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South America

South America

Deserts of South America: The Atacama

The Atacama is the driest place on earth.

The Atacama is a narrow desert, facing the sea, with the Andes mountains and a high plateau called the altiplano at its back. The Atacama is absolute desert: dead landscape that has endured years, decades or centuries without rain. Most water comes from high in the Andes mountains. The people of the Atacama Desert - the 'Atacameños' - depend on mountain-foot oases, springs and marshes along the Río Loa, or in the deep quebradas or ravines that cut into the western slopes of the Andes. Above 3000 metres, the puna grasslands provide some sparse pasture for animals.

South America
Río Loa, the only river to cross the Atacama Desert; taken near Calama, Chile. Photo: Guy Wenborne. The despoblado ('depopulated zone'), between Copiapó and Chañaral, Atacama Desert, Chile
Photo: Guy Wenborne.

People of the Atacama

This extreme environment has an extraordinary human history. Ancient hunters sought wild guanaco (a llama-like animal) along the quebradas and up in the puna. Imperial powers - Tiwanaku, Inka and Spanish - established outposts to exploit the mineral deposits of the desert. Later, it was home to the salitreras or pampinos - nitrate miners living in the heart of the desert.

South America
Valle de la Luna ('Valley of the Moon'), Los Flamencos National Reserve, Chile: one of the driest places on earth. Photo: Jaime Plaza van Roon. Puna grassland, Lago Chungara; Payachatas volcanoes, northern Chile. Photo: Fernando Maldonado Roi.

Extreme coast

Hardly any drinking water, no firewood and no plants except reeds and a few cactuses. Could you live on the Atacama coast?

Around 9000 years ago, fishermen established permanent camps at the mouths of major valleys on the northern Atacama coast. They lived in a kind of oasis, relying entirely on the sea. They used seaweed for fuel and got drinking water from springs fed by camanchaca (coastal fogs). Although the Atacama coast is rich in seafood, getting it was not easy. The shoreline is steep and difficult, with deep water just offshore. Rafts allowed people to hunt seals and whales. Fishing lines, trolling hooks and harpoons were used for deep-water fish.

The Chinchorro, 4000-7000 BP

The Chinchorro were fishermen, living in villages on the Atacama coast. They are best known for their collective graves: groups of people were buried together, covered with reed matting. These were no ordinary burials. The Chinchorro made elaborate artificial mummies: the earliest in the world, predating even those in Egypt.

Llama, Machuca village, Atacama Desert, Chile, South America
Llama, Machuca village, Atacama Desert, Chile, South America
Photo: Mike Smith, National Museum of Australia

Desert caravans and trade

How can you escape the limitations of an extreme desert environment? Why not specialise in long-distance trade, and control the transport of exotic goods?

As a pack-animal, the llama opened up a new world of possibilities for remote desert communities. Caravans with strings of pack llamas criss-crossed the Atacama Desert from about 500 AD onwards, travelling from the coast to the Bolivian altiplano plateau, high in the mountains. The desert caravans made oasis communities like San Pedro de Atacama very rich. But they also opened the desert to outside influences and new risks.

The Inka

Deserts are marginal in more than one way. The Atacama is a precarious environment. Its people also found themselves on the edge of Inka and Spanish empires. The Inka had heard about valuable minerals in the Atacama. In 1470 AD, their armies moved into the desert, seizing wells and travelling routes, and building fortresses to control the oases. They set about reorganising the desert, creating the Kollasuyu province of Tawantinsuyu (the Inka Empire). First, they set up work taxes, or mit'a, to provide labour for road building, and copper mining, and to work state farms. Then, they increased agricultural production, building hundreds of hectares of terraced fields, to feed the growing population of state labourers. Sometimes they transplanted entire populations, creating settlements of mitimaqkuna or 'colonists'.

Less than a century after the armies of the Inka entered the Atacama, Spanish conquistadors attacked the desert pueblos.

Extremes contains further stories and archaeological artefacts relating to the changing world of the South American deserts.