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The site was discovered in late 1975 when a veterinary student visited the area of Monte Verde, where severe erosion was occurring due to logging. The student was shown a strange “cow bone” collected by nearby peasants who had found it exposed in the eroded Chinchihuapi Creek.

The bone later proved to be from a Gomphothere indicating the type of food the inhabitants ate. Tom Dillehay, an American anthropologist and professor at the Universidad Austral de Chile at the time, started excavating Monte Verde in 1977.

The site is situated on the banks of Chinchihuapi Creek, a tributary of the Maullín River located 58 km from the Pacific Ocean. One of the rare open-air prehistoric sites found so far in the Americas, Monte Verde was well preserved because it was located in an anaerobic bog environment near the creek.

An excavation at Chile’s Monte Verde archaeological site reveals this wishbone-shaped structure, which is thought to be a medicine hut and was found to contain several chewed cuds. The cuds, consisting of seaweed and other plants, were apparently used for medicinal purposes. / Image: Tom Dillehay / Vanderbilt

A short time after the site was originally occupied, the waters of the creek rose and a peat-filled bog formed that inhibited the bacterial decay of organic material and preserved many perishable artifacts and other items for millennia.

Replicas of Gomphothere

Radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal in 1982 gave the site an average age of 14,800 years ago.

In the initial excavation the remains of local animals were found, in addition to wooden posts from approximately twelve huts. Scraps of clothing made of hide were also found. This led archaeologists to estimate the population was around 20-30 inhabitants.

A human footprint was also found in the clay, probably from a child. Inside the camp, archaeologists found a chunk of meat that still had preserved DNA. After a DNA analysis, it matched that of a Gomphothere.

An ancient footprint is preserved at an archaeological dig in Monte Verde, Chile, where some of the earliest Americans are thought to have settled 14,000 years ago / Image: Tom Dillehay / Vanderbilt
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