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Department of Archaeology


One River Project

The One River project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Don Alberto Benavides for a period of five years, and now in its first year of investigation, seeks to track the flux in rich cultural florescence and collapse through time along a single river — the Río Ica — from its headwaters in the southern Andes to its mouth on a desert coast.  The Andean region is one of humanity’s rare hearths of agriculture and ‘pristine’ civilisation. Its Pacific coast is one of the world’s driest deserts, whose only sources of water are rivers arising in its rain-fed highland hinterlands. Second only to the Himalayas, the Andes encompass tremendous variations in human ecology (Shimada 1985), and, at these tropical latitudes, support cultivation even to extreme altitudes.  Yet, despite the obvious interdependency between the hydrology and economy of coast and sierra, no investigation has yet taken the entire course of a single watershed as the appropriate unit of study within which to model changes in settlement, land use, water management and culture.  We propose to do so for the Río Ica over the deep-time perspective of archaeology, from the Early Horizon (c. 750 bc) through to the end of the Inca Empire (ad 1532), by combining archaeological survey and excavation with the latest GIS, geomorphological and archaeobotanical methodologies.

    Changes in Ancient Land and Water Use Along The Río Ica, Peru


The Ica Valley is the perfect theatre within which to carry out such an investigation. Its ceramic sequence underlies Rowe’s (1967) widely used chronology for all Andean prehistory. The Río Ica links the highlands of Ayacucho with the south coast – two regions with long and rich cultural trajectories, not least those of the Wari Middle Horizon and Nasca, respectively. Here, the interactions between highlands and coast that characterise all Andean history, were — indeed still are — particularly intense. Today, significant stretches of the Río Ica on the coast and in the highlands are depopulated and bereft of cultivation. Yet their extensive archaeological remains attest to substantial ancient populations and thereby present a prima facie case for changing ecological and landscape conditions.

The climate along the Río Ica watershed varies from semi-arid (250.3 mm per year at Tambo, 3,250 m asl) to hyperarid (0.3 mm at Ocucaje, 320 m asl). The river’s flow is extremely seasonal and erratic, dropping through steep gradients in the sierra and then depositing rich alluvium in a series of wide basins on the coast.  In such dry lands, ecological thresholds are sharply defined. The division and management of water and land resources have therefore always been critical in moulding the social fabric of this region and have in turn been shaped by the fluctuating fortunes of politics and resource availability (Mayer 2002).


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Project Team

For our purposes we divide the Río Ica watershed into three sectors: the upper, middle and lower valleys. Work in all three sectors has been apportioned according to respective specialities. 

Dr Kevin Lane has focussed on the upper valley segment together with a Peruvian co-­director, Oliver Huamán. Dr David Beresford-­Jones, Dr Sandy Pullen and Susana Arce, Director of the Museo Regional de Ica have carried out investigations in the lower valley. Oliver Huamán and George Chauca have undertaken additional surveys and studies of the middle valley. All the project teams work under the direction of Professor Charles French, who has direct input particularly into its geoarchaeological components. 

Other project participants include Dr Lauren Cadwallader (isotopes, University of Cambridge), Dr Rob Scaife (pollen, Southampton University), Dr Fraser Sturt (GIS, Southampton University) and Dr Jonas Berking (hydrological modelling, FU Berlin). Leanne Zeki and Maria Angélica Garcia are working on MPhil's using GIS and archaeobotanical data, respectively, from the project. Meanwhile, undergraduates from the University of Cambridge, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima and the Universidad Nacional San Luis Gonzaga de Ica have made important contributions to the project's fieldwork.

Project Tags

Rethinking Complexity
Periods of interest: 
Other Historical
Geographical areas: 
Research Expertise / Fields of study: 
Environmental Archaeology, Geoarchaeology, and Landscape studies
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