Ice Age hunter-gatherers lived at extreme altitudes

Sites in the Peruvian Andes indicate early Americans adapted quickly to high life

volcano Nevado Coropuna in Peruvian Andes

INTO THIN AIR  After finding two Ice Age archaeological sites in the Peruvian Andes, near the volcano Nevado Coropuna (shown), researchers have determined hunter-gatherers inhabited extreme high altitudes earlier than thought.

Kurt Rademaker

Hunter-gatherers inhabited high-altitude settings nearly a millennium earlier than archaeologists thought, researchers discovered. Two sites in the Peruvian Andes are between 12,800 and 11,500 years old and are more than 4,300 meters high, making them the highest Ice Age settlements ever found.

“The prevailing theory up until now was that it took people a very long time to adapt to high altitudes,” says Daniel Sandweiss, an archaeologist at the University of Maine in Orono. The sites date to about 2,000 years after hunter-gathers first arrived in South America, indicating that people quickly colonized and adapted to the extreme environment, Sandweiss and colleagues report in the Oct. 24 Science.

The researchers used radiocarbon dating from animal bones and the distinctive design of fluted projectile points at the sites to determine their age.

Today, people who live in the high Andes have genetic adaptions for coping with the thin air, such as high lung capacity. Sandelweiss’ team doesn’t know whether ancient hunter-gatherers already had these adaptations or if they evolved in subsequent millennia.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology