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World's highest archaeological sites explored in Peruvian Andes

University archaeologist investigates human capacity for survival in extreme environments

University of Calgary archaeologist Sonia Zarrillo, right, is pictured at a research site in a Peruvian rock shelter. She is accompanied by Peter Leach, one of her co-authors for a new paper published in Science. Photo courtesy Walter Beckwith

By Heath McCoy
October 24, 2014
Research conducted at the highest-altitude Pleistocene archaeological sites ever identified sheds new light on the capacity of humans to survive in extreme environments. 

The findings — a result of research from sites in The Pucuncho Basin in the Southern Peruvian Andes — were co-authored by a team of researchers including University of Calgary archaeologist Sonia Zarrillo and will be published in the Oct. 24 edition of the academic journal Science. 

Life challenging at high altitude

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 Pucuncho workshop site where stone tools were made at 4,355 metres above sea level. Climatic conditions in both sites are harsh, with factors including low-oxygen, extreme cold and high levels of solar radiation, making life in the region a challenge for any humans. And yet, the findings indicate that people were living in these high-altitude zones for extended periods of time. Cuncaicha was occupied between about 11,500 and 12,400 years ago, while the Pucuncho workshop site existed between 11,500 and 12,800 years ago.

Evidence suggests families stayed awhile

“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 Zarrillo. “There were possibly even families living at these sites, because we’ve found evidence of a whole range of activities.”

Archaeological evidence found at Cuncaicha includes signs of habitation such as 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 Zarrillo. “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.”

Sites raise adaptation questions

A popular scientific theory about high-altitude colonization suggests that people cannot live in high altitudes until genetic adaptation occurs, like the sort we find in Andean people today. Andeans have genetically adapted to their high-altitude environment, Zarrillo notes. Key differences in the Andean people include a higher metabolic rate, larger lung capacity and higher hemoglobin concentrations then the average person, all of which allow them to overcome a lack of oxygen.  

“Was this adaptation present 12,400 years ago? We don’t know for certain,” says Zarrillo. “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.”

Zarrillo believes that other sites in the region have the potential for further groundbreaking revelations, in part because they’re incredibly 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.”