management, and trade and tribute relationships between coastal and highland settlements.