Prehistoric and Historic Networks on the Atacama Desert Coast (Northern Chile)

Article excerpt



The circulation of people, goods and ideas is an activity inherent to all societies, since inhabiting a territory involves the movement of resources required for social reproduction, both within and among communities. In the north of Chile, the primary mode of circulation from the Late Archaic to the Colonial period has been attributed to herders and llama caravans (Nunez & Dillehay 1979; Martinez 1985; Berenguer 2004; Cartajena et al. 2007; Gallardo 2009). Likewise, people based ar oases or highlands are considered to be the main agents of the economy, at both the regional and inter-regional scale. Only recently has it been recognised that circulation was also important for other communities, including those on the coast, which we know used pedestrian modes of transit without beasts of burden (Cases et al. 2008) and sailed vessels all along the desert coast (Larrain 1974; Bittmann 1986).

This article is intended to explore the mobility strategies employed by early coastal communities in Chile between 6000 and 4000 cal BE The method employed is to infer a mobility and interaction system in the early modern period, as it appears in documents and pictures, and then to use this as an analogy for prehistoric operations in the same territory. The hypothesis is that a similar network of maritime and terrestrial links underpinned the prehistoric local economy and nourished alliances between coastal populations and those inhabiting the inland oases of the Atacama Desert.

The Colonial and Republican periods (sixteenth and early twentieth centuries)

Seafaring, fishing and maritime networks

The earliest description of the people of the Atacama Desert coast was written by Geronimo de Bibar (1966 [1558]). It offers an extraordinarily detailed account of how marine huntergatherers built seagoing craft using inflated sea lion skins. These boats consisted of two long, cylindrical floats made of inflated seal skins (usually of sea lion), joined together by a wooden platform that carried the crew (Bibar 1966 [1558]: 10) (Figure 1). A double- bladed oar was used to propel the vessel. Seventeenth-century chroniclers were amazed by the technology of the craft, their carrying capacity and the navigational skills employed by the mariners: 'they sail out to sea in them, six leagues and more' (Lizarraga 1999 [1603-9]: 122).

These vessels played a crucial role in marine hunting and fishing. Vincent Bauver (in Pernaud 1990: 45), a French merchant who landed in Cobija in the early seventeenth century (Figure 2), noted that:

'They use these kinds of boats for fishing; when they see the sea boiling with fish they run ... taking with them a long line with three unbaited triangular hooks that they throw into the sea and pull in quickly, and soon they have one, two or three fish.'

Francis Drake was one of the visitors to Morro Moreno and took on supplies there. Seeing his ship, the inhabitants approached on seal-skin boats loaded with fish, which they offered to trade for knives, beads, cups and other objects of little value, 'whereof men of 60 and 70 yeares old were as glad as if they had received some exceeding rich commodity' (Vaux 1854: 106). In this exchange, two important aspects are clear: it was the men who acted as agents that activated the economic relationship, and they brought fish to trade. Historic documents are specific about fishing, especially the production of dried fish, a technique described in one document from 1707: 'when they finish fishing they gut the fish to expose them to the air, where they dry without rotting and without needing to be salted, so good and pure is the air' (Bauver in Pernaud 1990: 45).

The economic importance of this product is mentioned early on by Juan Lozano Machuca (1992 [1585]: 32), who reported that: 'In the core of Atacama, which is where the port is, there are four hundred native fishers, Uros who are neither baptised nor conquered nor anyone's servants, although they give fish to the Atacama chiefs as a sign of recognition'. …