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A perched, high-elevation wetland complex in the Atacama Desert (northern Chile) and its implications for past human settlement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 March 2019

Luca Sitzia
Universidad de Tarapacá, Facultad de Ciencias Sociales y Jurídicas, Arica, 1000000, Chile Laboratorio de Análisis e Investigaciones Arqueométricas, Museo Universidad de Tarapacá San Miguel de Azapa XV, Región de Arica y Parinacota, Camino a Azapa Km 12, Arica, 1000000, Chile
Eugenia M. Gayo
Center for Climate and Resilience Research and Departamento de Oceanografía, Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y Oceanográficas, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción, 4030000, Chile
Marcela Sepulveda
Laboratorio de Análisis e Investigaciones Arqueométricas, Instituto de Alta Investigación, Universidad de Tarapacá, Antofagasta 1520, Casilla 6-D, Arica, 1000236, Chile Unité Mixte de Recherche 8096 Archéologie des Amériques (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique - Université Paris 1), France
Juan S. González
Independent researcher
Lucia Ibañez
Facultad de Ciencias Naturales e Instituto Miguel Lillo, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Miguel Lillo 205, 4000, Tucumán, Argentina
Alain Queffelec
PACEA (De la Préhistoire à l'Actuel : Culture, Environnement et Anthropologie), Unité mixte de recherche 5199, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Université de Bordeaux, bâtiment B18, Allée Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 33615 Pessac Cedex, France
Ricardo De Pol-Holz
Center for Climate and Resilience Research and GAIA-Antarctica, Universidad de Magallanes, Punta Arenas, 6200000, Chile


A previously undocumented type of wetland is described from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile (3000 m above sea level), sustained exclusively by direct precipitation and perched above the regional water table. Geomorphological mapping, pedostratigraphy, geochemistry, and analysis of contemporary vegetation is used to understand wetland formation and dynamics during historical and present time periods. The paleowetland deposits overlie a Miocene tuff that acts as an impermeable barrier to water transfer and creates conditions for local shallow ground water. These deposits include several paleosols that were formed during periods when precipitation increased regionally at 7755–7300, 1270, 545, and 400–300 cal yr BP. The similarity in timing with other palaeohydrological records for the Atacama implies that paleosols from this wetland are proxies for reconstructing past changes in local and regional hydrological cycle. Archaeological investigations have revealed the presence of two small farms from the Late Intermediate period, i.e., during the earliest wetter phase represented by the paleosols. Both farms are located near the paleowetland deposits, which suggests that local inhabitants exploited these water sources during late pre-Hispanic times. Results of this study improve knowledge of settlement patterns during this and earlier cultural periods.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Washington. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2019 

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