Life in the Atacama

10 Sep

The Atacama Desert, running along the outside spine of the Andes, is not what one normally thinks of when picturing South America. Well known as one of the driest places on earth, there are places that receive rain only once or twice every fifty years. Michael Palin described driving through the area as like driving across the face of the moon. The dry landscape is covered in salt basins, lava flats, and geothermal vents.

However, there are ways to get water other than rain. In certain places along the coast cold sea currents generate vast fog banks, known as camanchacas, which rise and move inland towards the hills. People who have watched the BBC’s Planet Earth series may remember seeing footage of this. These areas, called lomas or mist oases, are rare, but enable an incredible level of biodiversity. Dew collects on cacti, lichens, heliotropes, and ferns and is drunk by guanacos, birds, and foxes.

This natural phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. People like Pilar Cereceda are setting up large polypropylene nets to catch the morning mist, which is then funneled downhill to neighboring villages. In places it increases the available water by almost tenfold.

But if you go up into the hills you’ll find more than just giant nets and abandoned nitrate mines. Changos, the archeological remains of abandoned fishing structures dot the coast where people known as the Moche once lived. Away from the mist oases, nothing rots. There simply isn’t enough moisture for decomposition, leading to some of the most well-preserved mummies in the world.

Thanks to these intact remains, we know quite a bit about this culture. For instance, we know what crops they grew and meat they ate. They made complex ceramics and metal work and coexisted with the Inca. We even know that, among other spirits, they feared/worshipped a mysterious figure known Ai Apaec, the Decapitator. If you want to know more about him check out these pictures and these videos. This civilization existed between 100AD and 800AD before ultimately disappearing for uncertain reasons. Archeologists are currently working to understand more.

Perhaps it has something to do with this guy

Other Sources: Planet,, National Geographic MagazineWiki: AtacamaWiki: Camanchaca, Wiki: Moche


Posted by on September 10, 2011 in Anthropology, History, Natural History


Tags: , , , ,

3 responses to “Life in the Atacama

  1. Becoming herself

    September 11, 2011 at 2:12 am

    Fascinating. Where would the final picture have been originally? Is it a wall or floor? In a temple? Or not known? And painted onto what kind of surface? Thanks!

    • theglyptodon

      September 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm

      It’s actually a relief mural from a Moche pyramid known as the Temple of the Moon. It looks to be about waist height from what I can see. I’ll put some links in the article for you if you want to see more.

  2. Becoming herself

    September 11, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Thanks, I read more. A still unexcavated city between the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun!


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