Processes of Paleoindian site and desert pavement formation in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Paula C. Ugalde, Jay Quade, Calogero M. Santoro, Vance T. Holliday

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


A distinct feature of many of the earliest archaeological sites (13,000-11,200 cal yr BP) at the core of the Atacama Desert is that they lie at or just below the surface, often encased in desert pavements. In this study, we compare these sites and undisturbed desert pavements to understand archaeological site formation and pavement development and recovery. Our results indicate these pavements and their soils are poorly developed regardless of their age. We propose that this is because of sustained lack of rain and extreme physical breakdown of clasts by salt expansion. Thus, the core of the Atacama provides an example of the lower limits of rainfall (<50 mm/yr) needed to form desert pavements. At site Quebrada Maní 12 (QM12), humans destroyed the pavement. After abandonment, human-made depressions were filled with eolian sands, incorporating artifacts in shallow deposits. Small and medium-sized artifacts preferentially migrated upwards, perhaps due to earthquakes and the action of salts. These artifacts, which now form palimpsests at the surface, helped - along with older clasts - to restore surface clast cover. Larger archaeological features remained undisturbed on top of a deeper Byzm horizon. The vesicular A horizons (Av horizons) have not regenerated on the archaeological sites due to extreme scarcity of rainfall during the Holocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-80
Number of pages23
JournalQuaternary Research (United States)
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020


  • Atacama Desert
  • Desert pavements
  • Hyperaridity
  • Paleoindian
  • Vesicular horizons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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