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Scientists say a massive earthquake shook coastal communities in Chile 3,800 years ago

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Northeast view of the archaeological Zapatero in the Taltal region in northern Chile. Photo: Gabriel Easton

New archaeological and geological evidence points to an ancient earthquake that devastated a population along 620 miles of the South American coast about 3800 years ago. But the evidence also suggests that affected communities have found ways to adapt.

The authors of the new Science Advances paper, led by anthropologist Diego Salazar of the University of Chile, provide evidence of a 9.5-magnitude earthquake along the main seismic gap in northern Chile, which in turn triggered large, destructive tsunamis. For people living along the arid coastal Atacama Desert at the time, this natural disaster caused “extraordinary social disruption,” the scientists wrote, and inspired resilient coping strategies along the coast.

“This new knowledge should be included in future earthquake and tsunami risk assessments in the region as well as the entire Pacific Basin,” study co-author Gabriel Easton and a geologist at the University of Chile told me in an email. He added that the new discovery hints at “the potential for very large earthquakes in subduction zones around the world, with potential social consequences.”

The massive earthquake and associated tsunami must have been horrific. For comparison, both the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake were recorded in the M9.1 region and both caused catastrophic tsunamis. Only two other known earthquakes, the 1960 Chilean earthquake at M9.5 and the 1964 Alaska earthquake at M9.2, came close.

The coastal Atacama Desert is prone to very strong earthquakes due to the subduction connection of the Nazca and South American Plates. These plates converge at a rate of 65 mm each year, Easton said, causing subduction earthquakes (when one plate is pushed under another), including the M8.8 earthquake that struck exactly this area in 1877. The supposed earthquake 3,800 years ago was the result of It ruptured 640 miles (1,000 kilometers).

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The Atacama Desert has been home to humans for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples from this part of Chile are referred to as Changos, so “it is possible to say that the ancestors of Changos were living along these coasts at the time of the massive earthquake and tsunami that we discovered,” Easton said.

The findings in the new study were driven by geological and archaeological evidence. The team radiocarbon-dated elevated coastal sediments — parts of the ancient sea floor covered in shells — at seven locations, establishing an age of approximately 3,800 years. Analysis of ancient tsunami deposits yielded a similar result. They also found a similar age crack that affected the archaeological strata at the San Ramon mine in the Taltal region.

“At archaeological sites, especially at the Zapatero site in the Taltal region, we found systematic and clear cultural changes indicated by archaeological units,” Easton explained. “Archaeological evidence includes a change in the location of burials along the entire region, which were located near the coast about 3800 years ago and systematically further away from it after this date.”

In total, the team documented buildings in five different locations, all from this period, which have either been destroyed or eroded, the latter a sign of abandonment. Intensive activities in the mine land ceased, human activities were generally reduced, and sites in this area became less densely populated after the supposed disaster.

The hunter-gatherers-hunters who lived in the Atacama Desert were clearly affected, but not helpless, with archaeological evidence showing that they are particularly resilient. Resilience here means “the ability of human societies to absorb changes that occur after a socio-environmental disruption, allowing for their long-term adaptation,” the scientists wrote in their study. “In this sense, human societies follow different paths of historical resilience, as opposed to the ‘return to pre-traumatic state’ that characterizes resilient behavior in non-cultural societies.”

It appears that the people who remained along the coast after the earthquake and tsunami moved their settlements to higher ground, but continued to use the lower sites for specific purposes, such as fishing, according to the newspaper. Dwellings in the higher sites persisted for some time, lasting until at least 500 to 700 AD.

“I think this is the most obvious resilience strategy used,” Salazar wrote to me in an email. He noted that these people retained insights into their environment, as well as their technologies – so even though there were fewer people than before the disaster, they were still able to exploit the same resources and in the same way.

It is difficult to know whether the oral accounts or the traditions created by the disaster lasted for so long. Regardless, the paper says that the findings “show that long time scales must be considered to appropriately assess the magnitude, frequency, and sources of these events and that understanding the different pathways that human societies take to respond to these social and natural disasters may teach us how to deal with them in the future.”

Indeed, there is an important lesson here. Ultra-strong earthquakes occur at frequencies of thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean we should put off planning for them. Scientists say the coasts of Chile and Peru are clearly at risk, and risk assessment policies should be adjusted accordingly.

Correction: An earlier version of this post reported an incorrect rate at which the Nazca and South American plates converge.

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