The oldest settlement in America, evidence of megafauna hunters at the edge of the world, the oldest mummification on the planet, ancient villages and fortresses, the backbone of the Inca Empire, and the most remote island in the Pacific are part of a series of archaeological discoveries that have been made in Chile throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
To commemorate International Archeology Day, we invite you to learn about some of the most relevant archaeological finds in Chile, based on information from the National Service of Cultural Heritage, the National Museum of Natural History and archaeologists from the Universidad de Chile, Mauricio Uribe and Claudio Cristino.
Monte Verde, the oldest human settlement in America
Close to the city of Puerto Montt (Los Lagos Region), Monte Verde comprises two human occupations during different eras at the end of the Pleistocene, with animal and human remains from 18,500 to 14,500 years ago.
Its antiquity caused a revolution in the scientific world, as it was previously believed that the Clovis groups –initially recognized in the state of New Mexico– were the first settled culture in America, and from there went on to populate the entire continent about 13,000 years ago, after crossing a corridor in the middle of the glaciation that occupied almost all of North America. This finding challenges the Clovis settlement theory, given that this human group would have crossed over to the continent from Asia several centuries earlier, perhaps along a coastal route.
Covered by vegetation and volcanic ash, the site remained hidden from the scientific world until 1976, when farmers came across it by chance while digging a fence, and they sent these remains to the Universidad Austral de Chile. US archaeologist Tom Dillehay, Chilean by grace, was responsible for its study and worldwide dissemination.
Tagua-Tagua, a megafauna hunting site in central Chile
Located in the San Vicente de Tagua Tagua district (O’Higgins Region), home to the old Tagua-Tagua Lagoon, after Monte Verde, this is the second most important center of archaeological finds of the oldest settlement in Chile and is also one of the most important in America.
Around the old Tagua-Tagua lagoon, different species of animals from the Ice Age fed for several millennia, which were later hunted by the first human groups that settled in the area 12,000 years ago. This archaeological and paleontological site has been known since 1841, when bones of extinct mammals were recovered, which are now preserved in the Natural History Museum.
Pali Aike Complex – Fell Cave: megafauna hunters at the edge of the world
Located in the Magallanes region, these natural caves are archaeological sites that show the existence of the first settlers of the Far South of America, groups of hunter-gatherers who entered Patagonia from the north by land approximately 11,000 years ago, when the ice from the last ice age was retreating from the continent.
The most important sites, in order of importance, are the Fell Cave, which shows various stages of these groups and particularly their technology; and the Pali Aike Cave, which, among other remains, recorded three cremated human skeletons, evidencing the performance of funerary ceremonies and providing key information on the physical characteristics of these populations.
The location was discovered and studied in the 1930s by US archaeologist Junius Bird, who in association found human remains, cultural vestiges, and remains of Pleistocene fauna, now extinct, which are the benchmark for understanding these first settlers’ way of life.
Mummification and Chinchorro settlements: the oldest in the world
The Chinchorro culture developed from approximately 5,050 years BC by marine hunter-gatherers who settled and lived mainly on the coast of the Arica and Parinacota Region, in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, taking advantage of the abundant marine resources provided by the Humboldt Current. This profusion of food allowed them to generate semi-permanent settlements at the mouths of rivers and streams in the area, with specialized maritime technology. This evidence has been preserved thanks to the exceptional climatic conditions of northern Chile.
In 2021, UNESCO included the settlements and artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture on the World Heritage List.
Tarapacá Giant- Pampa Iluga: the beginning of desert agriculture
In 2016, Chilean researchers led by archaeologist Mauricio Uribe from the Universidad de Chile discovered an agricultural and ceremonial center almost 3,000 years old, located in Pampa Iluga -Huara district, Tarapacá Region- associated with the Tarapacá Giant (also known as the Atacama Giant), the largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world. This center has 72 hectares and more than 120 burial mounds, corresponding to accumulations of earth, vegetables and offerings that are often erected on human burials. The location accounts for the beginnings of agriculture in the middle of the Atacama Desert and was occupied from the year 97 BC.
This location was a place of worship for the Incas, which is evident from the artifacts found, related to its high social hierarchy such as polychrome imperial ceramics, with colors and iconography characteristic of Cusco, and at that time it would have been visited by a large population from different parts of the Andes.
Rapa Nui: the most studied island in Polynesia
Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is the great archaeological find of Polynesia as a whole. It is the most surveyed and studied island in Polynesia, with more than 20 thousand registered sites and structures, with a high level of conservation. Some of the most relevant are the ceremonial village of Orongo; Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial center in all of Polynesia, and icon of the island; Ahu Tahai, statues that look towards the caves, where the people lived; the famous stone quarries of Rano Raraku, where 397 statues are found in the carving stage, one of the most spectacular monuments in the Pacific; and Ahu Nau Nau (in Anakena), the first human settlement on the island.
One of the most important archaeologists in Polynesia is Claudio Cristino, a Chilean archaeologist who began his work on the island in 1976 along with researcher Patricia Vargas, as part of the restoration team of the ceremonial village of Orongo, led by US archaeologist William Mulloy, who was part of Thor Heyerdahl’s 1955 expedition to the island. Cristino was director of the Anthropological Museum of Rapa Nui, and among other restorations, he was responsible for the iconic Ahu Tongariki (1992).
Tulor Village: one of the oldest agricultural and shepherding settlements in Chile
The Tulor Village is one of the oldest sedentary archaeological sites in northern Chile, located about 7.7 km southwest of San Pedro de Atacama, between the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) and the sand dunes in the Antofagasta Region. The first remains were found in 1956 by Jesuit priest Gustavo Le Paige. Excavations later continued in 1980 by archaeologists Agustín Llagostera and Ana María Barón. This site dates back to approximately 400 BC. The inhabitants of Tulor practiced agriculture, raised livestock and harvested wild fruit. They also engaged in pottery, basket, weaving and metallurgy. Based on these activities, the houses were circular, with granaries and patios where families carried out their daily tasks.
El Olivar, the most important archaeological area of the Norte Chico cultures
Located near the city of La Serena (Coquimbo Region), the El Olivar archaeological site represents a cornerstone in the knowledge of the prehistory of the Coquimbo region. Its 35 hectares contain the vestiges of seven centuries of continuous pre-Hispanic occupation: early shell mounds that mark the presence of the first agro-pottery populations in the area, the El Molle culture (0-800 AD); large residential and funerary areas associated with the Las Ánimas cultural complex (600-1000 AD) and, above all, their successor, the Diaguita culture (900-1500 AD).
Its vast expanse, high density occupation, diversity of tombs, very sophisticated offerings and temporal depth make this the most important archaeological site in the Norte Chico or Semiarid zone in recent times.
Pucará de Turi: the largest city-fortress of the Atacameño populations
Located 75 km east of the city of Calama in the Antofagasta Region and 3,100 meters above sea level, Pucará de Turi was the largest town and fortress of the Atacameño culture. Occupation of the settlement began circa 900 AD, declining with the Spanish conquest until the town was finally abandoned circa 1600 AD. In the fifteenth century, the area was intensely occupied by the Incas, turning it into a true regional urban center.
The town is made up of more than 620 enclosures of different dimensions and functions. Some have a simple structure and others are more elaborate, forming complexes and neighborhoods interconnected by traffic routes. Volcanic stone is the material most commonly used in the construction of buildings, although at the end of the 15th century the Inca occupation also introduced and integrated the adobe technique.
Pucará del Cerro Grande de La Compañía: the southernmost enclave of the Inca Empire
Located in the O’Higgins Region, the Pucará de Cerro Grande de La Compañía is a fortress that represents one of the remaining southernmost settlements of the Inca Empire in Chile and a vestige of the furthest southern extension of the Empire.
The construction is estimated to have been used by the natives of the area between the 14th and 15th century. Material remains belonging to a large, circular house from that era have been identified. One of the characteristics of the site is its strategic location and the wide visibility it provides of the surrounding valleys and the foothills of the Cordillera de la Costa (Coastal mountains) and the Andes.
Due to its archaeological importance and relevance in enhancing knowledge about the indigenous world, Pucará de Cerro Grande de La Compañía was declared a Historic Monument in 1992.
El Niño de El Plomo: first frozen body of a member of the Tawantinsuyu
Discovered in 1954, the body of a boy in Cerro El Plomo (Metropolitan Region) is the first discovery of its kind in the Andes and is one of the most valuable anthropological pieces in the Chilean National Museum of Natural History. It was the first known frozen body of a member of Inca nobility, offered more than 500 years ago on a shrine at altitude, over 5,400 meters above sea level.
The child from El Plomo is the naturally freeze-dried body of an Inca child, around 8 years old, offered in honor of the god Inti (Sun) in the Capacocha ceremony, a state ritual of the Tawantinsuyu related to the conquest and borders of its territory. Strictly speaking it is not a mummy, since the minor was deposited while still alive in a ceremony involving a procession of nobles and priests.
Qhapaq Ñan: the backbone of the Tawantinsuyu
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, Qhapaq Ñan represents the Andean road system that formed the backbone of the political and economic power of the Tawantinsuyu or Inca Empire since the 15th and 16th centuries. It crosses six countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, along a road network of more than 30,000 km. It connected different administrative and ceremonial production centers and covered a wide geographic expanse, from the center-west of Argentina and Chile to the south of Colombia.
The Qhapaq Ñan section of Chile is located in the driest desert in the world, which has value in and of itself.
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