Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Exploring South America Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Tom D. Dillehay

(Lynda D'Amico)

Recent decades have seen a host of new discoveries in South American archaeology. In 1995, Chilean archaeologist Bernardo Arriaza excavated the spectacular mummified remains of the Chinchorro people along the Pacific coast of Peru and Chile. Another dramatic discovery has served to push the origins of Andean civilization back 1,500 years to ca. 2500 B.C.: dozens of U-shaped stone and adobe structures found at sites on Peru's desert coast were found to predate Chavín by nearly two millennia.

Archaeologists have long thought the rise of Andean civilization was triggered by agriculture, but in recent years it has become clear that ancient peoples depended heavily on fishing as well. The spectacular finds in elaborate 1,900- to 1,500-year-old tombs of Moche royalty at Sipán, excavated beginning in 1987 by Walter Alva of the Museo Brüning in Lambayeque, have provided important new data on the Moche culture.

Inka sacrificial burials and ceremonial platforms have been investigated on sacred peaks and islands from Ecuador to Chile. New studies show that military force, religious feasting, and political diplomacy were all employed by Inka rulers to convince multiple ethnic groups to work together within the state system. Inka officials also used cooperative local rulers to govern local affairs.

Once a great unknown, the origin and spread of eastern tropical forest cultures of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and northern Argentina are beginning to be understood. Archaeologists have now suggested that the famous Nazca lines on the desert of the south coast of Peru, radiocarbon-dated to ca. 300 B.C., possibly served as processional ways pointing to the mountains and watercourses that nourished life in this parched landscape.

Archaeologists are also thinking about the different ways social change and state society emerged in South America. Pioneer thinkers of the 1950s and 1960s emphasized chronology, cultural diffusion, military force, and conquest to explain the rise of states. In the 1970s and 1980s, these and other scholars shifted their focus to technology, economic growth, ideology, land-use patterns, population pressure, and raw materials.

During the past 25 years archaeologists have also become concerned with the increased destruction of archaeological sites by looters and developers. Where does South American archaeology go from here? We must monitor issues such as ecotourism, biodiversity, and indigenous rights. We should also focus on ethnoarchaeology among the many indigenous groups in South America and more cooperative research with social anthropologists working with them.

Tom D. Dillehay, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky, has carried out 25 years of archaeological and ethnographic investigations throughout South America.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America