Social Interaction and Rock Art Styles in the Atacama Desert (Northern Chile)

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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).


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.


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. …