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Excavations at Pachamachay

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Author: Emily Milton.

High-altitude fieldwork is all about appreciating Type 2 fun. If you don’t know about Type 2 fun, think of an activity that’s somewhat unpleasant while it’s happening– but makes a great story shortly after it’s over. For example: getting lost, learning how to snowboard– or moving 1,200 buckets of sediment in eighteen days while your body copes with chronic hypoxic stress.

Waking up on my last morning in the Andes after almost three weeks of camping and digging at 14,000+ feet, I tried to focus on the story I’d be able to tell, both from the experience and from the archaeological materials, and ignore my aching back or bruised and split hands.

The previous week had been spent removing 6 cubic meters of sediment from a prehistoric rockshelter perched atop steep slope in the Central Andes. The site, Pachamachay, is famous for its early dates, apparent lack of bone, and the rich lithic assemblage that spans the entirety of the excavation. As the fourth team to excavate the site in the last 50 years, our goal was to collect new charcoal to construct an improved chronology and take sediment samples for microanalyses.

Dr. Kurt Rademaker takes spatial data from the edge of Pachamachay.

In the 1970s, the site was excavated by a team of archaeologists from Lima, Peru, and Stanford University who were housed a few kilometers from the site in a hostel. They had had daily meals prepared by a chef and a bed to sleep in at night. Even with these luxuries, their fieldnotes documented illness, sediment-cracked hands, and the incredible challenges of excavating such a rich archaeological record. This time, there were three of us, my advisor, Dr. Kurt Rademaker, a PhD student (and good friend) from the University of Tübingen, Sarah Meinekat, and myself, and none of the creature comforts. Our previous weeks had been spent at another site, Panaulauca, where we had already moved almost 13 cubic meters with two additional team members. And although we were intellectually energized by the success of this previous endeavor, we were physically exhausted.

Sarah Meinekat surveys the excavation progress from above.

The first day, after three failed attempts at correctly pinning and testing 70s excavations, we decided to throw in the trowel for the day and wait for the morrow. A hot plate of beans and a night under the stars worked their magic. The next day we exposed “the trench,” a legendary meter-wide excavation extending from inside the shelter all the way down the talus slope excavated between 1969 and 1970 by Ramiro Matos. The race was on to reopen the site. All we needed to do was relocate two of John Rick’s 1970s units that were not fully excavated and we could carry out our project. Our spirits were high, but by the fifth day we had been humbled. We had uncovered the previous excavations to find that the units we had intended to excavate had 108 centimeters of intact deposits that were too wet to be screened. Not to mention just how dense those deposits were. Carefully removing and documenting a 5-centimeter level took anywhere between two to three hours. Inconveniencing this reality further was the arrival of a persistent cold front acommpanied by intermittent mist, snow, and hail. The prospects of finishing prior to our impending departure flight three days out seemed bleak.

A view of camp from the excavation.

Small pleasures kept us going. We turned an old dustpan into an amplifier and played 80s tunes from our phones. The local couple who now live on the land surrounding the site brought us homemade cheese and greeted us warmly each afternoon while herding their sheep around our tents. We told jokes and mixed field cocktails like Rum Cocoas and canned Piña Coladas. Most of all we admired the artifacts that kept us so busy. Among the debitage were abundant scrapers and projectile points made of deep pink and marbled cream, fine jasper in ají yellow and rocoto red, and chunkier banded basalts. And as we reached the last level, the promise of hot apple pies and steaming rice pudding awaiting us in the highland city of Tarma enabled us to backfill, wash and dry our gear, and pack our tents.

Excavated sediment dries on tarps waiting to be screened. Inside the tent washed lithic material waits to be cataloged and packed for transport to Lima.

This summer marked my fifth field season of work at high-altitude, yet on our final morning, the last day before our flight, my newfound internal mantra was nagging me, “Is this really how I want to spend my vacations? Chronically smelly, sore, and freezing?” A few weeks removed from a sleeping pad and my incontrovertible answer is, “YES.” The story of the settlement of the Americas represents one of the most challenging, exciting, and incomprehensible feats of humankind. In my fieldwork in the North American Rockies and now the Central Andes, I have found the experiential evidence to be overwhelming: hypoxia, increased UV radiation, frigid temperatures, and unpredictable weather are all uncomfortable– but not an impediment to the montane tenure of head-strong archaeologists, and certainly not to our Ice Age ancestors.

Author, Emily Milton, stands for scale in the excavation at Pachamachay.

For now, the work continues in the laboratory at Great Lake-level – and I look forward to what the next year in the Andes will bring. I have sincere gratitude for The Alumni and Friends Expendable Fund for Archaeology for the gift of travel to-and-from Peru that allowed me to make this research happen. It has been a joy to spend another summer doing what I love best, even if it is a Type-2 sort of love.

Credits: This piece was written for the reporting for the Alumni and Friends Expendable Fund in Archaeology. All or part of it may appear on the Michigan State University Anthropology Website.

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John Rick
John Rick
Jul 26, 2023

Just a quick correction on our nearby excavation base in Ondores -- No hostel, no chef, no running water, etc. We did have a tin roof over our heads, which dripped each morning as the interior frozen water on the underside melted down on us. Still, I don't envy the camping!

John Rick


Otto Rolloff
Otto Rolloff
Apr 22, 2021

Very nice history, Ms Milton, I'm looking forward to read the new chapters of this studies!

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