The peopling of Amazonia: Chrono-stratigraphic evidence from Serranía La Lindosa, Colombian Amazon

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The peopling of Amazonia: Chrono-stratigraphic evidence from Serranía La Lindosa, Colombian Amazon

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The peopling of Amazonia: Chrono-stratigraphic evidence from Serranía La Lindosa, Colombian Amazon
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We report several new evidences of early peopling of Amazonia River basin.

We report new evidences of human occupations of the Serranía La Lindosa (Colombian Amazon).

We report the data of two rock shelters, Cerro Montoya 1 and Limoncillos.

We report several lines of evidence on the human adaptability to the Colombian Amazon lowlands.

The humans who settled in the Serrania La Lindosa “humanized” the territory by rock art.


Amazonia constitutes one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world. However, our understanding of the arrival and historical trajectories of people in Amazonia is still poorly understood. Our recent excavations in the Serranía de la Lindosa have begun to fill this gap and provide new insights into the first human societies that settled in the Colombian Amazon region during the Younger Dryas (YD) period of the late Pleistocene. This paper details the stratigraphy, taphonomy and chronological framework of two rock shelters, Cerro Montoya 1 and Limoncillos, from excavations carried out by the LASTOURNEY project between 2021 and 2022. Based on radiocarbon dates from five multicomponent sites (Cerro Azul, Cerro Montoya 1, Limoncillos, Angosturas II and Casita de Piedra), four distinct phases of occupation are modelled using OxCal program (v.4.4). late Pleistocene-early Holocene (12.6–10.0 cal ka BP); early to middle Holocene (9.5–5.9 cal ka BP); initial late Holocene (4.1–3.7 cal ka BP), and late Holocene (3.0–0.3 cal ka BP). We establish the arrival date of the first human groups to the Colombia Amazon by ∼12.6 cal ka BP, who settled in a tropical rainforest environment, practised a generalised subsistence, had an expedient unifacial technology, and began to paint with ochre on the walls of the mesa-top tepuis by at least ∼10.2 cal ka BP. The chronology indicates gaps in the sequence during the middle Holocene, between 5.9–4.1 cal ka BP, likely representing periods of abandonment.

The peopling of South America, the last continental terra incognita (other than Antarctica) to be colonised by Homo sapiens, constituted a virtually unprecedented migration of modern humans across richly diverse pristine landscapes during the late Pleistocene-early Holocene (LP-EH) transition. This period is one of the most significant climatic, environmental, and subsistence regime shifts in human history, coeval with megafauna extinctions, plant cultivation and the beginnings of plant domestication, which ultimately resulted in today's remarkable diversity of South American indigenous groups and cultures.

Current archaeological and genomic data suggest that human dispersal in the Americas likely took place sometime between ∼25 and 15 ka (kiloanni) BP (e.g., Braje et al., 2017; Dillehay et al., 2015; Pansani et al., 2023; Pigati et al., 2023). Although much research has been done on this process across the diverse environments of South America, the peopling of the Amazon biome remains little understood. As Patricia Lyon (1974) famously stated, South America is the least archaeologically known continent of the Americas and Amazonia is even more unknown. The dense forest creates logistical difficulties for fieldwork and impedes the identification of archaeological sites, while the acidic and clayed soils negatively affect the preservation of organic remains. As a result, the discovery and investigation of LP-EH archaeological contexts are extremely rare.

Although limited, research in recent decades is providing compelling insight into the early human history of Amazonia. The excavations at Caverna da Pedra Pintada, lower Amazon, during the 1990s, were a landmark study that proved the Amazon biome was part of the human geographic expansion of hunter-gatherer groups (Fig. 1) at the end of the Ice Age, around ∼13.1 cal ka (calibrated kiloanni) BP (Roosevelt et al., 1996). Contrary to prevailing hypotheses, the excavations demonstrated that the tropical vegetation of the Amazon was not an impassable barrier to human groups and that non-agriculturalists had successfully adapted to tropical rainforest habitats for millennia (e.g., Roberts, 2019). Mounting evidence from north-western South America further demonstrates the adaptability of early humans to the diversity of environments of the continent (Aceituno and Loaiza, 2018; Gnecco and Mora, 1997; Ranere and López, 2007; Santos et al., 2015). LP-EH archaeological sequences in north-western South America indicate that modern humans successfully traversed and adapted to sharply contrasting interior environments as well as coastal corridors, including lowland rainforest, Sub-Andean and Andean tropical forests, and savannahs, since the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (Aceituno and Loaiza, 2018; Bryan et al., 1978; Correal, 1982; Dickau et al., 2015; Gnecco and Mora, 1997; Mora, 2003; Morcote-Ríos et al., 2021; Ranere and López, 2007) (Fig. 1). In contrast to the “big game hunters” of the more open steppes and savannahs of North (e.g., Haynes, 1997) and South America (e.g., Prates and Perez, 2021), early Amazonian foragers at Caverna da Pedra Pintada had a generalised subsistence economy incorporating palm and tree fruits, small mammals, and riverine resources like fish and turtles (Pereira and Moraes, 2019; Roosevelt, 2013).

Despite these advances, there are still extensive unexplored Amazonian regions (Iriarte et al., 2020), with many archaeological gaps, especially regarding the earliest arrival and spread of human groups across the region (McMichael and Bush, 2019). Due to its relative proximity to the isthmus of Panama, Colombian Andes, and the Orinoco River, the Colombian Amazon is a strategic area for studying human dispersal of the Upper Amazon River basin.

In this paper, we present the stratigraphy and chronological framework from excavations carried out by the LASTJOURNEY project between 2021 and 2022 at the Cerro Montoya 1 and Limoncillos rock shelters, in the Serranía La Lindosa (SLL) at the fringe of the Amazon and Orinoco basins in the Colombian Amazon. Prior test excavations at these sites and excavations at Cerro Azul were previously reported in Morcote-Ríos et al. (2021).
Section snippets
Study area

The SLL is formed by sedimentary rocks of the Araracuara Formation (Upper Palaeozoic). The dominant rock types in this formation are hyaline quartz conglomerates and sandstones, which give rise to the mesa-top hills known as tepuis. The outcrops have a tabular geometry formed from layers of sandstones (Cárdenas et al., 2008). The foothills of the tepuis contain deposits where sediments from the erosion of sedimentary rocks and alluvial deposits converge. These soils are acidic, have low base
Cerro Montoya 1

The Cerro Montoya 1 rock shelter is an isolated rock outcrop, located in the piedmont of Cerro Azul. In 2018, the team excavated a 1 × 1 m test unit to recover datable material. Charcoal from the earliest human context was dated to 10560 ± 30 BP (Beta-509123; 12.67–12.47 cal ka BP) (Morcote-Ríos et al., 2021). In 2021, two further test units were excavated to compare stratigraphy and activity patterns at the rock shelter: Unit 2 (3 × 3 m) under the overhang near the shelter wall, and Unit 3
Site formation processes

The excavation of Cerro Montoya 1 and Limoncillos reveals multi-component stratigraphies. Radiocarbon dates indicate that both sites were occupied since the late Pleistocene, albeit not continuously. Both sites exhibit stratigraphic discordances, associated with non-constant accumulation rates. This may indicate two scenarios: a) sediment erosion or b) low sedimentation rates in the absence of human occupation. The fact that the same phenomenon is repeated at both sites leads us to favour the

The archaeology of the first modern humans to populate the diverse landscapes of South America, and especially Amazonia remains understudied. Our recent excavations at the SLL help fill this gap and provide novel insights into the first human groups to arrive in the Colombian Amazon and their historical trajectories during the Holocene.

The excavation of multi-component rock shelters exhibiting rock paintings (Cerro Azul, Cerro Montoya 1, Limoncillos, Angosturas II) firmly establishes that the
Declaration of competing interest

The authors declare the following financial interests/personal relationships which may be considered as potential competing interests:Jose Iriarte reports financial support was provided by European Research Council. If there are other authors, they declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

This research has been funded by the LASTJOURNEY project (ERC_Adv_ 834514), Horizon 2020, European Research Council. We also want to extend our acknowledgements to Juan Miguel Kosztura, Daniela Atehortua and Julian Garay and local people for their collaboration during fieldwork. To William Posada for his support in the interpretation of the soils. Marcela for editing the figures 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 a special thanks is extended to the families of Jose Noé Rojas and Nelson Castro for their warm
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