Investigating Early Settlement in South America

Dr. Rademaker and graduate students mapping Quebrada Jaguay
Dr. Kurt Rademaker and graduate students mapping Quebrada Jaguay, a Terminal Pleistocene Pacific Coast site in southern Peru. From left – Dr. Kurt Rademaker, Sarah Meinekat, Emily Milton (MSU PhD student), and Steph Gruver.

Assistant Professor Dr. Kurt Rademaker is the Principal Investigator of a 3-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Archaeology project entitled, “Social Adaptation in a Highly Varied Spatial Environment,” which will close next year. This project focuses on some of the earliest archaeological sites known in South America to learn about the timing of initial settlement, the routes used to settle various ecological zones, and the formation of social connections between zones.

At the end of the last ice age, hunter-gatherers successfully colonized nearly every ecological zone in the western hemisphere within a few thousand years. In South America, these environments included the hyper-arid Pacific coast where fisherfolk exploited the bounty of the sea, and the rugged Andes up to 4500 m (approx. 14,800 feet) above sea level where camelid hunters lived in base camps in highland oases. These coastal and highland sites are connected through shared raw materials and artifacts, but whether the sites were made by one group moving between coast and highlands or multiple groups settling in both areas is unknown.

Dr. Rademaker has been leading an interdisciplinary, international team of senior scientists and students to study the functional relationships of these linked Paleoindian sites located at the coast and highlands dating between 13,000 and 12,000 years ago. This project includes archaeological exploration of remote desert areas between the coast and highlands to discover additional sites in the settlement system, excavations of these sites, and analyses of uncovered materials and artifacts using cutting-edge techniques. By determining the age and season of occupation of each site, and by teasing out behavioral indicators from the excavated material remains, the team will learn whether the coast or highlands were settled first and whether there was one or multiple groups of people living in these areas. The findings from this research will contribute to understanding how humans have adapted to live in some of Earth’s most challenging environments.

Dr. Rademaker and Taylor Panczek surveying prehistoric lithic workshops in the Peruvian Desert
Dr. Kurt Rademaker (left) and Taylor Panczek surveying prehistoric lithic workshops in the Peruvian Desert

This past summer, Dr. Rademaker also began a new field project in the central Peruvian Andes, supported by a Faculty Initiatives Fund from the MSU College of Social Science. Dr. Rademaker’s team conducted new archaeological excavations at two limestone cave sites located at about 4300 m (14,000 feet) elevation and dating back at least 11,000 years. These two sites were originally excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by teams of U.S. and Peruvian researchers, but due to violence associated with the Shining Path terrorist group, international scientific projects in the Andes abruptly ended. Despite a subsequent return to peaceful conditions within the past 30 years, archaeological work there has not been reinitiated until now.

Over the next few years, Dr. Rademaker will head an interdisciplinary team for this project, including some of the original site investigators from the 1970s and 1980s and students from MSU and Peru. Together they will conduct new archaeological and environmental research in this region using the latest innovative methods. Located in central Peru where rainfall is abundant, vegetation is lush, and animals are numerous, these sites in the Puna of Junín appear to be the residential bases of hunter-gatherers who settled the difficult high Andes at the end of the last ice age. The team is re-dating the sites and studying site formation processes ahead of planned re-analysis of legacy collections and further fieldwork. Ultimately, this research will shed light on the history of biocultural adaptations and environmental change in the high Andes.

To learn more about Dr. Rademaker’s research, visit his working group’s website:

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