Chronology, Mound-Building and Environment at Huaca Prieta, Coastal Peru, from 13 700 to 4000 Years Ago

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The warming trend at the end of the Pleistocene led to new and generally richer terrestrial and coastal environments that were exploited by human foragers in several regions of the world (Straus et al. 1996). Post-Pleistocene complex hunters and gatherers who practised intensive maritime adaptations and established extensive often sedentary communities are best represented by the Jomon culture in Japan (Habu 2004), the Ertebolle culture in Scandinavia (Miller et al. 2010), the ring-mounds in the south-east of the United States (Thompson & Worth 2010) and the sambaqui mounds in Brazil (Fish et al. 2000). The settlements of these cultures are invariably characterised by mortuary rituals suggestive of social differentiation, and by extensive shell middens that have yielded a wide array of marine and terrestrial species. At different times between ~8000 and 4000 cal BP, some of these communities also practised various degrees of horticulture as evidenced by the appearance of food crops. Like these regions, the Pacific coast from southern Ecuador to northern Chile witnessed the early rise of complex societies, especially in Peru where sedentism and monumental non-domestic architecture appeared by at least 5200 cal BP (Moseley 1975, 1992; Richardson 1981; Bird et al. 1985; Haas & Creamer 2006). Some of these developments are due to the unique ecology of the region, with diverse and abundant maritime resources closely juxtaposed with a long fertile but arid coastal plain, through which rivers descend from the Andean mountains. Others are the result of emerging ideologies adopted by these communities, which built monuments prior to the use of pottery. Associated with these changes was a variety of food and industrial crops (Bird 1948; Pearsall 2008). Particularly important was cotton for producing fishing nets, textiles and gourds for net floats. One of the early coastal monuments is Huaca Prieta, a large stone and earthen mound measuring 138 x 62 x 32m, built on the southern point of a remnant Pleistocene terrace overlooking the Pacific Ocean and estuarine wetlands and the delta plain of the Chicama River valley (Bird et al. 1985) (Figure 1).


Huaca Prieta was first excavated by Junius Bird in the 1940s and radiocarbon dated to between ~5302 and 1933 cal BP in the 1950s (Figure 2; Table 1). Based on the large size of the mound, on an abundance of marine resources, wood charcoal, ash and soot, thus the appearance of a black or prieta mound, and on the presence of small stone structures, Bird believed that the site was occupied by sedentary people living in pit-houses. In addition to a marine economy, he documented incipient gardening and social differentiation, as indicated by the remains of several food crops, the uninterrupted accumulation of cultural layers, the presence of room structures, the interment of human burials with grave offerings and a wide variety of material technologies including lithic, gourd, basketry, bone, wood and textile. The most developed technology at the site was cotton weaving and netting (Bird & Mahler 1952). The site's weavers devised sophisticated iconographic styles with various designs. Iconography was also exhibited through incised and engraved gourds, hematite painted pebbles and recently recovered coral sculptures. A crude lithic industry included grinding stones for processing plants and edge-trimmed pebble flake tools, hammerstones, cores and other implements used for various tasks (Bird et al. 1985: 77-91).


Until now, the broader importance of Bird's pioneering work at Huaca Prieta has been constrained by few radiocarbon dates and cursory study of the site's environment, stratigraphy and chronology, architecture and off-mound activity. In 2006 we began an interdisciplinary project at the site to re-examine the previous work and to better understand the relationship between coastal environments, economies and mound building within the site's changing social and natural landscapes. …