Nature last week carried a great article by Barbara Fraser about the growing research into the earliest peoples of South America: “The first South Americans: Extreme living”. She followed researchers Kurt Rademaker and César Méndez on their respective fieldwork projects in Peru and Chile.
The landscape looks bleak, but Rademaker views it through the eyes of the people who built a fire in the rock shelter, named Cuncaicha, about 12,400 years ago. These hunter-gatherers were some of the earliest known residents of South America and they chose to live at this extreme altitude — higher than any Ice Age encampment found thus far in the New World. Despite the thin air and sub-freezing night-time temperatures, this plain would have seemed a hospitable neighbourhood to those people, says Rademaker, an archaeologist at the University of Maine in Orono.
“The basin has fresh water, camelids, stone for toolmaking, combustible fuel for fires and rock shelters for living in,” he says. “Basically, everything you need to live is here. This is one of the richest basins I've seen, and it probably was then, too.”
To me, the kind of work being done in South America and in Mexico upon early Americans is really inspiring. Archaeologists are finding many sites that document the human presence in the Americas before 10,000 years ago, including provocative skeletal remains from deep inside of Yucatan caves. The situation in the U.S. and Canada has also changed with the addition of new sites and methods (including paleogenetics). We are at the borderline of a revolution in our approach to the initial habitation of the Americas.