Investigating cultural heterogeneity in san pedro de atacama, northern chile, through biogeochemistry and bioarchaeology

Kelly Knudson, Christina Torres-Rouff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Individuals living in the San Pedro de Atacama oases and the neighboring upper Loa River Valley of northern Chile experienced the collapse of an influential foreign polity, environmental decline, and the appearance of a culturally distinct group during the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1,100-1,400). We investigate cultural heterogeneity at the Loa site of Caspana through analyses of strontium and oxygen isotopes, cranial modification styles, and mortuary behavior, integrating biological aspects of identity, particularly geographic origins, with cultural aspects of identity manifested in body modification and mortuary behavior. We test the hypothesis that the Caspana population (n = 66) represents a migrant group, as supported by archeological and ethnographic evidence rather than a culturally distinct local group. For Caspana archeological human tooth enamel, mean 87Sr/ 86Sr = 0.70771 ± 0.00038 (1σ, n = 30) and mean δ 18 O c(v-pdb) =-3.9± 0.6% (1σ, n = 16); these isotopic data suggest that only one individual lived outside the region. Material culture suggests that the individuals buried at Caspana shared some cultural affinity with the San Pedro oases while maintaining distinct cultural traditions. Finally, cranial modification data show high frequencies of head shaping [92.4% (n = 61/65)] and an overwhelming preference for annular modification [75.4% (n = 46/61)], contrasting sharply with practices in the San Pedro area. Based on multiple lines of evidence, we argue that, rather than representing a group of altiplano migrants, the Caspana population existed in the region for some time. However, cranial modification styles and mortuary behavior that are markedly distinct from patterns in surrounding areas raise the possibility of cultural heterogeneity and cultural fissioning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-485
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican journal of physical anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2009


  • Carbon isotopes
  • Cranial modification
  • Late intermediate period
  • Oxygen isotopes
  • Strontium isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Anthropology


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