UC Berkeley archaeologists reconstruct ancient Andean diets

photo of quinoa plants
Bioversity International/Alfredo Camacho/Creative Commons
UC Berkeley archaeologists have determined that the Indigenous people of the Andes had a diet that included quinoa, potatoes and llama meat. This information about their subsistence agriculture-based diet could serve as a guide for adapting to the impacts of climate change.

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In a study, UC Berkeley archaeologists found that a diet including quinoa, potatoes and llama meat fueled ancient inhabitants of the Andes mountain range throughout thousands of years of changing climates.

Focusing on the southern Lake Titicaca basin, which served as the center of Tiwanaku civilization, researchers were able to reconstruct diets between 1400 BCE and 1100 CE to explain how this civilization was able to endure, according to Melanie Miller, the lead author of the study, campus research associate and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago.

“Overall, our results indicate dietary continuity across millennia, despite major climatological and cultural changes,” Miller said in an email. “We see the ingenuity of these Andean people, who invested heavily in these (terrestrial) plants and animals, and who transformed the landscape around them.”

The Andeans were able to identify a “triangle” of three foods — quinoa, potatoes, and llama meat — that served their dietary needs and consistently formed the core part of their diet through 2,500 years, according to a Berkeley News article.

The way in which the Andeans cultivated those core needs could serve as a guide as the world contends with how modern civilization may be able to adequately adapt to growing climate crises.

“As our world grapples with climate change and increasingly experiences shifts to our global food systems, we can benefit from studying how past societies faced changes to their environment and responded,” Miller said in the email. “Indigenous subsistence and ecosystem knowledge will be key components for ensuring future human success in our rapidly evolving world.”

In order to reconstruct these ancient diets, researchers used bulk- and compound-specific amino acid stable isotope analyses to study the chemistry of ancient human teeth and dental tissues, according to Miller. They also studied archaeological evidence of different local plants and animals.

Miller added one aspect of the study which surprised researchers was the lack of fish in the traditional diet, despite the close proximity to water.

The study’s senior author and campus professor of anthropology Christine Hastorf noted Andeans were able to maintain a sustainable existence and care for the landscape.

“They’re actually incredibly sophisticated engagers with the landscape, plants and animals,” Hastorf said. “(This is) a model for us thinking and going forward, turning to people who know how to do it well.”

Contact Riya Chopra at [email protected].