Quartz Crystals and Camelids; Why They Chose Cuncaicha – Katherine Morucci

August 21, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

August 1, 2015
Arequipa, Peru

From within my poorly constructed catacomb network of sleeping bag, liner, jackets, fleeces, hats, and gloves that refused to stay grounded to their designated locality, I wondered if death by hypothermia or hypoxia was preferable. By no means was my tomb helping my body cope with blood oxygen levels of 60% saturation—my heart rate and throbbing head vehemently assured—but a drafty air pocket was more than my system was willing to withstand. I remembered Dave laughing when I had mentioned that the temperature seemed to be dropping quickly. “When you’re sleeping on the puna, there comes a point in the night when you have to tell yourself, ‘everything will get better once the sun rises,’” he commented. At the time, I found this comment quite grim and slightly concerning, as I was already shivering in the back seat of the truck. And yet there I was—in my borrowed top-of-the-line camping equipment and cold-weather gear—praying for daybreak.

Sorting flotation heavy fractions, well bundled even during the day.
Sorting flotation heavy fractions, well bundled even during the day. Photo credit: author

“Why here?” I asked myself, frustrated with lack of sleep and an empty stomach that was unwilling to bear food. It was a rhetorical question—if we had any means to better understand why this now-forsaken land was once home to one of the earliest known Andean settlements, and possibly the largest site dating to the Pleistocene epoch, we wouldn’t be here.

Approximately 15,000 years ago humans entered the New World via the Bering Strait. Thereafter, humans migrated across the totality of the Americas in a blitz speed event that spanned approximately 2,000 years. This was by far the most rapid and large-scale migration event in recent human history. Considering the geographic and ecological diversity of the Americas, researchers have puzzled endlessly over how early settlers were able to adapt to and thrive in such distinct niches. For example, the peopling of Peru alone entailed the exploitation of coastal, canyon, mountainous, and high elevation plateau environments. Needless to say, some of these locations seem far more habitable than others. Which brings us back to an image of myself, encased in a mound of well-branded, miscellaneous fabric, fighting a losing battle against the puna floor, which robbed me unforgivingly of all homeostatic attempts to maintain a comfortable body temperature.

Of the places to settle in Peru, the high altitude Andes possesses some of the harshest climatic conditions. Obstacles such as high solar radiation, hypoxia, hypothermia, increased metabolic demand, and nutritional requirements make long-term settlement in such areas particularly difficult. Additionally, vegetation is incredibly limited and the soil is inhospitable to all crops except tubers. As such, my question regarding why anyone would choose to settle under such conditions holds value beyond my personal suffering.

As it turns out, Kurt Rademaker, of the University of Northern Illinois, has spent years asking the same question. This season, Kurt will try to answer it by continuing an ongoing excavation of the rock shelter site, Cuncaicha. In past seasons, Cuncaicha has been proven to hold one of the earliest dates of Paleoindian settlement in the Andes. Impressive finds such as obsidian projectile points, quartz crystals, shell beads, ample faunal material, and rock art suggest the cultural profundity of this site. What’s more,  fragments of burnt human skull have led the team to believe that there are more human remains to be found—it is suspected that excavations of the cave’s lowest levels may yield a human burial.

Cuncaicha rock shelter
Cuncaicha rock shelter Photo credit: author

The hope is that the materials obtained this year will help us better understand how some of the first humans to enter South America were able to adapt to the extreme conditions associated with high altitude occupation. How were they able to accumulate the genotypic variation necessary to cope with such metabolic and homeostatic extremes? Moreover, how did they manage to climb to 4,480 meters in elevation in order to establish this site and where did they start?

While the circumstances mentioned above might very well make these excavations the most interesting effort to which I have contributed, I must admit my personal investment originates from a different source. My interest in animal science has me locked into thought involving the heavy nutritional and economic dependence of Andean populations on camelids such as the vicuña and guanaco. As such, I have latched on tightly to the vast knowledge held by the Penn Museum’s very own Katherine Moore on the emergence of animal domestication. In rummaging through screen after screen cluttered by skeletal fragments, we will be working toward a better understanding of how dependence on animals shaped life in these communities. That is, in understanding the behavior of these animals, and how those behaviors were exploited by these people, we can piece together a larger picture regarding the way of life lived by the inhabitants of Cuncaicha.

Vicuñas, wild cousins of the domesticated llama and alpaca.
Vicuñas, wild cousins of the domesticated llama and alpaca. Photo credit: author