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Geoarchaeological evidence for multidecadal natural climatic variability and ancient Peruvian fisheries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Daniel H. Sandweiss*
Anthropology Department, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA Climate Change Institute, Bryand Global Sciences Center, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA
Kirk A. Maasch
Climate Change Institute, Bryand Global Sciences Center, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA Department of Earth Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA
Fei Chai
Climate Change Institute, Bryand Global Sciences Center, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA School for Marine Studies, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA
C.Fred T. Andrus
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469, USA
Elizabeth J. Reitz
Georgia Museum of Natural History, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-1882, USA
*Corresponding author. Department of Anthropology, South Stevens Hall, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469-5773. Fax: (207) 581-1823.E-mail (D.H. Sandweiss).


Understanding the influence of natural climatic variability on modern fisheries is complicated by over a century of industrial fishing. Archaeological data provide unique opportunities for assessing precolonial and preindustrial fisheries. Records show that anchoveta-vs sardine-dominated fisheries correlate with 20th-century climate change in the Pacific Basin and are linked to multidecadal climatic variability. The “anchovy regime” is characterized by cooler conditions and lower frequency El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events, while the “sardine regime” is associated with warmer conditions and higher frequency ENSO. Fish remains excavated at Lo Demás, an Inca-period (ca. A.D. 1480–1540) fishing site at 13°25′S on the Peruvian coast, document a shift from an anchoveta-to a sardine-dominated fishery at about A.D. 1500. This shift correlates with records for increasing ENSO frequency at the same time. Middle and late Holocene sites have archaeofish assemblages that also suggest regime changes. Here we show that changes in fish regimes can result from natural variability and we support the potential role of archaeological assemblages in tracking multidecadal climate change in the Pacific Basin throughout the Holocene (0–11,500 cal yr B.P.).

Short Paper
University of Washington

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