Human prehistoric evidence found in the Falkland Islands | Polarjournal
According to recent evidence, the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic were visited centuries before Europeans by South American indigenous people who left charcoal and bones of their hunted animals. Photo: Julia Hager

The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic were first sighted by European explorers in the 16th century. So far, historians agree. And until now, they have assumed that the first human activities on the islands could also be attributed to Europeans. But findings by a team of U.S. researchers now prove that humans must have been on the islands centuries earlier.

The new study, published in the journal Science Advances, is the first ever scientific investigation of prehistoric human presence in the Falkland Islands. Kit Hamley, a doctoral student at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and leader of the project, and her team examined collected animal bones, charcoal and other finds using radiocarbon dating for evidence of human activity.

B – The research team examined peat cores from New Island, Bleaker Island and Mount Usborne on East Falkland Island (red stars). C – On New Island, they surveyed the ground for bones and further tools. They found several piles of bones in the north of the island. Figure: Hamley et al. 2021

The surveys were conducted on New Island, Bleaker Island, and Mount Usborne on East Falkland Island, where they took sediment cores from the peat soil. On New Island, they also did a ground surface survey, not far from where a landowner found a stone point in 1979. According to the researchers, the stone point matches technology used by indigenous South Americans over the past 1,000 years. Just above the site where it was found, the researchers found seven deposits of bones from rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome) and South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens). The bones were stacked into individual piles and, according to Hamley, the location, quantity and type of bones indicate that they were likely built by humans.

The charcoal finds from the New Island peat core are particularly noteworthy. According to the researchers, the record showed signs of a marked increase in fire activity in 150 CE, then abrupt and significant spikes in 1410 and 1770, the latter coinciding with the first European settlement.

The seven bone piles are all located not far from the site (A) where a landowner found the stone point in 1979 (B). The bone piles were covered by a layer of peat, with the entire area heavily eroded and individual bone material scattered around the piles (C). Figure: Hamley et al. 2021

According to the study, most of the evidence collected indicates that South American natives probably arrived in the Falkland Islands between 1275 CE and 1420 CE. Arrival dates prior to 1275 CE, however, cannot be ruled out because some evidence dates back even earlier, according to researchers. For example, the team found a tooth from an extinct Falkland Islands fox called the warrah (Dusicyon australis) with a radiocarbon date of 3450 BCE, the oldest for the species. Regardless, all of the team’s findings indicate that people landed in the archipelago before British navigator John Strong in 1690, the first European to set foot on the archipelago.

The indigenous people, who may have belonged to the Yaghan people, tended to come for several short stays, according to the researchers. There is too little material left on the islands for a long-term settlement, the authors say.

“These findings broaden our understanding of Indigenous movement and activity in the remote and harsh South Atlantic Ocean”, says Hamley. “This is really exciting because it opens up new doors for collaborating with descendant Indigenous communities to increase our understanding of past ecological changes throughout the region. People have long speculated that it was likely that Indigenous South Americans had reached the Falkland Islands, so it is really rewarding to get to play a role in helping bring that part of the past to life of the islands.”

Jacquelin Gill, professor of paleoecology and plant ecology at the University of Maine’s Cllimate Change Institute and Hamley’s supervisor, adds, “As the world warms, we hope our growing understanding of the pre-colonial history of the Falklands will help decision-makers balance the needs of wildlife and people, who rely on ecotourism, fisheries and other industries. We’re only just beginning to piece together the role people played in the Falklands before European settlement. Because of centuries of colonialism on the mainland, a lot of the oral knowledge about this period was lost. Western science needs updating, and we hope future work will be done in collaboration with the modern-day Indigenous people in the region; their ancestors were the first experts here.”

Julia Hager, PolarJournal / Original text: University of Maine / Marcus Wolf

Link to the study: Kit M. Hamley, Jacquelyn L. Gill, Kathryn E. Krasinski, Dulcinea V. Groff, Brenda L. Hall, Daniel H. Sandweiss, John R. Southon, Paul Brickle, Thomas V. Lowell. Evidence of prehistoric human activity in the Falkland Islands. Science Advances, 2021; 7 (44) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abh3803

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