Tools found at two archaeological sites in the Peruvian Andes show that humans were able to survive in extreme environmental conditions a millennium earlier than previously thought, according to a study published by Science Magazine.
An international team of researchers, led by Kurt Rademaker from the University of Maine, has discovered in the Pucuncho basin, located 14,700 feet above sea level, evidence of what might be the oldest human presence at such altitude from more than 12,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene period.
The findings suggest human adaptation to high altitude environments might have happened faster or earlier than previously assumed.
Rademaker said the study of human adaptation to extreme conditions is relevant to understanding our species’ cultural and genetic ability to survive.
Tools found in the region indicate that small bands of hunter-gatherers settled there. Items discovered include tools, animal bones and edible roots suggesting that the place was inhabited by humans.
At the Pucuncho site researchers found stone tools that might have been used to hunt vicuñas, a llama-like creature adapted to high altitudes. The Pucuncho basin tools indicate humans reached high altitudes barely 2,000 years after their arrival in South America, which suggests that apparently there was no need for a long period of adaptation.
Highlands have been less explored by archaeologists than other regions, and there is little research on how primitive humans survived in places where the air has less oxygen, and solar radiation is stronger and temperatures are extremely cold.
Some theories suggest humans adapted genetically over thousands of years, as evidenced by contemporary Andean populations who have a larger lung capacity and higher hemogoblin concentration in the blood to compensate for less oxygen in the air.
Other scientists believe that human presence at high altitudes was associated with environmental changes, such as the retreat of glaciers. Researchers pointed out that further investigation is required, including archaeological and comparative genome analysis to determine when the genetic adaptations found in current Andean populations happened.
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