The Atacama Desert – an achingly arid, skinny strip of desert that lines the west coast of South America – is the driest place on planet Earth. It’s an environment that's so otherworldly that researchers use it to understand other planets and even to prep astronauts for crewed missions to Mars.
Nevertheless, thousands and thousands of years ago, it was home to a wealthy and deeply complex group of hunter-gatherers with a seriously good taste for jewels, drugs, and food. As reported in the journal Antiquity, Chilean and French archeologists have recently been rooting around an ancient ceremonial complex, known as Tulán-52, that blossomed in the Atacama Desert around 3450 BCE to 2250 BCE.
It appears that Tulán-52 was an important hub at the dawn of the Neolithic age in the Atacama Desert. The recent reanalysis has also suggested that the site shares some distinct similarities with a much more recent ceremonial complex located less than a kilometer (0.62 miles) away, Tulán-54, which dates to around 1250 to 650 BCE.
“There are converging lines of evidence for the reinterpretation of Tulán-52 as a prototype of a ceremonial center, defining, together with Tulán-54, a long-lasting and original tradition, specific to the Circumpuna de Atacama,” writes Catherine Perlès, from Paris Nanterre University, and Lautaro Nuñez, from Chile's Universidad Católica del Norte, in their study.
"The stone structures share similar basic construction patterns with vertical slabs embedded in sterile ground or over earlier occupational refuse," they added. "At both sites, the structures are built with large vertical and capping slabs, up to 1.5m [5 feet] in height."
While Tulán-52 is the older of the two related sites, Tulán-54 undoubtedly has a more impressive hoard of artifacts. Along with the vast stone structures, the more recent site contains a treasure trove of gold and exotic materials – such as obsidian volcanic glass and seashells – from both the Amazonian and the Pacific regions. One of the most impressive artifacts is a gold-plated wooden vulture head with inlaid green gemstone eyes radiocarbon dated to 690 to 540 BCE. Grinding slabs around the site also suggest the use of hallucinogens made from the seeds of cebil and maize, both imported from north-east Argentina.
Of course, there were also bones there too. The site mainly contained the skeletal remains of llamas and other similar camelids, but the team also found evidence of child burials at the site. This is important, as it suggests that the location held some kind of spiritual or cultural significance.