Neolithic Atacama Desert Farmers Battled Violently Over Resources
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that human history has been a continuum of violence, bloodshed, and gore. This phenomenon has been captured today in virtual simulations, games, and other forms of entertainment, but real life has plenty of examples where this bloodthirsty behavior has had deeply traumatic and disturbing consequences. A new study in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, focused on 164 graves found in the Atacama Desert of Chile, showed that 3,000 years ago the first Neolithic horticulturalists came to deadly blows competing over resources and socio-economic inequalities.
The Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes. This desert was a difficult place to farm in the first place and this eventually led to extreme violence, as the latest study has shown. (ESO / CC BY 4.0)
The Evidence: 164 Neolithic Graves in the Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar desert in the world, and farming here, at any point in history, could not have been easy. In fact, it would be fair to argue that this is one of the most difficult places on earth to survive, and around 1,000 BC, evidentiary remains have been found of foragers and farmers experiencing this first-hand with brutal consequences.
In the northern part of Chile, sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, the beginning of settled farming spelt bloodshed. The Smithsonian reports that Atacama Desert farmers in the Neolithic period attacked and killed each other in gruesome ways. They violently killed others with maces, knives, and other weapons, competing for severely limited resources, namely, fertile land and water.
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This is based on the study and analysis of 194 graves, between 3,000 and 1,400 years old, where the desert’s extreme dryness preserved fragments of hair, flesh, and organs. A forensic analysis showed that the victims had snapped ribs, broken collarbones, multiple facial injuries and puncture wounds all over their bodies. Puncture were found in the areas of the lung, groin, and spine, which were mostly fatal blows.
“The patterns and frequencies of the lethal trauma… is astonishing,” says Tiffiny Tung, a Vanderbilt University archaeologist who was not involved with this particular study.
Marks of lethal trauma to the face of one of the victims found in a Neolithic grave in the Chilean Atacama Desert. (Standen et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
Inequalities and Hierarchies Led to Localized Violence
The Neolithic Revolution was a transformative stage in human history that resulted in Paleolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers transitioning to agricultural settlements where animal domestication was practiced and agrarian surpluses were the norm. This led to new forms of social hierarchy, stratification, and labor specialization.
New social hierarchies fostered some of the earliest socio-economic inequality, with some being able to control and access resources more than others. This naturally created considerable resentment and animosity between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
In the early Neolithic Revolution people lived in small, localized communities of 50-200 people, and populations only began to boom in the coming centuries as more children could be raised and taken care of due to food surpluses.
Therefore, in this era conflict and violence were local phenomena. And much of the violence was unorganized pillaging and looting. As the study authors write, “...the findings suggested that violence was between local groups and that social and ecological constraints likely triggered violence within local communities.” They added that “…the emergence of elites and social inequality fostered interpersonal and inter- and intra-group violence associated with the defense of resources, socio-economic investments, and other cultural concerns.”
Individuals with trauma found in atypical body positions in a mass grave in the Atacama Desert. (Standen et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archaeology)
The Science of Evidentiary Violence
Strontium isotopic composition in the graves was analyzed to determine whether the violence was local or involved foreign parties. Along with this, settlement patterns, weapons, and rock art were also evaluated to gauge patterns of violence. Skeletal and soft tissues, preserved in 30 percent of the grave victims due to the arid climate, presented the most direct evidence of the violence. To establish markers of interpersonal violence, a loose examination of the bones was carried out using X-ray technology.
“The [preservation] of the bodies is excellent, so we can see the real people that lived in this environment,” says Vivien Standen, lead author of the study from the University of Tarapaca in Chile.
The findings revealed healed wounds, perimortem injuries (those suffered at the time of death, which essentially caused death) and numerous fatal injuries. Compared to the percentage of injuries in old coastal foragers, i.e., 10%, the incidence seemed to get higher and higher as populations began settling down to farm. “Everything is more lethal. Everything is more explosive,” said Bernardo Arriaza, study coauthor and University of Tarapacá anthropologist.
Bizarrely, these preserved tissues and remains paint another story that of intimacy! Repeated puncture wounds, fatal facial injuries inflicted by spears and maces, points to a rapid deterioration of relations between human beings. What the researchers are unable to tell us yet is if this is a case of sworn enemies or strangers battling each other, or relations between friends and neighbors turned sour. Preliminary evidence suggests that the level of familiarity changed dramatically over time.
El Nino has the most direct impact on life in the equatorial Pacific, its effects propagate north and south along the coast of the Americas, affecting marine life all around the Pacific. Changes in chlorophyll-a concentrations are visible in this animation, which compares phytoplankton in January and July 1998. The Neolithic Atacama Desert farmers were also impacted by El Nino leading to less fish and more challenging farming realities that led to extreme violence. (NASA Earth Observatory / Public domain)
Climate Change and Resource Competition
Climate change also had a role to play in the violence. Changes in the El Nino cycle caused fish foragers to move inland by around 1,000 BC, leading to organized assaults and violence, instead of the spontaneity and familiarity of prior conflict. This is a pattern that is well known in early human history: change in climatic conditions and growing populations led to competition when resources became scare. And this resulted in violence or migration to better resource areas.
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"In this extreme desert, farming was dramatically restricted and confined to valley terraces, quebradas, and oases, with these pockets of land separated by extensive sterile interfluvial pampas that dominated the landscape. Away from the fertile coast, moving out from these productive oases meant facing barren landscapes without water and resources for subsistence .. This new socio-cultural framework and land use could have triggered social tensions, conflict, and violence among groups investing in a horticultural lifestyle,” concluded Professor Standen.
Top image: High-impact shocks to the face and skull. Source: Standen et al. / Journal of Anthropological Archaeology
By Sahir Pandey
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Davis, M. 2021. Grisly Remains of First Farmers in Atacama Reveal Brutal Challenges To Live in Driest Nonpolar Desert. Available at: https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/33157/20210831/grisly-remains-first-farmers-atacama-reveal-brutal-challenges-live-driest-nonpolar-desert.htm.
Devis, D. 2021. Battered skulls of ancient farmers reveal violent conflicts. Available at: https://cosmosmagazine.com/history/civilisations/battered-skulls-of-ancient-farmers-reveal-violent-conflicts/.
Dockrill, P. 2021. Brutal Wounds of The Dead Speak of Ancient Violence in Earth's Driest Desert. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/brutal-wounds-of-the-dead-speak-of-ancient-violence-in-the-driest-desert-on-earth.
Standen, V., Santoro, C., et al. 2021. Violence among the first horticulturists in the Atacama Desert (1000 BCE – 600 CE). Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 63. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2021.101324.