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People avoided the coast of Chile for 1,000 years after the ancient megatsunami

People avoided the coast of Chile for 1,000 years after the ancient megatsunami


Evidence of an earthquake off the coast of Chile has been found as powerful as any recorded by archaeologists. The earthquake caused devastating tsunami waves for people living in the coastal plain. For a millennium after the massive earthquake, the people of the area moved their dwellings and burial sites to higher ground – despite the inconvenience when the sea was their main food source.

It was the most active earthquake since the invention of seismographs in 1960 in southern Chile, registering 9.5 on the moment magnitude (Mw) scale. Even thousands of kilometers away in Hawaii, waves as high as 10 meters (35 feet) wreaked havoc on the beaches facing the wrong way. Estimates of mortality in Chile range to 6000, although there is a center of mortality under a relatively uninhabited area.

Chile experienced many other large earthquakes before and after the South American Plate rode over the Nazca Plate, the same process that led to the uplift of the Andes. So it’s not surprising that Professor James Goff of the University of Southampton and co-authors in Science Advances claim to have found tsunami deposits in the north.

Evidence appears in the form of marine sediments and fossils well above current sea level, not to mention that in earlier times. It is possible that the dates of some of them coincide with smaller tsunamis recorded from Japan.

Although such past events were expected, the height and length of an event dated about 3800 years ago was not. For a thousand kilometres, the sediments were deposited so high above what was then the beach that the earthquake responsible must have been as high as 9.5 (MW).

“He believed that there could not be an event of this magnitude in the north of the country simply because you couldn’t get a rupture long enough,” Goff said in a statement.

If the magnitude of this earthquake, which stretched for about a thousand kilometers, surprised the researchers, the response of the indigenous Atacama people was even more remarkable.

Debris from the tsunami is clearly visible in this archaeological excavation on the Mejilones Peninsula. Image credit: James Goff

The Atacama is one of the least habitable places on Earth for humans, with parts of it believed to have not experienced rain for up to a million years. However, the waters that border it are among the most abundant on Earth thanks to the nutrients brought by the Humboldt Current. For at least 12,000 years, humans have lived there, with a diet rich in seafood.

But over a thousand years from that time, behavior has changed. Stone structures and tombs have disappeared from the Atacama coast. Instead, traces the equivalent of human presence have been found 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland. However, the diet of the inhabitants of the area hardly varied, which indicates that they preferred to take long journeys to reach the bounty of the sea, before returning inland to avoid its wrath.

“The locals were left there with nothing,” Goff said. “Our archaeological work found that massive social disruption ensued as communities moved inland out of the reach of the tsunami. It was more than 1,000 years before people returned to live on the coast again which is an astonishing amount of time given their dependence on the sea for food.”

High coastal sediments with tsunami deposits consisting of shells and large pebbles in Pabellón de Pica show how high the tsunami was.

There is evidence that Indigenous Australians have kept tales of natural disasters for thousands of years, so the fact that the tsunami remained in the collective memory of the Atacamineo for thousands of years is not a complete shock. Even stranger, the warnings were so strong that the strong people avoided living near their primary food source.

This was not just a domestic disaster. Goff was alerted to the possibility of an event of this magnitude when studying the gigantic boulders on New Zealand’s Chatham Island set by the tsunami disaster. Judging from their positions, Goff concluded that the waves that dragged them there must have originated in northern Chile.

What happened again could happen again, and Goff warns that the tsunami devastated many Pacific islands that were uninhabited at the time, but are now overpopulated and unwilling to repeat.

Dr. Darren King, standing next to a boulder thrown into Chatham Island by a tsunami from the other side of the Paktek Ocean. Image credit James Goff




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