The Atacama Desert is located in the north of Chile and extends 600km from the Loa River to the Copiapo River (Figure 1). It is the driest desert in the world and large portions of it are void of life. However, the supply of fresh water from the Altiplano rains and groundwater springs enable the formation of oases and forests of native algarrobo (Prosopis alba) and chanar (Geoffroea decorticans) trees (Figure 2). Up in the highlands, with an altitude of over 3000m, plant cover consists of seasonal grasses and extensive wetlands that sustain guanaco (Lama guanicoe), vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) and taruca (Hippocamelus antisensis), as well as vizcacha (Lagidium viscacia) and other rodents and a wide variety of bird life. The coastal desert is extraordinarily rich in marine resources, with vegetation limited to small saltwater marshes and the area around the mouth of the Loa River. This hostile environment, however, did not hinder the development of the human groups that settled along the coast and further inland.
Both sedentarism and the domestication of camelid livestock began in the Late Archaic and Early Formative periods, from 5000 to 2400 uncal BP. These herds were used mainly to transport trade items over long distances, an economic activity based around exotic goods that helped sustain large settlements in the Atacama foothills and fostered the emergence of a redistributive elite that resided in the Tulan Ravine south of the Atacama salt flat during the Early Formative period (Nunez 1992; Nunez et al. 2006a & b; Cartagena et al. 2007). In the Late Formative (2400-1600 uncal BP) the first permanent settlements appeared, the pastoral mode of production was entrenched and previously evident social complexity and inequality disappeared from the archaeological record (Aguero 2005; Nunez 2005).
It is within this context that some of the most complex repertoire of South American rock art is found. In the Atacama Desert the most fully contextualised rock art spans three cultural periods--the Late Archaic, the Early Formative and the Late Formative (Gallardo 200 Berenguer 2004; Nunez et al. 2006b). The oldest of these is the Kalina-Puripica style, which consists of engravings that have been linked to hunter-gatherer settlements dated from 5000-4000 BP (Nunez 1983; Berenguer et al. 1985). The Taira-Tulan and Confluencia styles of engravings and paintings, respectively, developed in a pastoral environment during the Early Formative period between 4000 BP and 2400 BP (Berenguer 1995; Gallardo et al. 1999). In the following Late Formative Period, which lasted until 1600 uncal BP the style of painting is known as Cueva Blanca. The compositional nature of this art form was influenced by the iconography and symmetrical structures of textile imagery (Sinclaire 1997).
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In this paper I shall explore the social and symbolic relationships that link settlement and the production of surplus goods with the distribution of rock art and its formal content. The aim is to describe the rock art style as an expression of social and symbolic consensus that functioned ideologically to validate the different intercommunal hierarchies that were occurring at the regional level.
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The Puripica-Kalina style (Late Archaic, 5000-4000 uncal BP)
The oldest rock art recorded in the Atacamena region consists mainly of engravings, with a distribution ranging from the Upper Loa River to the Tulan Ravine south of the Salar de Atacama (Berenguer et al. 1985; Berenguer 1995; Nunez et al. 1999, 2006c; Gallardo 2001). The main subject is camelids, forming aggregations rather than scenes. They are presented in profile, generally without hooves, with bodies and extremities displaying multiple anatomical attributes. They vary in size but do not exceed 0.3m (Figure 3). They are found on small boulders as well as on the rock faces of the ravines, always associated with residential sites not far from water and forage (Berenguer 1995; Nunez et al. 2006b).
The chronology assigned to this style is based on a settlement found in the Puripica Ravine, situated on a seasonal tributary of the Vilama River. There, under occupational waste dated at 4815 [+ or -] 70 uncal BP, engravings were found on a boulder that was part of a dwelling wall (Nunez et al. 1999), A temporal association that is similar, though spatially indirect, has been found at the Kalina site (Upper Loa) dated at 4370 [+ or -] 220 BP (Berenguer et al. 1985; Aldunate et al. 1986; Caceres & Berenguer 1996).
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The Late Archaic, which saw the production of this art, is a period characterised by an intensification of hunting and the domestication of the first llama herds (Nunez 1981, 1992; Dransart 1991; Yacobaccio 2001, 2004; Nunez et al. 2006c; Cartajena et al. 2007). Studies of archaeofauna indicate that in semi-permanent settlements such as Chiu Chiu (not far from Kalina), Puripica and Tulan, archaic populations would have kept herds of domesticated animals, especially llamas (Lama glama), which are morphologically interpreted as beasts of burden (Cartajena 1994; Cartajena et al. 2007). It appears to be clear that, along with the characteristic hunting and gathering of the time, long-distance trading and the circulation of exotic goods was also beginning, and seems to have involved the production and transport of beads of copper ore and Pacific shells. This activity appears to be represented by an overabundance of different forms of perforating tools in quantities that have not been recorded elsewhere for the Early or Middle Archaic periods, as well as by evidence of waste generated in producing those beads (Druss 1977; Nunez 1992; Jackson & Benavente 1994; De Souza 2004; Nunez et al. 2006c).