Early Fishing Societies in Western South America

  • Daniel H. Sandweiss

The simultaneous publication in 1998 of two Terminal Pleistocene, Paleoindian-age fishing sites in southern Peru demonstrated conclusively that fishing is very nearly as old in the New World as the presence of humans (Sandweiss et al. 1998; Keefer et al. 1998). Why is it important whether or not some of the first settlers of the New World knew how to fish? In a seminal review of the anthropology of fishing, James Acheson (1981: 277) wrote, “fishing poses some very unusual constraints and problems. Marine adaptations are one of the most extreme achieved by man”. Among other factors that together contribute to the unique nature of such adaptations, Acheson noted human beings’ lack of physiological adaptation to aquatic environments, physical and social risk, non-transferability of most terrestrial hunting technology, high degree of faunal diversity, periodic and unpredictable stock failure, low visibility of prey, and the problems of common property resources (Acheson 1981: 276–277). Given these distinct biological, technological, and social correlates of fishing, as archaeologists working in coastal zones, we should be concerned with tracking and analyzing maritime adaptations through time (see for instance Erlandson 2001). Nowhere is this more true than the coast of Peru and adjacent countries in western South America, one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems.

In this chapter, I briefly review the history of study and synthesize the current state of knowledge concerning early maritime adaptations in this region, and point to some implications of these new data. I limit my discussion to southern Ecuador, Peru, and northern Chile as this is where the majority of early coastal sites have been excavated. Sites of similar antiquity are as yet unknown elsewhere in the New World, with the exception of Daisy Cave on one of the Channel Islands of southern California (e.g., Erlandson et al. 1996). With the past decade of research in the Andes, we can now confirm the Richardson hypothesis about bias in the archaeological record of early fishing and thus help guide the search for more early maritime sites throughout the western Americas.


Central Coast Prickly Pear Common Property Resource American Antiquity Shell Midden 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Daniel H. Sandweiss
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MaineOronoUSA

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