Glyptodons, such as the one featured above, were monstrous mammals (technically known as megafauna) that lived in both North and South America during the last Ice Age. Distant relatives of modern armadillos, the species in the picture was the size of a family saloon car. They may have enjoyed eating wild avocados; just like other American Ice Age megafauna did. If so, then it was only the glyptodons that lived in North and Central America that enjoyed them. This obscure fact could change our thinking about Ice Age people altogether. (Image courtesy of Pavel Riha, CC-BY-SA-3.0).
A trip to the northern coast of Peru
The bus drops us off about twenty miles north of the city of Trujillo on the Pan American Highway, a strip of tarmac that runs like a black ribbon close to South America’s Pacific coast. I’m with Ivan, an amateur historian from Trujillo, who has made a study of the cultures that lived here before the arrival of the Spanish. We’ve come here to try to learn more about an archaeological site called Huaca Prieta, which may yet change our understanding of South America at the end of the last Ice Age.
Clovis first? Well, not really
In the last century, it all seemed so simple. During the Ice Age, so the story went, sea levels were much lower. This allowed people to cross the land bridge that then joined Siberia to Alaska, around 13,000 years ago. When the planet gradually heated up, the sea levels rose and people could no longer cross between the two continents. The immigrants slowly moved southwards down the coasts of the Americas, hunting and gathering as they went. The warming of the world at the end of the Ice Age was a rather a sedate affair – or so it was thought.
Dubbed the Clovis People by academics, these early Americans were hunter-gatherers and they made very effective stone tools. Indeed, they were such good hunters – it is still believed – these small bands of itinerants were personally responsible for wiping out all of the huge mammals, such as ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, glyptodons and toxodons that once roamed the Americas during the Ice Age.
So what about the peopling of South America?
The truth is that those who study the migration of humans into South America are already having to change their thinking about how this happened. This is because there is an increasing mass of evidence – genetic and archaeological – that is forcing them to.
Huaca Prieta is one of the burgeoning number of archaeological sites in all of the Americas that have given the lie to the Clovis first theory, if only because of its dating. In a recent archaeological dig at the site, the geologists present wanted to find out more about its underlying rock strata. When they dug down, they were surprised to find the remains of hearths, stone tools and plants. The archaeologists in the team radiocarbon dated the organic matter present to between 14 and 15,000 years old. Back then, quite obviously, there was no Pan American Highway hugging South America’s Pacific coast. The idea that the people who left those remains – or their ancestors – had wandered down the coast from Alaska, hunting and gathering as they went, was out of the question. The dates just did not stack up.
These were some of the questions swirling through my mind as we looked for a colectivo to take us towards the coast and, we hoped, towards Huaca Prieta. Eventually, we found a battered black Datsun, squeezed ourselves into the rear seats and waited until the driver had gathered enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. We did not have to wait long and soon we were racing along a road that divided a vast expanse of sugar cane that undulated in the scorching winds that race down the coast from the equatorial North. (This is the coast where the phenomenon we know as El Niño grows up, sprinting with all the vigour of a young boy from its birthplace across the Pacific.)
An archaeology of human conciousness
Already, amongst the colectivo’s passengers on our journey towards the coast, the conversation had turned to the peculiar energies present in the land around Huaca Prieta and of present-day shamanistic ceremonies conducted there. Huaca Prieta does not stand alone on this particular stretch of Peru’s Pacific coastline.
Wherever I looked, it seemed, there were mounds rising from the sandy landscape: El Brujo (literally, ‘the wizard’, but perhaps more accurately ‘the shaman’), and Huaca Cortada are but two of the mounds present in this archaeological complex that goes by the name of El Brujo. All, however, are regarded as huacas by the locals. The term is difficult to translate, because English lacks a word that grasps its full significance. (Perhaps ‘sacred place or object’ is as close as we can approach its meaning?) There are mounds that conceal pyramids too. Long after Huaca Prieta was abandoned, the Moche people built a seven-stepped pyramid here (also a huaca: Huaca Cao Vieja), at which they conducted numerous human sacrifices. Evidently, there is something about the intensity of an unseen presence in this particular part of the world that animates the human psyche – either for good or ill.
I hesitate to use the word ‘energy’, because of its New Age connotations, but it is difficult to find a substitute. Telluric currents, on the other hand, have been measured by physicists. They are mostly caused by solar winds, which bombard the Earth’s magnetic field with sub-atomic particles. Changes and fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field can affect our consciousness in ways that we hardly understand today. My research at several sites in South America has suggested strongly that the people who built them were capable of engineering those currents in complex and sophisticated ways. Perhaps these were what my companions in the colectivo were actually referring to, when they spoke of the potent ‘energies’ at Huaca Prieta and its companion huacas?
Huaca Prieta: El Brujo Complex’s most ancient sacred place
The construction of sacred places here did not stop with the coming of the Spanish to South America. The Complex contains the remains of one of Peru’s first Catholic churches, which was built over the site of a huaca in 1538. It is worth pondering for a moment as to why this complex of huacas should have been a place that has attracted people for 14,000 years. Is it all really just a matter of superstition. as those who embrace scientific orthodoxy would like us to believe? The sheer antiquity of the Complex makes it hard to explain why so many very different cultures have felt driven to embrace a sense of something other than the mundane here.
Equally, the archaeologists’ belief that El Brujo is a single complex comes from their excavations and from mapping its topography. All of the huacas sit within a defined geogrphical area. Curiously, its shape is a miniature version of the South American continent and is instantly recognisable as such when you look at a plan of El Brujo.
Archaeologists have put this down to mere coincidence, but after many years of studying South American ancient sites, I dare to differ. Geoglyphs – giant drawings that are scored across the landscape – were drawn by many ancient cultures on this continent. The most famous of these are the Nazca Lines, but there are many others. We may object to the idea that the site is a huge map, because there is no way that these ‘primitive’ peoples could have known the shape of their own continent. To say so may be to misunderstand the true nature of human consciousness. The physicist, Dr Hal Puthoff of the Stanford Research Institute would probably think so too. In the 1970s, he conducted a series of experiments into something known as remote viewing, in which he provided empirical evidence that such an undertaking is a reality. My own research into the shamanistic nature of many South American sacred sites indicates that one of their manifold functions was to enable very similar experiences to those of Dr Puthoff’s remote viewing subjects. Namely, of being able to perceive physical objects from distant perspectives – perhaps even outer space!
Evidence that challenges previous assumptions
The very early finds beneath the mound of Huaca Prieta have been a surprise to archaeologists, because they imply a high degree of cultural sophistication, especially as they are now known to be so old. On the other hand, some accounts of the excavations have been keen to stress the ‘primitive’ nature of the stone tools found in the lower levels of the site. After all, they suggest, this would seem to confirm the site’s antiquity, simply by those tools’ being ‘primitive’.
What if we consider these stone tools as simply ‘crude’, rather than ‘primitive’? Would this allow us to envisage a different scenario; perhaps one that is not necessarily shackled to the idea of perpetual progress? Imagine for a moment a series of catastrophes that took place over perhaps a few thousand years. This could have wiped out almost all human culture and most of humanity itself – just like the large mammals I referred to earlier. Might not this account for the crude nature of those tools? Interestingly, the very period from which these early Huaca Prieta finds have been dated – the end of the Ice Age – may well have been one in which successive catastrophes did take place.
From piles of megafauna dung to the fashionable restaurants of Islington
One piece of evidence found at Huaca Prieta is particularly difficult for mainstream archaeology to accommodate, because it calls into question the whole concept that humans progressed from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.
Around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, Huaca Prieta’s earliest inhabitants were eating avocados. Yet the avocado has never grown in the wild near there – or in South America at all. Wild avocado trees grow only in Central America and Mexico. In any case, wild avocados are nearly all stone and very little flesh. More than this, the stone is poisonous to humans. They were, however, a very tasty snack for ground sloths – at least those species that lived in Central America. If avocados are a little too gentrified for your taste, then how about the humble potato? A recent genetic study has shown that potatoes were deliberately hybridised to produce edible tubers around 10,000 years ago.
All of this suggests to me that these Ice Age people were rather more like us than many in our contemporary Western culture would like to admit. It also hints at a world that was recovering from disaster, rather than groping towards civilisation. It may even imply that goods, such as potatoes and avocados, were traded by sea between Central and South America, as agricultural crops.
What really drove the changes assumed to be ‘progress’?
In one important respect, however, perhaps the early inhabitants of Huaca Prieta were very different from us. Until very recently, archaeologists had assumed that changes in material circumstances had driven greater cultural sophistication. Thus, in the Middle East, the great cities of Sumeria had arisen around 3,000 BC, because people stopped being hunter-gatherers and had started to take up farming. The story goes that, by farming, they produced more food and could therefore settle in urban centres, without having to go out hunting, or gathering food every day.
There is one massive archaeological complex in Mesopotamia (today’s Eastern Turkey) that is beginning to change the prevailing view of things. It is called Gobekle Tepe and, just like Huaca Prieta, it dates from long before the first known Sumerian cities; from that little understood transitional period at the end of the last Ice Age. It consists of a vast complex of stone circles, many with exquisite relief carvings, and it seems to have been an observational temple and centre for shamanistic ceremonies. Some of those who have studied Gobekle Tepe now think that it was not built because people started to settle in villages – astounding enough as that would be at such an early date. Quite the reverse, people started settling near to Gobekle Tepe because they required more sustained access to a place they regarded as sacred. In other words, we may have been putting the material cart before the spiritual horse in our interpretations of the changes that happened in ancient human societies.
My mind drifts back to that brief conversation in the colectivo on our way to Huaca Prieta. What was it that really brought those early people to this particular stretch of coast all those millennia ago? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t the presence of any wild avocados.