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He was going on a long journey ...

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Don Mike Smith, El Wagon Restaurant, Iquique, northern Chile, Oct 2003

Mike impressed me the first time I met him, in Arica, Chile, back in 2002, as a very serious man, not only because of his formal character, but also because of his profound and thorough knowledge of the archaeology of the prehistoric people that inhabited the Atacama Desert in the western side of South America, along the Pacific Ocean.

He was going on a long journey throughout the southern hemisphere deserts to set up an exhibition on people living in the Australian, Atacama, Namib and Kalahari deserts for the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. He was carrying a thick and heavy brochure with a maquette of the exhibition, and he knew exactly the kind of artefacts he needed from our Museo Arqueológico Universidad de Tarapaca, San Miguel de Azapa (San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum of the University of Tarapacá), eventhough this were his first visit to the Atacama.

After our formal meeting in the Museum, we visited several archaeological sites within and outside Arica’s urban area; most of them huge shell middens: “mute” testimonies of thousands of years of permanent prehistoric human occupation. The sites certainly impressed him, but he was most puzzled by the striking contrast between the barren and sterile soil and the landscape of the Atacama desert, outside of the deep canyons that drain into the Pacific, a typical geographical feature caused by the Andes that rises around 6,000 m, 250 km from the littoral to the east.

“How can you talk about desert with all this green, with olive and fruits trees, tomatoes, corn, and many other crops that grow and flourish along these valleys or quebradas”? This comment led to an interesting discussion about the differences and similarities between the Australian and Atacama deserts in particular and other deserts in the southern hemisphere. In retrospect, and as we commented two days ago, it made us realize that the vision and understanding that every one of us has about our own desert and deserts in general, do not match.

He also was puzzled by our lack of interest in doing real desert archaeology, as most of the studies in northern Chile have concentrated along the Pacific littoral, where people did not have a social and cultural system connected with the desert but with the bounty Pacific littoral, and along the valleys, quebradas and oases, where water resources for human activities can still be found today.

In retrospect, and listening to the testimonies of many people yesterday (February 8) in the tribute to Mike Smith (The Compleat Archaeologist: Mike Smith, Desert Archaeology and Museums), organized by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, Mike was pushing us to look for the extreme, and go into the real desert to look for traces of people that used to live there thousands of years ago, and this is exactly what I am doing now.

The exhibition became the perfect milieu and the excuse for Mike to organize the first International conference on Southern Hemisphere Deserts that took place in Canberra in 2003, which I had the fortune to attend, thanks to an invitation from Mike. People from South Africa, South America and Australia gathered during the same days Canberra was surrounded by bushfires, a terrific but terrifying experience for some of us as foreigners. The Conference, according to Mike, was not intended to have a second round, but the idea to congregate people from different disciplines, studying the cultural and natural history of southern hemisphere deserts, bloomed, and now the 4th Conference is being organized in Argentina, for 2014, after the meetings in Arica, Chile in 2005, and in South Africa in 2008.

Thus, Mike’s idea to create a collaborative network among people that had never shared their ideas before became a strong reality. Another example of this is that in 2007 I came back to Australia under an Endeavour fellowship and Mike’s sponsorship, which gave us the opportunity to test a comparison on the impact of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) on prehistoric societies in both ends, the Australian and the Atacama deserts. The results were published in 2008 with Alan Williams and Claudio Latorre. Following this “virtuous circle”, a second paper in collaboration with John Kinahan, is being prepared on the role of wild plants and seeds in prehistoric societies in the Australian, Atacama, and Namib Deserts by the end of the Holocene (3,000-2,000 B.P.)

But the most influential contribution of Mike’s superb academic career is how he and other colleagues, from the discovery in Puritjarra, in the dead centre (navel) of the Australian continent, backtracked and showed to the world the journey of 32,000 years of human history, which demonstrates that people back in that time not only crossed the ocean to colonize this continent but they kept moving inland, to the deserts. In this way, he opened an unimaginable world of huge networks of prehistoric social interaction, which took place under simple social organizations, a sort of lesson for the 21st century human societies that for huge human enterprises there is no an inevitable need for highly complex hierarchical structures. People in the Australian desert did not only colonize the entire continent but were also able to survive and go through the Last Glacial Maximum when the whole planet got frozen, and several plants and animals disappeared from the face of the earth.

To conclude, from his works in central Australia and through his permanent effort to integrate different worlds and perspectives, Mike has created a planetary network the same way the first Australian did thousands of years ago, and finally although I do no have British or Australian blood, and certainly I do not a have British English accent, I may said that I feel at home here in “Ausiland”, thanks to Mike the Compleat Archaeologist.  

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