ICOM professor helps discover new insights into early South Americans

Dr. Blaine Maley (right) looks over the research team’s archaeological excavations.

Dr. Blaine Maley (right) looks over the research team’s archaeological excavations.

A team of international researchers have gained new insights into the earliest inhabitants of the southwestern Amazon. Their findings, recently published in the journal, Science Advances, offer new clues about the origins of the inhabitants of “forest islands” on the Llanos de Moxos some 10,600 and 4,000 years ago.

Dr. Blaine Maley, Chair of Anatomy at the Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine, was part of that team. The archaeologists conducted their study on three forest islands, including Isla del Tesoro, La Chacra and San Pablo, all located in northern Bolivia. 

“The site is unique and unprecendented for Amazonian archaeology,” Dr. Maley said. “These people were eating snails, creating large middens with the snail shells, and then burying their dead in these places. It was this basic calcium carbonate environment that allowed the human remains to be preserved.”

This current study, the researchers say, suggests that humans first settled in the region during the Holocene period. 

Researchers also say the soils in the area tend to be acidic, which can make the preservation of organic remains very poor. 

“The hard part, of course, was removing the calcium carbonate encrustations from the remains, and analyzing the skeletons,” Dr. Maley said. “This was my job, and it took a lot of experimentation with different acids to find a balance in removal without doing damage to the skeletons.”

The researchers say a gap exists between the people this team studied who lived on the forest islands between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago, and the rise of complex societies, which began around 2,500 years ago. Future research could help bridge that gap.

“I’ve been working in Bolivia for the past 10 years. It is an amazing place, with a rich history that goes far beyond the Incan Empire,” Dr. Maley said. “This research is part of the story of just how deep that history goes.”