A group of researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) recently began excavating 20 archaeological sites in the country’s San Juan province that will shed light on the area’s historically diverse inhabitants. The sites date back 9,000 years and are located at 3,700 to 4,300 meters above sea level in the Andes Mountains and in the Las Taguas Valley near the Chilean border.
“The Andean sector has exceptional preservation of artifacts. It’s like a time capsule,” says Gustavo Lucero, an archaeologist and PhD student with University of Cuyo (UNC). “Working in mountain archaeology is truly exciting. Being able to interpret and understand the remains that past civilizations left is a way to strengthen our identity as a society in Argentina.”
It’s Lucero’s brand of vigor that Barrick is looking to leverage through an agreement with CONICET, a federal government agency responsible for directing the majority of scientific and technical research in universities and institutes across the country. As part of the agreement, Barrick is providing scholarships to UNC postgraduate students to support the research and preservation of the 20 sites, and to promote careers locally in archaeology. The sites cover a 270-square kilometer area in San Juan and are located near Barrick’s Veladero mine.
“The scholarship program is one of the many ways that demonstrates Barrick’s continued commitment to the preservation of local culture here and other parts of the world where it operates,” says Ivan Ortiz, Barrick’s Environmental Superintendent on the Argentine side of the company’s Pascua-Lama project, which straddles the Argentine-Chilean border. “We hope to build a long-term relationship with CONICET.”
The 15-person research team includes postgraduate students and archaeologists. They are examining a variety of to study artifacts such as animal bones, plant remains, ceramics, and stone technology. Lucero is investigating which cultures existed in the Las Taguas Valley throughout its history, as well as where the inhabitants came from and what level of technology they had. So far, the team has unearthed more than 10,000 stone artifacts, such as arrowheads and other equipment for hunting and breaking down animal carcasses. Lucero says that finding out what technology the different inhabitants of the valley had will help to understand how they were able to adapt to this high-altitude environment and what cultures they belonged to.
“The area around the upper Las Taguas Valley has resources such as water, animals and good quality stones for shaping into tools, in addition to caves for natural shelter,” Lucero says. “These features would have made this an attractive place for hunters and gatherers living in the region at the time.”
The teams continue to work diligently to learn more about the former inhabitants’ lifestyles and cultures, finding, for example, that between 4750 BC and 3150 BC, nomadic llama herders occupied this area seasonally. This research earned one of the team members a PhD in the topic. Later, between 1470-1524 AD, the Inca Empire extended as far as the Las Taguas Valley to gain tribute from local populations in the forms of finished products and raw resources. The archaeology team also found that, throughout the millennia, the valley was populated with diverse civilizations, such as the Angualasto and Punta del Barro civilizations from 250 BC to 1450 AD.
Everything about the valley’s former inhabitants is being studied to understand how they lived, even the way they scaled the Andes, which helps shed light on technological evolution. “As hunter-gatherers, they would have had technology suitable for hunting big game,” Lucero says. “Subsequently, during an agro-pastoral stage, the inhabitants developed technology for the management of the herds, meat and skins.”
Ortiz says he is proud of the role that Barrick is playing in the preservation of local culture. “When people think of sustainability, they don’t necessarily link it with archaeology,” he says. “It is our hope that, eventually these artifacts are displayed locally and perhaps one day taken abroad to share our culture with the world.”