Climate change underlies global demographic, genetic and cultural transitions in pre-Columbian southern Peru

Lars Fehren-Schmitz, Wolfgang Haak, Bertil Machtie, Florian Masch, Bastien Llamas, Elsa Cagigao, Volker Sossna, Karsten Schittek, Johny Cuadrado, Bernhard Eitel, Markus Reindel

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    57 Citations (Scopus)


    Several archaeological studies in the Central Andes have pointed at the temporal coincidence of climatic fluctuations (both longand short-term) and episodes of cultural transition and changes of socioeconomic structures throughout the pre-Columbian period. Although most scholars explain the connection between environmental and cultural changes by the impact of climatic alterations on the capacities of the ecosystems inhabited by pre-Columbian cultures, direct evidence for assumed demographic consequences is missing so far. In this study, we address directly the impact of climatic changes on the spatial population dynamics of the Central Andes. We use a large dataset of pre-Columbian mitochondrial DNA sequences from the northern Rio Grande de Nasca drainage (RGND) in southern Peru, dating from ∼840 BC to 1450 AD. Alternative demographic scenarios are tested using Bayesian serial coalescent simulations in an approximate Bayesian computational framework. Our results indicate migrations from the lower coastal valleys of southern Peru into the Andean highlands coincident with increasing climate variability at the end of the Nasca culture at ∼640 AD. We also find support for a back-migration from the highlands to the coast coincident with droughts in the southeastern Andean highlands and improvement of climatic conditions on the coast after the decline of the Wari and Tiwanaku empires (∼1200 AD), leading to a genetic homogenization in the RGND and probably southern Peru as a whole.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)9443-9448
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number26
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2014


    • Ancient DNA
    • Population history
    • South America


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