Interpersonal violence in prehistoric San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Behavioral implications of environmental stress



The prehistoric population of San Pedro de Atacama lived through periods marked by prosperity and interregional interaction, as well as times of severe drought, social stress, and widespread poverty. A sample of 682 crania was analyzed for evidence of cranial trauma in order to assess changing patterns of interpersonal violence during the occupation of the oases. It was hypothesized that the level of traumatic injuries in this population would parallel some of the changes seen in the archaeological record. Low fracture rates would be expected in periods of affluence and environmental stability, while periods characterized by environmental extremes and state collapse would yield elevated rates of aggression. This analysis found that rates of trauma escalated from 5.1% (5/99) in the earliest period, to 10.9% (10/92) in the Middle Horizon (AD 600–950). Although it may reflect problems related to increasing population density in the oases, this increase is surprising, given that the early period witnessed the shift to permanent settlements, and the middle period was one of prosperity and plentiful resource availability. Trauma rates peaked at 35.6% (16/45) in an early Late Intermediate period (AD 950–1400) cemetery, with other Late Intermediate cemeteries demonstrating similarly high rates of traumatic injury. The elevated trauma rates during this period correlate with major droughts, the concentration of settlements on the oases' east side, fortified structures, and material poverty, all reflected in the archaeological record. As the Late Intermediate waned and environmental conditions improved, trauma concomitantly decreased (7.0%), and remained low throughout the Inka occupation (AD 1400–1532). This indicates that while the Atacama was not peaceful, violence became commonplace only during periods of great social change and resource stress. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2006. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.