Machine learning reveals insights at Patagonia archaeological sites

By Folake Dosu  |  December 4, 2018

machine-learning-archaeology-patagonia

Big data and machine learning are usually associated with the future, but archaeology researchers are using it to connect us with our past. 

ScienceDaily reports that researchers from Argentina and Spain have used machine learning to analyze the lives of the hunter-gatherer groups who lived in the Southern Cone of America, from their arrival 12,000 years ago to the end of the 19th century. Their team specifically used big data gathered from archaeological sites in the extreme south of Patagonia to study their mobility patterns and technology.

Using datings from archaeological sites in China, archaeologists have been able to determine humans first inhabited the American continent at least 14,500 years ago. These first settlers, however, went on to live in the southernmost regions of America.

Teams from Argentina's National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and two Spanish institutions (the Spanish National Research Council and the University of Burgos) decided to apply machine learning to understand these farflung societies that developed in the far south of Patagonia and published their findings in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

"It is by means of automatic classification algorithms that we have identified two technological packages or 'landscapes': one that characterizes pedestrian hunter-gatherer groups (with their own stone and bone tools) and the other characterizing those that had nautical technology, such as canoes, harpoons and mollusc shells used to make beads," explained Ivan Briz i Godino, an archaeologist of the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) of Argentina and co-author of the work.

"In future excavations, when sets of technological elements such as those we have detected appear, we'll be able to directly deduce the type of mobility of the group or the connections with other communities," said Briz.

"Traditional archaeology identifies sites, societies and their possible contacts on the basis of specific elements selected by specialists (such as designs of weapon tips or decorative elements), but here we show that it is more interesting to analyze sets of technological elements as a whole, using artificial intelligence techniques that allow us to work with large data volumes and without subjective prejudices."

Through their study, researchers discovered that groups with nautical technology made their arrival around 6,000 years ago from the channels and islands of the South Pacific, eventually making their way down the coast of modern-day Chile.

"Traditional archaeology identifies sites, societies and their possible contacts on the basis of specific elements selected by specialists (such as designs of weapon tips or decorative elements), but here we show that it is more interesting to analyse sets of technological elements as a whole, using artificial intelligence techniques that allow us to work with large data volumes and without subjective prejudices," Briz concluded.

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