2,100 years of human adaptation to climate change in the High Andes


Humid montane forests are challenging environments for human habitation. We used high-resolution fossil pollen, charcoal, diatom and sediment chemistry data from the iconic archaeological setting of Laguna de los Condores, Peru to reconstruct changing land uses and climates in a forested Andean valley. Forest clearance and maize cultivation were initiated during periods of drought, with periods of forest recovery occurring during wetter conditions. Between ad 800 and 1000 forest regrowth was evident, but this trend was reversed between ad 1000 and 1200 as drier conditions coincided with renewed land clearance, the establishment of a permanent village and the use of cliffs overlooking the lake as a burial site. By ad 1230 forests had regrown in the valley and maize cultivation was greatly reduced. An elevational transect investigating regional patterns showed a parallel, but earlier, history of reduced maize cultivation and forest regeneration at mid-elevation. However, a lowland site showed continuous maize agriculture until European conquest but very little subsequent change in forest cover. Divergent, climate-sensitive landscape histories do not support categorical assessments that forest regrowth and peak carbon sequestration coincided with European arrival.

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Fig. 1: The location of Laguna de los Condores, Pomacochas and Sauce, Peru.
Fig. 2: The abundance of selected fossil pollen taxa from Laguna de los Condores, Peru, plotted against time.
Fig. 3: Decadal-scale climate oscillations, human disturbance and forest impacts at Laguna de los Condores, Peru.
Fig. 4: Centennial-scale climate change and changing land use at Laguna de los Condores, Peru.
Fig. 5: Pollen representation across an elevational gradient through Chachapoya, Peru.
Fig. 6: The elevational gradient showing hypothesized changes in ground-level cloud immersion at Sauce, Pomacochas and Condores.

Data availability

The datasets generated from this study are available through NEOTOMA Paleoecology Database (https://neotomadb.org/), which include pollen, charcoal, diatom, loss-on-ignition (carbonate) and XRF (Ti, Si and Ca) data visualized in Figs. 24.


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We are grateful to the community of Leymebamba for allowing us access to Lake Condores, and to archaeologists S. Guillén and A. von Hagen who have provided the foundational work on the mortuaries and Llaqtacocha. This work was funded by grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (grant no. NNX14AD31G), the National Science Foundation (grant no. EAR1338694 and 1624207) and National Geographic Society (grant no. 8763-10) to M.B.B.

Author information

C.M.Å., F.M.-B., M.B., C.-J.F., L.C.P. and W.B.C. performed research. C.M.Å., F.M.-B., L.C.P. and M.B.B. analysed data. C.M.Å., F.M.-B., L.C.P., W.B.C., B.G.V. and M.B.B. wrote the paper. M.B.B. designed the research project. M.B.B. and B.G.V. conducted the field project.

Correspondence to Christine M. Åkesson.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Age-depth model of sediments from Laguna de los Condores, Peru.

Age-depth model of sediments from Laguna de los Condores, Peru. The age-depth model was calibrated using 14C dates (Supplementary Table 1), Bacon77, and the IntCal13 calibration curve79.

Extended Data Fig. 2 CONISS zonation of the fossil pollen data from Laguna de los Condores contrasted with major use characterization of the site.

CONISS zonation of the fossil pollen data from Laguna de los Condores contrasted with major use characterization of the site.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Fossil diatom abundances (%) of Laguna de los Condores, Peru.

Fossil diatom abundances (%) of Laguna de los Condores, Peru86. Only taxa with a >5% total abundance are shown.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–3, Figs. 1–3, Discussion and References.

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Åkesson, C.M., Matthews-Bird, F., Bitting, M. et al. 2,100 years of human adaptation to climate change in the High Andes. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 66–74 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-1056-2

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