The first peoples of the Atacama Desert lived among the trees: A 11,600- to 11,200-year-old grove and congregation site

Paula C. Ugalde, Delphine Joly, Claudio Latorre, Eugenia M. Gayo, Rafael Labarca, Mikhaela Simunovic, Virginia McRostie, Vance T. Holliday, Jay Quade, Calogero M. Santoro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In deserts, water has been singled out as the most important factor for choosing where to settle, but trees were likely an important part of the landscape for hunter-gatherers beyond merely constituting an economic resource. Yet, this critical aspect has not been considered archaeologically. Here, we present the results of mapping and radiocarbon dating of a truly unique archaeological record. Over 150 preserved stumps around five Late Pleistocene/ Early Holocene archaeological campsites (12,800 to 11,200 cal BP) show that trees were key features in the creation of everyday habitats for the first inhabitants of the Atacama Desert. At two of these sites, QM12 and QM35, the spatial and chronological correlation between trees and hearths reveals that people located their homes under the tree canopy. At residential site QM35, artifact distribution coincides with a grove dated to ~11,600 to 11,200 cal BP. A third residential area (QM32) occurred along the grove margins ~12,000 to 11,200 cal BP. Based on the distinct cultural material of these two camps, we propose that two different groups intermittently shared this rich wetland-grove environment. The tree taxa suggest a preference for the native Schinus molle, a tree scarcely present on the landscape today, over the endemic, nitrogen-fixing Strombocarpa tamarugo, both for toolmaking and firewood and even though the S. tamarugo was locally more abundant. Together with the spatial and chronological coincidence of campsites, hearths, and trees, we propose that people spared the most abundant and resilient species to create their homes, in turn promoting fertility oases amid the Atacama’s hyperaridity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2320506121
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number18
StatePublished - Apr 30 2024


  • Atacama Desert
  • early peopling
  • human-nature interactions
  • hunter-gatherers
  • trees

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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