Earliest known South American people ate horse meat, research suggests

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A sample of the lithic artifacts found in the levels associated with extinct fauna, all in quartzite. (a) a side scraper; (b) a retouched flake; (c) a retouched flake. Images: Politis et al
A sample of the lithic artifacts found in the levels associated with extinct fauna, all in quartzite. (a) a side scraper; (b) a retouched flake; (c) a retouched flake. Images: Politis et al

Evidence unearthed at an important archaeological site in Argentina suggests that humans who occupied the area up to 14,000 years ago were eating horse.

The findings of researchers who investigated the Arroyo Seco 2 site in southeastern South America adds further important evidence around the activities of the earliest known humans in the Americas.

Evidence of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers known as the Clovis people in North America dates back about 13,000 years. Were they the first humans to inhabit the Americas?

Findings from the Pampas region of Argentina suggests people occupied this part of South America even earlier than that.

The evidence for this comes from Arroyo Seco 2, where scientists led by Gustavo Politis from Argentina’s national scientific and technical research council, known as Conicet, and the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires have been excavating ancient tools and bone remains from extinct species.

Politis and his colleagues have reported their findings in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, in a report entitled The Arrival of Homo sapiens into the Southern Cone at 14,000 Years Ago.

The research work included radiocarbon dating of the broken mammal bones to determine their age, as well as microscopic examination which revealed fractures most likely resulting from the use of stone tools.

The study team said the presence of mostly limb bones at the site from larger mammals pointed to humans transporting animal carcasses there for consumption at what they suggest was a temporary camp between 14,064 and 13,068 years ago.

They found that the bones of some mammals were concentrated in a particular area, which could have been designated for butchering.

A skeletal representation of the extinct horse assemblage at the excavation site. Not the predominance of limb bones.
A skeletal representation of the extinct horse assemblage at the excavation site. Note the predominance of limb bones.

The authors acknowledged that while some of the evidence they uncovered could be explained without human intervention, the collective evidence pointed strongly to human involvement.

The bones of mammals collected from the site included two groups of now-extinct horses, Equus neogeus and Hippidion sp.

The most abundant taxon represented in the bones collected was Equus neogeus, and they were mostly fragments from limbs.

The earliest human evidence for the area went back to just over 14,000 years ago, the authors reported.

“In this time period, occupants hunted/scavenged … Equus neogeus and giant ground sloth (Megatherium americanum), probably along the border of the temporary lake (or another body of water) located near the site.

“The butchering began with the processing of the hind limbs in this plausible nearby location; which, when separated in smaller anatomical units (field-butchered units) were transported to the top part of the knoll where the processing was later finished.

“This area would have functioned as a short-term campsite/carcass processing site. There, some anatomical units were disarticulated and the larger bones were broken using large stone tools.

The Arroyo Seco 2 site. (A) Geographic location of the AS2 site. (B) Digital Elevation Model of the knoll and location of the excavation units (S1 Fig). (C) Photograph of central excavation units and trenc
The Arroyo Seco 2 site. (A) Geographic location of the AS2 site. (B) Digital Elevation Model of the knoll and location of the excavation units (S1 Fig). (C) Photograph of central excavation units and trench.

“Some smaller artifacts were also used to cut and process the skins.”

The hunting and scavenging events of the early hunter-gatherers at the Arroyo Seco 2 site were likely repeated several times, they said.

Campsites were again set up in the area for the butchering of Equus and Hippidon up to a thousand years later.

They interpreted the area as a succession of transitory extinct-mammal processing campsites

“The hunting of Pleistocene fauna in America is a heavily debated topic,” the authors noted.

“Generally speaking, in North America there is a wide agreement concerning the human predation of mammoth, mastodon and bison.

“Less conclusive is the exploitation of American horse, extinct camelid and the giant ground sloth.

“For South America, the exploitation of Pleistocene fauna has been proposed for mastodon, American horse (Hippidion saldiasi, Equus), giant ground sloth Megatherium americanum, Doedicurus clavicaudatus and possibly Hemiauchenia sp. and Eutatus seguini.

“In the case of the two species of extinct horse, the evidence of Arroyo Seco 2 adds to the wealth of important data that supports the human consumption of horse in various South American sites.”

The evidence, they said, supported the view that the Clovis people were not the first human population in America.

“The arrival of Homo sapiens into the Southern Cone at 14,000 years ago represents the last step in the expansion of modern humans throughout the world and the final continental colonization,” they said.

Politis GG, Gutiérrez MA, Rafuse DJ, Blasi A (2016) The Arrival of Homo sapiens into the Southern Cone at 14,000 Years Ago. PLoS ONE 11(9): e0162870. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0162870

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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