Human remains in Patagonia:
The first inhabitants at the end of the world
Anthropologist Francisco Mena has led until now the excavations at Baño Nuevo, in Aysen (Chilean South), where half of the human remains that have ever been documented are found. Here he talks about an effort that looks to contribute new data about the first men in America.
A decade ago, anthropologist Francisco Mena, from Chile's Precolumbian Art Museum, led the first archaeological excavation in the area known as Baño Nuevo, 120 miles to the North East of Coyhaique, in an estancia close to the Argentinian border. For the last three years his team have focused on the study of this site of hunters-collectors where ten of the twenty most ancient human skeletons in Latin America have been found and dated by the Carbon-14. The tests have proven them to be more than 8,000 years old. Half of the remains found by Mena are of babies younger than six months old, unable to survive in such a hostile environment.
The map shows the location of Baño Nuevo, in the Chilean region of Aysén.
—Let's start with your concept about what Patagonia really is.
—From a geopolitical point of view, Patagonia starts in Chiloé and ends in the Straits of Magellan. From an anthropological perspective it is more of a unified territory, that can be identified with the area belonging traditionally to the hunters-collectors, where agriculture was a marginal activity. In Chile, that goes from the Seno del Reloncavi all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Before the Ice Age, Tierra del Fuego's largest island was connected to the continent. If we are talking about the early Holocene that's 10,000 years ago; so Tierra del Fuego is part of the same universe. And there's a big debate about Tierra del Fuego belonging or not to Patagonia. Some people even talk about Fuego-Patagonia. Anyway, it's a complex issue. Historically, the Patagonia is much more identified with an area of Eastern plains which is what Hernando de Magallanes actually called Patagonia. The Western side was that of the canals. It was not until last century that this was called Western Patagonia.
—How did the work in Baño Nuevo begun?
—A guy called Felipe Bate discovered and made the first excavations in the year '72. He could see there had been a very ancient occupation, and found clear evidences of human living, though no skeleton remains. However, there were objects made of stone and animal bones that appeared to have been slaughtered by men. He did not date these with carbon. His capacity to recognize extinct animals is remarkable. He stated that maybe men lived simultaneously with the milodon, which was a theory long ruled out We came back in the year '76 to check if the site was as ancient as Bate stated, and test the chance of a cohabiting between men and big extinct animals.
—What kind of use did this site had?
—It was basically a place for hunting that was occupied for 7,000 years. For a while, it was used as a burial place.
—Weren't these hunters related to the sea?
—There are some remains of shells, but we don't know if they are from the Pacific or the Atlantic. They used to hunt guanacos and some birds, and collect fruits, basically.
—When did you found the first human skeletons?
—That was in 1996, and then in the last three years we've found even more. We've come to find remains of ten different individuals, all indicating a human occupation of more than 9,500 years. We've used Carbon-14 over the bones, which is a very precise method. Our margins are very narrow: about 35 years.
—Why are there so many skeletons?
—I believe they could have used this place to bury the dead.
—What kind of individuals have you found?
—They're mostly babies, younger than six months of age. The hunter-collectors have a very high child-mortality rate, because many of those babies can not resist such a hostile environment. Only the strong survive. We have five babies younger than 6 months, 2 teenagers (12 to 14 years old) and 2 adults, one of around 25 years of age, and the other of 45.
—Can you tell their genre?
—It's easier for adults, but not for children. Anyway, we haven't identified all of them, because we do not have the whole skeleton of every individual.
Mena says that older remains have already been found in Chile: Monteverde (12,500 years), Tierra del Fuego, Cueva de Fell, Tres Arroyos and some other places. But none of them have been human. So these are the country's most ancient remains related to human existence. There are older ones in the Argentinian Patagonia.
—Why didn't we heard of all this until last year?
—Because one tries to consolidate the investigation before divulging it; ideally through a specialized publication, and not the press as it was now. It was probably a little early. To give you an example, Monteverde began being excavated in the '70s, and was not publicized until the '90s.
—What other human remains have been found in Chile?
—Patagonia was the world's last place to be colonized by humans. In Arica there have been found remains of 9,000 years; the same in a place at the High Aconcagua and Huentelauquén. In Chile we have more than half of the continent's most ancient human skeletons, all well dated and documented.
—Is it true that there are some human remains in Colchagua (Central Valley)?
—It seems so. I've heard about it, but haven't seen it published. It's hard to say.
—So it's not so clear that the peopling was really from North to South.
—It was probably from North to South, but not lineally. It may be that some inhabitants reached Tierra del Fuego and then travelled up through the valleys. Peopling is not necessarily like an ink drop spreading.
—In your opinion, what has been the big importance of the investigation in Baño Nuevo?
—I think that it's so little what we know about what happened in America before the ceramics (that is, the first 10,000 years of America's prehistory), that we need to get as much information as we can from all ancient sites. Baño Nuevo gives a lot of information. All these findings help us to have a deeper and more complete knowledge corpus, which confirms a lot of impressions we previously had. We've confirmed the idea that men arrived to America about 13,000 years ago, since there's nothing earlier than that. We've confirmed that 9,000 years ago there was no bow and arrow, and that men hunted with darts We've confirmed that survival was based on the hunting of guanacos. Here we've found remains of extinct animals, which are previous to the arrival of men.
—What's the projection of all this? Where are the skeletons to be held?
—The skeletons are now in Chile. Until there's no place more trustable, it's better for them to be kept at the University. There's still so much to do in terms of analysis. We still have to date remains of two American horses, and do a better study of isotopes which are the mineral printings that are left in the bones from everything you eat. There's a lot of information about mice, birds, soil, animals. The idea is to transmit all this in an interesting way, and not just with what's sensational.