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31 August 2013
Early South Americans conquered the Atacama desert

The heart of the Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth, yet the first settlers of South America set up home there more than 12,000 years ago. Most of the desert's core was just as harsh then as it is today.
     Claudio Latorre, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, and colleagues excavated a site called Quebrada Mani, which lies 85 kilometres inland, 1240 metres above sea level, and only receives rain a few times a century.
     During the latest Pleistocene, this location harboured wetlands and riparian woodlands that were fed by increased rainfall further east in the central Andes. Excavations yielded a diverse cultural assemblage of stone tools, burned and cut bones, marine gastropods, pigments, plant fibres and wooden artefacts, alongside a prepared fireplace.
     Quebrada Mani could have been an important pit stop for heading inland, says team member Calogero Santoro of the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile. "Certain features of the site seem to correspond to a base camp," he says.
     "We need to think in terms of oasis hopping," agrees Silvia Gonzalez, of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. She has found similar archaeological sites in Mexican deserts.
     If the settlers really were journeying between widely separated oases, they must have been skilled navigators. "Even at this early stage, there was probably trade," Gonzalez says, with distant settlements exchanging items like sea shells and volcanic glass.

Edited from Science Direct, NewScientist (21 August 2013)

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