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Sunday, December 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ancient Uruguay farm village found

By Thomas H. Maugh II
Los Angeles Times

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The discovery of a 4,800-year-old farming community on the plains of Uruguay's La Plata Basin indicates that agriculture was much more widely dispersed in the early history of South America than researchers previously had believed.

Inhabitants of the region once were thought to be only hunters and gatherers, but new findings by archaeologist Jose Iriarte of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and his colleagues indicate that a change in climate forced the people to form farming communities.

The people, known to archaeologists as "Constructores de Cerritos," or Mound Builders, grew corn, squash and beans and constructed seven platform mounds surrounding a central plaza at a site called Los Ajos. Preliminary evidence suggests that there are at least 10 other mound sites in the region, Iriarte's team wrote in the current issue of the journal Nature.

Little archaeological research has been conducted in Uruguay, in large part because of the belief among many scholars that most cultural advancements arose among the Inca and Maya populations in the Andes.

"This is a pretty unexplored area," Iriarte said. "We didn't know that these people had large villages and were practicing agriculture."

The impetus for creating large villages was a drying of the climate during the mid-Holocene period, about 5,000 years ago. That drying reduced natural resources and made small-scale farming more difficult.

But the drying also exposed wetland areas, uncovering fertile soil that could be tilled readily. "It was a perfect environment for planting crops," Iriarte said.

The Mound Builders did not use pottery and had no written language, so little is known about their culture, he said. They apparently survived for nearly four millennia before they were pressed into slavery by Spanish conquistadors.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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