Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 134–211 | Cite as

The Archaeology of Cosmic Impact: Lessons from Two Mid-Holocene Argentine Case Studies

  • Gustavo Barrientos
  • W. Bruce Masse


Cosmic impact is a category of natural catastrophe neglected or misunderstood by most archaeologists in reconstructions of past human population dynamics. We discuss the nature of impact by asteroids and comets and what is known and theorized about the Quaternary Period impact record. As case studies for our exploration of how archaeological method and theory can be productively applied to the study of cosmic impact, we focus on two confirmed Holocene asteroid impacts in central and northeastern Argentina, Rio Cuarto and Campo del Cielo, both likely dating between 6 and 3 cal ky BP. We model and assess the potential destructive effects of these impacts on contemporary hunting and gathering populations using several lines of evidence. The search for Quaternary Period cosmic impacts, along with the documentation of the effects of confirmed cosmic impacts on human populations, particularly of those organized in small-scale social groups, represents a challenge and key opportunity for future archaeological research.


Extraterrestrial object collisions Quaternary Period Archaeological evidence and judgment criteria Campo del Cielo and Río Cuarto impact events 



We thank Adolfo Gil, Raven Garvey and Gustavo Neme for giving us the opportunity in 2008 to present an earlier version of this paper in their symposium “Middle Holocene Behavioral Strategies in the Americas” at the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Peter Schultz shared information regarding Rio Cuarto and provided illustrations. William Cassidy contributed data and suggestions relating to Campo del Cielo, and along with Shawn Wright provided illustrations. Alberto Cione kindly discussed his own differing impressions about the Rio Cuarto event. Juan Bautista Belardi and Michael Masse for made important criticism and fruitful comments on an earlier version of this paper, while Dee Breger, Payson Sheets, Peter Bobrowsky, and particularly Michael Masse performed detailed editorial reviews of the present paper. Ted Bunch provided data and comment regarding temperature values for wildland fires and the general study of impact glass melts. Floyd McCoy reaffirmed our magnitude (megaton) energy release estimate for the Thera volcanic eruption. David Janecky brought our attention to several useful references. Johannes Wilbert kindly provided assistance with the mythology literature reviewed in the earlier Masse and Masse (2007) study. Several anonymous reviewers provided comments on drafts of the paper that helped to shape and focus our arguments. We alone bear responsibility for the final content of the paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y MuseoUniversidad Nacional del La PlataLa PlataArgentina
  2. 2.Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET)Buenos AiresArgentina
  3. 3.Guest Scientist, Environmental Stewardship GroupLos Alamos National LaboratoryLos AlamosUSA

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