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The Atacama Super Earthquake We Never Knew About Sending Humans Hiding for 1,000 Years




Scientists said the massive earthquake that triggered the tsunami that struck northern Chile 3,800 years ago caused such devastation to coastal populations that it took 1,000 years for humans to return to shore.

The ancient super quake had a magnitude of about 9.5, and was so powerful that it caused a tsunami that threw boulders hundreds of meters into New Zealand, which is thousands of miles – and an entire ocean – away.

The discovery is evidenced by raised land structures (also known as coastal sediments) and samples of marine rock, shells, and marine life that the tsunami washed ashore in the higher stretches of Chile’s Atacama Desert. It serves as a dire warning of the destructive potential of the large earthquakes generated by tsunamis that may have escaped our previous notice.

“We found evidence of marine sediments and many animals that would have lived quietly at sea before being dumped inland,” says geologist and tsunami specialist James Goff of the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“And we found all of these things very high and far from land, so it couldn’t have been a storm that put them there.”

Tsunami deposits are visible in a trench. (University of Southampton)

The research team, led by anthropologist Diego Salazar of the University of Chile, has conducted several years of research in the Atacama Desert region, which is particularly vulnerable to massive earthquakes due to its proximity to the confluence of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, with the former subjugated in the shadow of the latter.

It is this phenomenon and its seismic reactions that led to the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in southern Chile; Thousands of years ago, the same tectonic tensions seem to have led to an equally diabolical but undocumented harbinger in the north of the country.

“It was thought that you couldn’t have an event of this magnitude in the north of the country just because you couldn’t get a rupture long enough,” Goff says.

“But now we’ve found evidence of a rupture about a thousand kilometers long off the coast of the Atacama Desert, and that’s massive.”

In their investigations, the researchers used radiocarbon dating to work out the age of the coastal sediments, which extend over 600 kilometers (about 370 miles) from the Chilean coast.

Readings from several sedimentation sites indicate the presence of a “tectonic event that would have lifted coastal sediments along the study area, and triggered social disruption on a regional scale,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Collapsed stone structure. (Gabriel Easton)

At the time of the event, the people living in this part of the world were hunter-gatherer societies. Archaeological evidence indicates that the earthquake’s tsunami toppled their stone structures – not just once, but twice, with a powerful current of backwash from the tsunami wreaking havoc as it flowed back into the sea.

The effects on anyone lucky enough to survive the immediate catastrophe were long-lasting, with evidence to suggest that the area remained uninhabited for up to 1,000 years, even though people lived on this coastal strip for nearly 10,000 years before the crisis .

“The locals were left there with nothing,” Goff says. “Our archaeological work found that massive social disruption ensued as communities moved inland, out of reach of the tsunami.”

Over time and dozens of generations, locals grew bold (or perhaps forgetful), and people eventually made their way to the ocean some 1,000 years later.

“The abandonment of previously occupied areas and changes in mobility patterns and spatial arrangements of settlements and cemeteries may have been resilience strategies developed by hunter-gatherer societies,” the researchers wrote.

However, it seems that knowledge of these giant events and their consequences is waning over time.

Aside from filling in gaps in our historical understanding of this mega-event — an earthquake as powerful as anything known to humanity — the research is a cautionary note about the risks similarly powerful mega-earthquakes may pose in the future, say the researchers.

“While this had a huge impact on people in Chile, the South Pacific islands were uninhabited when they were hit by a tsunami 3800 years ago,” says Goff.

“But they are all inhabited now, and many are popular tourist destinations, so the next time an event like this occurs the consequences could be dire unless we learn from these results.”

The results are reported in Science Advances.




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