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The unusual menu of the Paracas people

A population that lived more than 2,000 years ago on the coast of Peru ate a farmer’s carbohydrate-rich diet

The Paracas people were famous for their ceremonial robes

Proyecto Fundación Telefónica The Paracas people were famous for their ceremonial robesProyecto Fundación Telefónica

For more than 900 years, between 900 BC and AD 100, people from the ancient civilization of Paracas inhabited a coastal area in south-central Peru stretching between the valley of Cañete and the bay of Rio Grande de Nazca. About 270 kilometers south of Lima, an area rich in fishing area around the Paracas Peninsula was the location of the most important discoveries related to this culture in the 1920s, when large cemeteries were discovered there. The people of Paracas are known for their textiles, especially their ceremonial robes, polished ceramics and their skill with the trephine, a surgical tool used to drill into the skull to treat battle-related brain injuries and other neurological diseases. The oldest archeological records usually describe the diet of the Paracas people who lived on the peninsula as one based on fish and other seafood, supplemented only by farm crops.

A study conducted by archeologists from Brazil and Peru turns upside down the predominant view of the dietary habits of this group, which came before and influenced the Nazca culture. “Although some of the archeological sites are situated only about 400 meters from the Pacific Ocean, the people of Paracas ate like farmers, not like typical fishermen,” says the study’s principal author, Peruvian Luis Pezo-Lanfranco, who completed his master’s thesis and doctorate at the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (IB-USP), where he is currently pursuing his postdoctoral studies. “They grew and consumed a lot of carbohydrates, primarily tubers and vegetables, and subsequently, mostly corn.” Over time, seafood played a smaller role in their diet while their consumption of carbohydrates grew.

088-089_H_Paracas_238-01In conjunction with fellow Peruvian Delia Aponte from the National University of San Marcos in Lima and his post-graduate advisor, Sabine Eggers, who runs the Biological Anthropology Laboratory at IB-USP, Pezo-Lanfranco published an article in the June 2015 issue of the journal Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology on the diet of the Paracas people. The trio looked into the incidence of cavities and the condition of 690 teeth preserved from 56 individuals living during three different phases of human occupation on the peninsula and surrounding areas: Karwas, from 700 to 550 BC; Paracas Cavernas, from 550 to 260 BC; and Paracas Necrópolis, from 260 BC to AD 100. The researchers identified at least one cavity in 70% of individuals from each period of occupation, and high cavity rates on smooth or non-retaining surfaces. These data suggest that the Paracas people, during centuries of occupation along the coast, regularly consumed fermented carbohydrates, a type of food that promotes cavities.

The teeth also showed little wear, which indicates that their diet must have been rich in soft foods, like cooked vegetables. The consumption of fish and other seafood, traces of which are found throughout the region, may not have been as significant as expected. Ancient coastal peoples who consumed large quantities of seafood, like those whose shells were found in the prehistoric kitchen middens found along parts of the coast of Brazil, usually have teeth that are worn down by the constant abrasion that occurs when eating food that is covered with sand and shells.  What they found in Paracas looks very different.

Using samples of collagen protein and the mineral apatite extracted from the teeth of 11 individuals representing the three phases of occupation, the archeologists also analyzed the occurrence of different forms (the so-called isotopes) of three chemical elements: carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The concentration of these elements in the ancient Paracas population reflects the nature of a person’s diet when the teeth are still forming, that is, during infancy. The data analyzed indicate that carbohydrates played a bigger role than initially thought and that they made up a larger part of the diet over time, especially between 500 and 200 BC.

Teeth from individuals in the Paracas population: a diet consisting of more tubers, vegetables and corn than fish

Teeth from individuals in the Paracas population: a diet consisting of more tubers, vegetables and corn than fish

What is the origin of these vegetables, tubers and corn, which they consumed daily? There are two possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive: they grew the crops themselves along the coastal desert areas where they lived or they traded with groups growing crops in the more fertile valleys of the neighboring Andean region. “Regardless of the reason, the study shows that the Paracas people had an evolved agricultural system and complex social relationships that date further back than previously thought, a fact that may have repercussions on the chronology of the occupation of neighboring regions,” says Eggers. At first blush, the idea that agriculture may have flourished at that location in today’s Peru more than 2,000 years ago seems out of the question. Rainfall there is almost nonexistent (it rains two millimeters on average per year today), there is a risk of earthquakes and tsunamis, and the wind is harsh.  “But there is evidence that in the past, the climate was not as dry and the water table was closer to the surface,” says Pezo-Lanfranco. “This must have made it possible to set up crop irrigation systems using surface water in the desert itself.”

Adaptation and low level food production: bioarcheological evidence from Brazilian prehistoric coastal populations (nº 2011/50339-9); Grant Mechanism Scholarships in Brazil – Doctorate; Principal Investigator Sabine Eggers (IB-USP); Grant Recipient Luis Pezo-Lanfranco; Investment R$165,547.00.

Scientific Article
LANFRANCO, L.  P. et al. Aproximación a la dieta de las sociedades formativas tardías del litoral de Paracas (costa sur del Perú): evidencias bioarqueológicas e isotópicas. Ñawpa Pacha, Journal of Andean Archaeology. V. 35, No. 1, pp. 23-55. June 2015.