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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.
A key concern regarding current and future climate change is the possibility of sustained droughts that can have profound impacts on societies. As such, multiple paleoclimatic proxies are needed to identify megadroughts, the synoptic climatology responsible for these droughts, and their impacts on past and future societies. In the hyperarid Atacama Desert of northern Chile, many streams are characterized by perennial flow and support dense in-stream wetlands. These streams possess sequences of wetland deposits as fluvial terraces that record past changes in the water table. We mapped and radiocarbon dated a well-preserved sequence of in-stream wetland deposits along a 4.3-km reach of the Río San Salvador in the Calama basin to determine the relationship between regional climate change and the incision of in-stream wetlands. The Río San Salvador supported dense wetlands from 11.1 to 9.8, 6.4 to 3.5, 2.8 to 1.3, and 1.0 to 0.5 ka and incised at the end of each of these intervals. Comparison with other in-stream wetland sequences in the Atacama Desert, and with regional paleoclimatic archives, indicates that in-stream wetlands responded similarly to climatic changes by incising during periods of extended drought at ~9.8, 3.5, 1.3, and 0.5 ka.
Hunter-gatherers collected and used various woody species depending on the landscape, availability of plant communities, and sociocultural considerations. With extensive paleo-wetlands and groundwater-fed oases, the Atacama Desert was interspersed with riparian woodlands that provided vital resources (fuel, water, and game) at the end of the Pleistocene in areas such as the Pampa del Tamarugal (PdT) basin. We use anthracological analyses to determine the fuel management strategies of hunter-gatherer societies in this hyperarid environment and explore whether the “Principle of Least Effort” applies. First, we present the combustion qualities and characteristics of woody taxa from the Atacama and analyze possible exploitation strategies. Second, we use anthracological analyses from Quebrada Maní 12 (QM12), a late Pleistocene archaeological site (dated from 12,750 to 11,530 cal B.P.) located in the PdT basin, to show the prevalence of two woody species that were either freshly collected or gathered (very likely on purpose) from subfossil wood. Our results suggest that fuel selection strategies were based on prior knowledge of the qualities of these woody taxa and how they burned. Thus we conclude that fuel management was part of a number of social and economic decisions that allowed for effective colonization of this region. Furthermore, we stress the need for caution when using charcoal to exclusively date archaeological sites located in desert environments.
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