Author: Ian Beggen
In 2016, during my first experience in the high Andes, I thought to myself: “Why do people live all the way up here?” With the extreme temperatures, unforgiving sun, difficult terrain, and hypoxic conditions, it was not easy for me to see what made this a good place to settle down or even pass through. This base question has led to my passion for understanding how our species can survive and thrive in places that may seem to be “marginal.”
Unfazed by my initial bewilderment of the highland Andes, I returned to this special place for three months to conduct research for my undergraduate thesis. However, my previous experience had been as a member of a group of students on a guided study abroad trip, this new trip would be a solo adventure – a chance to really test myself as an archaeologist and as a person. I was to live in a rural village, Visigsa, in southwestern Bolivia, halfway between the colonial mining city of Potosi and the salt flats of Uyuni. Visigsa is located on the Central Andean Plateau – the Altiplano. While there, I would conduct a pedestrian survey of a Late Intermediate Period site (Chullpa K’asa). The work was not easy, especially solo.
As I spent my three months in Visigsa documenting the massive 56-hectare site (and of course regularly hitch-hiking out of town for creature comforts), I was constantly reminded of my initial perspective on the Andes, reaffirming it in my mind even. Sure, the views are incredible, the landscape incomparable, but why the hell would someone choose to settle down in this place? Chullpa K’asa, while itself a very interesting site showcasing the power of state control on the frontiers of the Inca empire, did not aid me in this question. Chullpa K’asa showed the end product of thousands of years of adaptation in this landscape. The people living in Visigsa only further demonstrated the capacity of Andeans to thrive in the highland Andes. I knew I needed to look further back in time.
Like any good archaeologist, I turned to the literature to help me better understand what I was seeing. Luckily for me, other researchers had had similar thoughts about the Andes. People such as John Rick, Thomas Lynch, and Mark Aldenderfer (and many, many more) had spent years of their lives investigating hunter-gatherer adaptations to living in the highland Andes. Even more luckily for me, groundbreaking research had recently been conducted in the puna outside of Arequipa on this exact topic! I read Kurt Rademaker’s 2014 Science article detailing excavations of the Cuncaicha Rockshelter dozens of times. The evidence he showed from Cuncaicha turned my previous understanding of the Andes as an inhospitable place on its head – not only were people adapting to living in the highlands well before settling down in places like Chullpa K’asa, they were doing it very well.
After finding Kurt’s work, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this same research tradition. Studies of preceramic peoples in the Andes are quite overshadowed by their ceramic counterparts. While this overshadowing is understandable (you can’t go 10 meters without running into an Incan architectural ruin while in highland Peru), I knew that delving into this area of research would help to elucidate what we see in more recent archaeology of the area. It is critical to clarify how people came to adapt to the highlands in order to understand the diverse range of cultures we see both prehistorically and in the contemporary world.
In 2019, a couple of years after my initial finding of Kurt’s work and upon beginning my graduate studies at the University of Michigan, I reached out to Kurt to see if I could help him continue working on this research topic. Honestly, I was nervous – I was reaching out to someone I greatly admired and was blatantly asking for him to bring me along on his research projects. I didn’t expect him to reply, much less for him to immediately invite me to come work with him on pedestrian survey in the puna! I was elated.
I sent that email out in late 2019/early 2020. As we all know, our world drastically changed around that point due to the global pandemic. Archaeology, international traveling, and meeting your academic heroes became much less important in the grand scheme of things. To add insult to injury, I visited with an orthopedic doctor around that same time and was told I would require intensive surgery on one of my knees (if you’re interested and feeling brave, the surgery is called a tibial tubercle osteotomy. Fun stuff.). The timetable for recovery would be at least a year. I was devastated – just when I felt like I was picking up momentum for my career as an archaeologist, I was humbled by both global factors and my own physical limitations.
Kurt was incredibly kind about my news. He told me that he was, of course, going to have to reorganize his own research schedule and that I would be welcome to come out to the puna for pedestrian survey as soon as the gates were open to travel internationally. This year, 2022, I was finally able to join him in the puna. I was slated to join Kurt and team in June in Arequipa, just a few hours away from the high Andes.
The experience was exactly as I had hoped: we spent a couple of weeks doing collections work in the beautiful colonial city of Arequipa. Kurt, knowing my affinity for lithics, gave me the task of going through some of the different raw materials from the various seasons of excavations at Cuncaicha. Even through bouts of food poisoning (to be expected), my time in Arequipa was still a great experience. Not only because of the research we were doing, but because of the people I had the privilege to work with. Some were veterans of the Paleo Andes team (Emily Milton and Sarah Meinekat), some were new additions (Tori Schwarz and Ximena Smith). Half of the fun of doing collections work was having the opportunity to get to know these great people and dedicated researchers. Being introduced to the deep-cuts of The Mighty Boosh was an even greater privilege.
But the real fun was yet to begin (some Type 1 fun, some Type 2). In the second half of June we began conducting pedestrian survey in different areas around the Pucuncho Basin and the Valley of the Volcanoes. Just the names of these places sounded like something out of a Tolkien novel. I felt like I walked as much as a character in one of these novels as well. Most days we piled into our rental vehicle and made our way up for survey, admiring views of Coropuna as we climbed hundreds of meters up from the small town of Chuquibamba. When in the puna, we surveyed for two things in particular: rockshelters and fishtail projectile points, both being potential indicators of Terminal Pleistocene occupations in the area. We scoured across the landscape for both, visiting hotspots such as the Alca-4 obsidian outcrop as well as some areas known to have limestone outcrops near Cuncaicha.
A few days into fieldwork, we visited Cuncaicha. We turned off the newly paved sections of puna roads and made our way onto an incredibly bumpy two-track. After a couple kilometers of undulating, nausea-inducing road travel, we arrived close to the rockshelter. It was a rocky climb up a talus slope, but the destination was worth the arduousness. The rockshelter was spectacular – immense volcanic slabs jutting out of the landscape providing shelter from the cold winds of the puna. The rockshelter itself was proximal to rich resources as well, including fresh water and sources of high-quality stone tools. I remember staring out from the top of the talus slope and shaking my head in awe of the view, in awe of the importance of this site to understanding the peopling of the high Andes. This place proved that the Andes could be conquered by our species, that we could thrive here, that places we may deem as inhospitable can be surmounted by the flexibility of both our physiology and our ability to create culture.
Unfortunately, this achievement of visiting Cuncaicha would be the end of the road for me. Further work on survey turned out to be impossible given the condition of my surgically repaired knee. I still had work to do for my own dissertation further south in Patagonia and I didn’t want to slow down the survey team with my old-man knees. While this was bittersweet, I still view my participation in this fieldwork as a complete success – I learned an incredible amount, met a fantastic group of researchers, and gained further appreciation for a site that inspired my career trajectory.
My work with Kurt and co. perfectly slotted in-between my own dissertation work in the Río Ibáñez in Central Western Patagonia. Working in Aysén, Chile, is not exactly the same as working at high altitude in the Peruvian Andes, but I am still following up on some of the initial ideas presented in the pioneering work that I read in 2017 by Lynch, Aldenderfer, Rick, and now Rademaker. I am hoping to better understand dynamics of landscape learning in so-called “marginal landscapes,” particularly those in the Andes. What makes a place marginal? How do hunter-gatherer populations adapt their cultural strategies to living in places with extreme environmental conditions? How did these cultural adaptations set the stage for the diversity of cultures we see both prehistorically and in the modern world?
I know I’ll be interested in these sorts of questions for the rest of my career, the rest of my life even. I am still riding the emotional wave of getting to visit Cuncaicha. I will always cherish this opportunity I had to work in such a special place. Although it took a long time to come to fruition, it was definitely worth the wait.