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Peruvian seashells shed light on historical climate

Ancient Peruvian seashells presented to the dead during ancient funeral ceremonies are allowing researchers to gauge historical climate information as far back as 13,000 years ago.

These unlikely sources serve almost as historical calendars filled with data about the conditions of the portions of the ocean in which they lived – conditions which may well have been vital to the well being of ancient Peruvian cultures, including the Moche, according to Dr. Fred Andrus, an assistant professor in UA’s geological sciences department.

Andrus and colleagues at the University of Arizona and the University of Maine, were awarded a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop a better understanding of a deep ocean phenomenon known as upwelling and its impact on the climate and the economy of the people who lived in Peru over the past 13,000 years.

The work revolves around radiocarbon dating of the shells, but draws from anthropology, archaeology, chemistry, forensics and geology. It’s providing insight into climate history and a key contributor to that history, El Niño events, as well as, perhaps, significant developments in culture shifts that may have resulted from those long ago climate changes.

In 2002, Andrus co-authored a paper publishing in Science describing a change in El Niño-related ocean temperatures 5,000 years ago. The research suggested the climate shift may have contributed to increased economic complexities among cultures. Suggesting the one led to the other was, and is, a contentious idea, Andrus says.

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