Prehistory
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Monte Verde

The first known finding of seaweeds related to human activities is from Monte Verde in southern Chile, where excavations started in 1977 to explore a prehistoric settlement. The site had been unusually well preserved by a water-saturated peat bog that covered the site, which explains the extraordinary event of seaweeds being preserved. Unfortunately, seaweeds are seldom preserved as artefacts, this has probably contributed to the otherwise incomprehensibly sparse mention of seaweeds in history books.

 

At the Monte Verde settlement was found pieces of Durvillaea antarctica, Porphyra sp., Gracilaria sp., and Sargassum sp. formed into cake-like structures called quids, some of them with bite marks, presumably human. The site is 25 km from the coast so it seems likely that humans were involved in the transfer of the seaweeds from the sea to Monte Verde.

 

The site is dated to roughly 14,000 BP – although the dates and validity of the artefacts are hotly debated, since it is claimed to be the oldest archaeological site in the Americas. An example of the controversies is the suggestion that the seaweeds were not transported by humans but rather elephants, or, more correctly, mastodons that ate the seaweeds and transported it from the coast. To me, this is extraordinary, not only a report of elephants eating seaweeds, something totally new to me, but the supporting evidence was that 305.56 g of material (the amount of non-wood plant material found at the site) only represents less than 1 percent of the stomach content of an elephant and that feeding habits of mastodons are not fully known. To me it is more likely that birds transported the seaweeds, African swallows of course. Those are some weak arguments to throw out such an historic iconoclastic finding- the first recorded human use of seaweeds. Most historians are surprisingly more interested in the matter because the implications as the oldest American settlement, rather from the phycological perspective. Maybe they think about geraniums every day?

The seaweed material found in the form of a cud.

 

The seaweeds were found in a mortar close to a wish-bone shaped building. This has led to speculations that the seaweeds were used by a shaman or a medicine man and thus had medical purposes, maybe as a source of iodine. In association was also found, boldo, a laurel like plant, a suggestion that perhaps the taste of Sargassum needed to be improved to be of interest.

It is interesting to speculate around the species found at Monte Verde: Durvillaea antarctica, Gracilaria sp., Porphyra sp., and Sargassum sp. Today Gracilaria and D. antarctica are mainly used as sources of polysaccharides. We can probably exclude that use in prehistoric times, since this was before the invention of low calorie diary products and canned meat. However, D. antarctica and Porphyra are presently used locally in Chile in breads and cakes, so it is probable that they were part of the diet. It is not surprising to me that one of the seaweeds found were Porphyra, arguable the only seaweed with a decent taste and also a source of protein and thus a possible food source. Sargassum is loaded with secondary metabolites and thus a possible medicinal plant. Sargassum has been suggested, by the health food industry, to be effective as an antifungal, an anti-parasitic, an antihypertensive, a diuretic, and to regulate the thyroid, as well as lowering cholesterol levels. The finding of Sargassum also represents a puzzle since it is currently unknown along the Chilean coast with the nearest finding at Easter Island. Did it represent such a high value that it was transported from far away or has the distribution of the seaweed changed?

 

The finding of these particular four genera thus suggests that it existed an advanced knowledge about the seaweeds 14,000 years ago and the first phycological studies were earlier. We can thus assume that algae have been explored for at least 15,000 years.

 

References

Boukhari S Anyone for algae? http://www.unesco.org/courier/1998_08/uk/dossier/txt15.htm

Dillehay T (1984) A late ice age settlement in Southern Chile. Scientific American 251:106-117

Dillehay TD & Rossen J (2002) Plant food and its implications for the peopling of the New World: a view from South America. Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences 27: 237-253

Fiedel S (1999) Monte Verde revisited: Artifact provenience at Monte Verde: confusion and contradictions. Scientific American Discovering Archaeology, November/December 1-12.

J & Ramirez C (1997) Observations on the present-day (1983) economic plants in the Monte Verde area and their archaeological implications. In: Dillehay TD Monte Verde A late Pleistocene settlement in Chile. Vol 2.Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC

Rossen J & Dillehay TD (1997) Modeling ancient plant procurement and use at Monte Verde. In: Dillehay TD Monte Verde A late Pleistocene settlement in Chile. Vol 2. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC

Ugent D & Tindall DR (1997) Sargassum: an edible seaweed In: Dillehay TD Monte Verde A late Pleistocene settlement in Chile. Vol 2. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC

 

 

Senast uppdaterad 2010-01-06 14:10