Middle Holocene Intensification and Domestication of Camelids in North Argentina, as Tracked by Zooarchaeology and Lithics

Article excerpt



Two topics that have captured the global interest of the scientific community are the processes of intensification and domestication, issues that necessitate consideration of the evidence at local and regional scales (Dincauze 2000). This article presents a case study of a specific region of the Andean highlands, Pastos Grandes, in north-west Argentina (Figure 1). Pastos Grandes is situated in the puna of Salta, a high altitude desert biome located above 3500m asl. Macro-geographically the region belongs to the south-central Andes and is a habitat demanding particular human adaptations.


We focus specifically on the intensification and domestication of camelids, animals native to the Andes. At present there are four camelid species in South America: llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos), both domesticated, and vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) and guanaco (Lama guanicoe), both wild. Currently there are some regions of the Andean area, including the Argentine puna, that are not inhabited by the alpaca. Likewise there is no strong evidence to suggest its presence in this area in the pre-Hispanic period (Olivera 1997; cf. Lavallee et al. 1997).

In this study we also connect lithic blade technology and, more specifically, the use of blades, with the maximising of camelid use, in turn a sign of intensification, reflecting increasing energetic demand due to population density and pressure on space. These changes are archaeologically visible towards the end of the Middle Holocene and the beginning of the Late Holocene (c. 5500-3500 BP), but only become evident by taking into account wider chronological parameters. For this reason, we also discuss the situation in the Early Holocene (c. 10000-8500 BP) and the Later Holocene (after c. 3000 BP).

Theoretical aspects

The theoretical framework that guides this article emphasises ecological and social variability in specific habitats. As such we are referring to human behavioural ecology, a branch of evolutionary ecology, which examines the adaptation of the human phenotype to specific habitats (Smith & Winterhalder 1992). The Middle Holocene in the Andean highlands saw a relative synchronic climatic change implying aridity and higher temperatures, especially in the lower latitudes (Aldenderfer 1998). In the case of the south-central Andes, the Middle Holocene was characterised by a change towards more arid conditions, a determining factor in the extreme fragmentation of this habitat into patches of specific resources. This meant that in certain local habitats humid conditions persisted and this permitted human occupation, whilst other areas became unsuitable for habitation (Nunez et al. 2005; Yacobaccio & Morales 2005).

The Middle Holocene, as opposed to the Early Holocene, was a period of extremely variable climatic conditions. These ecological changes generated the necessary conditions for human spatial competition and aggregation, which led in turn to an increase in group size (Aschero 1994; Lopez 2008). This process is in keeping with the accepted models of human behavioural ecology such as 'optimal group size' (Boone 1992). Under these conditions we expect intensification and domestication that include, in turn, technological change.

Intensification is defined as the search for an increase in productivity, that is to say, a higher energetic input per unit of space or resource (Broughton 1999). In the south-central Andes, Yacobaccio (2001) proposed a process of intensification in the use of camelids that ultimately led to their domestication. This process was accompanied by the parallel development of certain traits within the complexity of puna hunters. Such an increase in complexity is seen in other areas of the world. Examples include Chinchorro along the northern coast of Chile (Arriaza 1995), the Natufians in the Levantine corridor of the Near East (Bar-Yosef 1986), the Jomon of Japan (Imamura 1996) and the Ertebolle of circum-Baltic Europe (Zvelebil 1996). …