Long before Europeans reached the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), humans – almost certainly from South America – had spent time there, new evidence reveals.
These were probably short visits, rather than established settlements. Nevertheless, this has implications for how we see the development of South American sailing technology – and for the origins of the warrah, the sole terrestrial mammal encountered by the first Europeans to set foot on the islands. It also shows just how much the “Age of Discovery” involved Europeans "finding" places others had been long before.
The English sailor John Strong made the first confirmed record of the Falkland Islands in 1690. However, debate has continued over whether there were previous visits – either by Europeans in the two centuries before that, or by the Fuegians of Patagonia even earlier.
Researchers including University of Maine PhD student Catherine Hamley took soil cores at three sites around the islands. In Science Advances Hamley and co-authors report that the work provides strong evidence for human presence around the 14th Century, with hints of much earlier visits.
“Sedimentary charcoal accumulation rates (CHAR) have been found to increase by orders of magnitude immediately following human arrival,” the paper notes. The Falklands' climate makes lightning-induced fires rare, so background CHAR is low. The authors looked for changes in charcoal abundance over the last 13,000-15,000 years. On Mount Usborne, the island's highest peak, Hamley found little variation in charcoal abundance, indicative of no sustained human presence. The same applies for one coastal site that might have been attractive to visitors.
However, at New Island, the team found three charcoal spikes that are hard to explain without human involvement: one around 1,000 years ago, and an even stronger increase 750-600 years ago. A third charcoal layer matches the known arrival of Europeans nearby, and the last two far exceed CHAR levels found in previous research on the islands.
The researchers also note the discovery in 1979 of a stone point similar to those used by natives of Tierra del Fuego. A ground survey was conducted nearby, and seven deposits of bird and sea lion bones were noted – dating to around the second charcoal surge – that resemble those left by people who rely on marine resources.
The Falkland Current is rich in nutrients, creating rich fishing grounds near the islands, which might have attracted Fuegians, who may have initially stayed for the seabird eggs and sea lion meat.
It's not surprising visitors to the islands didn't stay long. Even with the power of 18th Century technology, European powers took several attempts to make a Falklands colony viable.
The findings shed light on Hamley's main research interest, the extinct warrah (Dusicyon australis) or Falklands Wolf. As the Falklands' only terrestrial mammal, the question of how the warrah's ancestors reached the Falklands puzzled the visiting Charles Darwin, and has been debated since. The favored theory is that during the last glacial period lower sea levels and more extensive ice flows bridged that gap.
However, Hamley thinks Indigenous South Americans may have brought domesticated foxes that stayed on when the humans left, surviving on the seals and seabirds that had previously had the islands to themselves. The paper notes no other South American mammals made it to the Falklands, which is hard to explain if the warrah made it there on their own.
However, the authors also report finding the oldest warrah bone every dated, at least 3,750 years old. If humans brought the warrah to the islands must go back a very long way.