What kind of rituals were held here? A mysterious 40,000-year-old fire

In the hot, dry desert of northern Chile, it’s hard to imagine, but humans – not plants – created this fire – and it has been burning for 4,000 years. Researchers estimate the charred…

What kind of rituals were held here? A mysterious 40,000-year-old fire

In the hot, dry desert of northern Chile, it’s hard to imagine, but humans – not plants – created this fire – and it has been burning for 4,000 years. Researchers estimate the charred crater (centred below) is 3 meters in diameter and over 2 meters deep. Not only is this a collection of unidentified earthworks, it also has the distinction of being the site of a well-documented accidental fire in 1952 which transformed what had been grassland into a medium-sized forest, according to a paper published in Science. Because people have been using this area for 3,000 years, researchers think this hole may have once served as a kind of ceremonial burial.

Researchers found scorch marks, the remnants of burned tools, bones, and bones of other animals, including an incisor, an otter tooth, as well as internal organs and fragments of DNA from bears, cows, and water buffalo. And although the cause of the burning is still under investigation, researchers suspect that the fossils would have been used for sacrifices in ancient time. The fire would have apparently roared through the earth at a blistering pace and burned the animals alive, the study shows.

Head-on collisions in ancient times (like the one in 2011) are common in northern Chile, and evidence suggests that this site was used for those occasions. “Unfortunately, the climate of southern Chile has changed dramatically in the last 4,000 years,” says lead author of the study Robin Sturgess, an archaeologist from Columbia University, “and the site is now located in a zone close to the Gatron basin, where there is a boom in tourism and development.”

One way to predict events in the past is to look at their fossil record. The fire, in other words, could have been caused by a comet, a monster tsunami, or several massive volcanic eruptions, all of which have occurred at high altitudes in the northern highlands over time.”The oldest species found in the crater, ammoniated shasta trees, are about 12,000 years old,” says another study lead author, Eric C. Eichorn, a professor of forest science at Penn State University. “One type of animal that might have been burned is a damselfly, some time between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago.”

The site was first spotted by amateur astronomer Daniel Echeniquia, who last year submitted it to a contest organized by the Department of Geology and Geophysics of the local Chilean Civil Defense. The research was conducted by an international team of researchers, led by Peter Van Keuren, a paleobotanist with the University of Kent. The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE on Tuesday.

Read the full story at The Guardian.

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