Along the Atacama Desert coast, fish has always been a staple food and by the Formative period (500 cal B.C.-700 cal A.D.) it had become a product in high demand by the inhabitants of the inland valleys, oases and ravines of the desert. In this paper we explore the technologies used in coastal fishing activities, the diverse species caught, and fish processing and preserving techniques. We further examine the circulation routes of the product through the desert and associated strategies, the agents involved in transporting it and consumption levels in inland villages. Our study employs a multivariate analysis that includes evidence from zooarchaeology, stable isotope analysis of deceased individuals, and the composition of human coprolites, all of which were recovered from domestic waste, funerary contexts, and rest stops associated with the circulation routes running between the coast and the inland desert regions. Our results suggest that in this ancient social context, food was not only used to quell hunger, but through its associated economic cycles of production, circulation and consumption, was part of a complex and extended web of social relations. Within that network, food functioned as material culture, and as such enabled social distinctions to emerge within local groups and cultural negotiations to be conducted among different localities. Fish circulation and consumption played an active role in the reproduction of a social structure characterized by close and firm ties between marine hunter-fisher-gatherers and agropastoral communities, despite their long distance from each other.
Dried fish, exchange, culinary, stable isotopes, ichthyology, Formative period.