Quebrada Jaguay - Terminal Pleistocene Archaeology in Peru

Quebrada Jaguay - Terminal Pleistocene Archaeology in Peru

Quebrada Jaguay (designated QJ-280 by its excavator) is a multi-component archaeological site, located on an alluvial terrace within the coastal desert of southern Peru, on the north bank an ephemeral stream near the town of Camaná. At the time of its earliest occupation, it was about 7-8 kilometers (4-5 miles) in from the Peruvian coast and today is about 40 meters (130 feet) above sea level. The site was a fishing community, with a Terminal Pleistocene occupation date between about 13,000 and 11,400 calendar years ago (cal BP), based on a large suite of radiocarbon dates. Terminal Pleistocene sites are known in Andean chronology as Preceramic Period I).

The site is one of about 60 sites which have been found along the coast of Peru in this region, but it is the only one containing the Jaguay Phase occupations, and it is the earliest site in the region found to date (as of 2008, Sandweiss). The closest site with the same date is Quebrada Tacahuay, some 230 km (140 miles) to the south. It, like Quebrada Jaguay, is a seasonally-occupied fishing village: and those sites and many others extending from Alaska to Chile support the Pacific Coast Migration Model for the original colonization of the Americas.


  • Late Preceramic Period, 4000 cal BP, Manos Phase
  • Hiatus, 4000-8000 cal BP
  • Early Middle Preceramic Period, 8000-10,600 cal BP, Machas Phase
  • Early Preceramic Period, 11,400-13,000 cal BP, Jaguay Phase

During the Jaguay phase, the site was a seasonally-occupied coastal base camp for hunter-gatherers and fishermen who targeted mostly drum fish (Sciaenae, corvina or sea bass family), wedge clams (Mesodesma donancium), and freshwater and/or marine crustaceans. The occupations apparently were confined to the late winter/early summer months; the rest of the year, the people are believed to have moved inland and hunted terrestrial animals. Based on the size of the fish, the people were net fishing: the Machas phase occupations contain a few specimens of knotted cordage. The only terrestrial animals recovered from the site were small rodents, which were not likely food for the residents.

Houses during the Jaguay phase were rectangular, based on the identification of postholes, and contained hearths; the houses were reconstructed several times in the same location but slightly different positions, evidence for seasonal occupations. Food remains and abundant lithic debitage were also recovered, but there were almost no finished tools. Poorly preserved plant remains were restricted to a few prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) seeds.

The vast majority of the raw material for the stone tools (lithics) were local, but Alca obsidian identified by Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis had been brought from its Pucuncho basin source in the Andean highlands some 130 km (80 mi) away and 3000 m (9800 ft) higher in elevation.

Machas Phase

The Machas Phase occupation at the site contains neither prickly pear nor obsidian: and during this period there are many more such villages in the region. The Machas phase occupation included several bottle gourd rind fragments; and a single semi-subterranean house, about 5 m (16 ft) in diameter and built with a foundation of mud and stone. It may have been roofed with wood or other organic material; it had a central hearth. The house depression is filled with a shell midden, and the house was also built on top of another shell midden.

Archaeological Discovery

Quebrada Jaguay was discovered by Frédéric Engel in 1970, as part of his investigations into the preceramic epoch along the coastline. Engel dated charcoal from one of his test pits, which came back to a remarkable 11,800 cal bp, unheard of at the time: in 1970, any site in the Americas older than 11,200 was considered heresy.

Excavations were conducted at the site by Daniel Sandweiss in the 1990s, with a team of Peruvian, Canadian and U.S archaeologists.


Sandweiss DH. 2008. Early Fishing Societies in Western South America. In: Silverman H, and Isbell W, editors. The Handbook of South American Archaeology: Springer New York. p 145-156.

Sandweiss DH, McInnis H, Burger RL, Cano A, Ojeda B, Paredes R, Sandweiss MdC, and Glascock MD. 1998. Quebrada Jaguay: early South American maritime adaptations. Science 281(5384):1830-1832.

Sandweiss DH, and Richardson JBI. 2008. Central Andean Environments. In: Silverman H, and Isbell WH, editors. The Handbook of South American Archaeology: Springer New York. p 93-104.

Tanner BR. 2001. Lithic Analysis of Chipped Stone Artifacts Recovered from Quebrada Jaguay, Peru. Electronic Theses and Dissertations: University of Maine.