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Tracks and traces

Like the best things in life, they happen by chance. Not part of some great plan or even funding. Alex Chepstow-Lusty gives a brief mitey history of alpacas, llamas and dung.

Ever since a kid traipsing over the South Downs, I have always had an interest in natural history and history, which are often unknowingly interlinked. We frequently forget that some of the most beautiful landscapes have been shaped not only by nature over millennia, but also humans carving out patches for agriculture or to sustain their herds of livestock. When those people and their animals, and traditional practices disappear, nature soon takes over again, and the result is not necessarily the same as before humans arrived, or even predictable. And yet in some places those traditional people are still there, and provide a link with a deeper time; in the Andes, particularly at the more extreme altitudes, locals depend on their alpacas and llamas for many of the products necessary to sustain life in such harsh environments.

After a PhD in Cambridge studying fossil plankton from the oceans two million years ago, and still with a fascination for looking at small fossils to record big changes in the world, I wanted to do something different that allowed me to imagine landscapes and vegetation evolving through time, though with people as part of the puzzle. When a colleague told me about an in-filled lake in Peru in the Cuzco area that he had been sent pictures of by a British archaeologist, and that he was looking for someone to help investigate, I was hooked. Soon I was reading up everything on the Andes and learning how to prepare pollen, which was what we would use to give us some insight into reconstructing the past vegetation and agriculture.

When we finally got the grant, I was with my wife-to-be following chimpanzees in a Tanzanian forest, left her, flew over to Peru via Cambridge, helped core the in-filled lake of Marcacocha, brought the cores to Cambridge, flew back to Tanzania, and a few months later both of us returned and I was in a laboratory preparing my first samples. This was in 1993, and no-one had ever looked at fossil pollen from lakes in the Cuzco area, the heart of the Inca Empire (about AD 1400-1533), which stretched from what is today near the modern Colombian border down to central Chile.

Brown circle of sedge vegetation marks where the little lake of Marcacocha was until about AD 1830. Surrounded by excellent pasture, and set in a landscape of terraces, the route of what was the Inca road would have been close to the present one on the right hand-side.

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