Quispisisa Obsidian Source Project


Archaeological research at a principal source of obsidian in ancient Peru.

Contact: quispi@MapAspects.org



Dan Contreras in a quarry pit

Nicholas Tripcevich
Archaeological Research Facility
University of California - Berkeley

Daniel A. Contreras
Institute for Ecosystem Research
Kiel University

Yuri Cavero Palomino
Facultad de Ciencias Sociales
Universidad de San Cristobal de Huamanga


The regional significance of Quispisisa obsidian is evident from consumption patterns; it was transported to sites over 100 km from the source in the Early Holocene and by 500 BCE it was reaching sites nearly 1000 km distant from the source.  Research into the procurement of Quispisisa obsidian at its source promises to shed light on the timing, scale, and organization of the mining of this important material, while the settlement system and anthropogenic landscape of the surrounding area provides an optimal case study in the long-term occupation of a regionally important highland valley.

For more detail on our preliminary work, see our recent article in Latin American Antiquity.


Distant view of source
Fieldwork in 2012 is possible thanks to grants from the National Geographic Committee on Research and Exploration and the Brennan Foundation.  Preliminary fieldwork, beginning in 2007, was possible thanks to support from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, the Archaeological Research Facility at U.C. Berkeley, and the Stanford University Branner Earth Sciences Library.


Source Area Description

The Quispisisa source lies in the valley of the Urabamba River at 4,000 meters above sea level in puna (high grassland) ecological zone. Following published descriptions of the first geo-archaeological prospection of the source area (Burger and Glascock 2000, 2002), we conducted multiple brief visits to the Quispisisa source area in order to collect geological samples of obsidian, explore any associated archaeological features, and conduct archaeological prospection in the surrounding area.  We further explored the area of the deposit encountered by Burger’s team, as well as investigating other outcrops in the region, in order to better document the extent and variability of Quispisisa type obsidian.

We have documented a much more extensive area of obsidian quarries, and identified >30 quarry pits (Tripcevich and Contreras 2011).  In general, the obsidian quarry pits are ellipsoidal features, carpeted with small discarded obsidian nodules and some flake debris; the pits range from 15 m to 45 m across, and often have substantial berms of excavated material downslope. Those documented thus far are spread over an area of 90 hectares, and comprise in total a mined surface of at least 13,000 m2 and an estimated excavated volume of at least 32,000 m3.  We identified few traces of occupation nearby, but located an extensive area of relict terracing, road networks, and archaeological sites containing dense obsidian deposits beginning 10 km downstream to the north at Colcabamba, in an area that has only been minimally surveyed and falls largely outside of the area covered by previous research in the region (Earls 1981; Valdez and Vivanco 1994).



Regional Importance

Regional archaeological evidence demonstrates that Quispisisa-type was exploited as early as the Archaic Period.  By the first millennium BCE, Quispisisa obsidian was widely distributed in the interaction network associated with the Chavín phenomenon, reaching sites as distant as Pacopampa, nearly 1000 linear km from the source (see, for some examples, Burger and Asaro 1977).  During the Middle Horizon the Wari Empire made extensive use of obsidian from this source.






2012 Research Plans

Surveying around the saylluas on the east side of the Urabamba river.

The Quispisisa obsidian source provided one of the most widely distributed obsidians in South America, but remains minimally explored.  Our reconnaissance work since 2009 has documented an extensive area of quarry pits, as well as the wide extent of settlement and terracing in the region. In 2012 we will develop a program of excavation and limited survey in order to

Our field season is July and August 2012 with lab work to follow in Peru. For further information please contact our project email: quispi@MapAspects.org



Yuri Cavero Palomino (Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, Universidad Nacional San Cristobal de Huamanga)

Yuri is a Peruvian archaeologist with more than twenty years of survey and excavation experience in Ayacucho.  He is licensiado in archaeology and a fluent Quechua speaker, and currently teaches archaeology in Ayacucho at the Universidad de Huamanga.

Daniel Alexander Contreras (Institute for Ecosystem Research, Kiel University)

Dan is a landscape geoarchaeologist with a Ph.D in Anthropological Sciences from Stanford University and more than ten years of archaeological experience in Peru.  He is currently a Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Kiel University, Germany.

Nicholas Tripcevich (Archaeological Research Facility, U.C. Berkeley)

Nico's research focuses on Andean regional interaction and ancient quarrying with a Ph.D in Anthropology from U.C. Santa Barbara and more than ten years of archaeological experience in Peru.  He is currently the Laboratory Manager at the U.C. Berkeley Archaeological Research Facility.

Please contact us if you are interested in participating in the project


Select Bibliography

Selected references on Andean obsidian

Bencic, Catherine M.

2000    Industrias líticas de Huari y Tiwanaku. In Huari y Tiwanaku: Modelos vs. evidencias, edited by P. Kaulicke and W. H. Isbell, pp. 89-118. Boletín de Arqueología PUCP. vol. 4. 2 vols. Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú Fondo Editorial, Lima.

Burger, Richard L.

2007    Late Paracas Obsidian Tools from Animas Altas, Peru. Andean Past 8:477-492.

Burger, Richard L. and Frank Asaro

1977    Trace Element Analysis of Obsidian Artifacts from the Andes: New perspectives on Pre-Hispanic economic interaction in Peru and Bolivia - LBL6343. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Burger, Richard L., Frank Asaro, Guido Salas and Fred Stross

1998    The Chivay obsidian source and the geological origin of Titicaca Basin type obsidian artifacts. Andean Past 5:203-223

Burger, Richard L., Frank Asaro, Paul Trawick and Fred Stross

1998    The Alca Obsidian Source: The origin of raw material for Cuzco Type obsidian artifacts. Andean Past 5:185-202.

Burger, Richard L., Fidel A. Fajardo Rios and Michael D. Glascock

2006    Potreropampa and Lisahuacho Obsidian Sources: Geological Origins of Andahuaylas A and B Type Obsidians in the Province of Aymaraes, Department of Apurimac, Peru. Ñawpa Pacha 28:109-127.

Burger, Richard L. and Michael D. Glascock

2000    Locating the Quispisisa Obsidian source in the department of Ayacucho, Peru. Latin American Antiquity 11(3):258-268.

2001    The Puzolana Obsidian Source: Locating the Geologic Source of Ayacucho Type Obsidian. Andean Past 6:289-307.

2002    Tracking the Source of Quispisisa Type Obsidian from Huancavelica to Ayacucho. In Andean Archaeology I: Variations in Sociopolitical Organization, edited by W. H. Isbell and H. Silverman, pp. 341-368. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

2009    Intercambio prehistórico de obsidiana a larga distancia en el norte Peruano. Revista del Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia 11:17-50.

Burger, Richard L., George F. Lau, Victor M. Ponte and Michael D. Glascock

2006    The History of Prehispanic Obsidian Procurement in Highland Ancash. In La Complejidad Social en la Sierra de Ancash, edited by A. Herrera, C. Orsini and K. Lane, pp. 103-120. Castello Sforzesco, Raccolte Extraeuropee, Milan.

Burger, Richard L., Karen L. Mohr Chávez and Sergio J. Chávez

2000    Through the Glass Darkly: Prehispanic obsidian procurement and exchange in southern Peru and northern Bolivia. Journal of World Prehistory 14(3):267-362.

Burger, Richard L., Katharina J. Schreiber, Michael D. Glascock and José Ccencho

1998    The Jampatilla Obsidian Source: Identifying the Geological Source of Pampas Type Obsidian Artifacts from Southern Peru. Andean Past 5:225-239.

Castillo M., José and Javier Barreda A.

1973    Mapa geológico del cuadrangulo de Santa Ana (29-ñ). INGEMMET, República del Perú, Sector Energía y Metalúrgico, Lima.

Castillo M., José, Javier Barreda A. and Churchill Vela V.

1993    Geología de los cuadrángulos de Laramate y Santa Ana. Boletín No. 45. INGEMMET, República del Perú, Sector Energía y Metalúrgico, Lima.

Contreras, Daniel A., Nicholas Tripcevich and Yuri Cavero Palomino

"Investigaciones en la fuente de la obsidiana tipo Quispisisa, Huancasancos-Ayacucho" investigaciones sociales 16.28 (2012): 185-195.

Craig, Nathan, Robert J. Speakman, Rachel S. Popelka-Filcoff, Mark Aldenderfer, Luis Flores Blanco, Margaret Brown Vega, Michael D. Glascock and Charles Stanish

2010    Macusani obsidian from southern Peru: A characterization of its elemental composition with a demonstration of its ancient use. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(3):569-576.

Earls, John

1981  “Patrones de jurisdicción y organización entre los Qaracha Wankas: una reconstrucción arqueológica y etnohistórica de una época fluida.” Pp. 55-91 in Etnohistoria y antropologia andina, edited by Amalia Castelli, Marcia Koth de Paredes, and Mariana Mould de Pease. Lima.

Eerkens, Jelmer W. , Kevin J. Vaugh, Moises Linares-Grado, Christina A. Conlee, Katharina Schreiber, Michael D. Glascock and Nicholas Tripcevich

2010    Spatio-temporal patterns in obsidian consumption in the Southern Nasca Region, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(4):825-832.

Eerkens, Jelmer W., Kevin J. Vaughn, Tim R. Carpenter, Christina A. Conlee, Moises Linares Grados and Katharina Schreiber

2008    Obsidian hydration dating on the South Coast of Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 35:2231-2239.

Glascock, Michael, Robert J. Speakman and Richard L. Burger

2007    Sources of Archaeological Obsidian in Peru: Descriptions and Geochemistry. In Archaeological Chemistry: Analytical techniques and archaeological interpretation, edited by M. Glascock, R. J. Speakman and R. S. Popelka-Filcoff, pp. 522-552. Oxford University Press, Washington, DC.

MacNeish, R. S., D. L. Browman and T.C. Patterson

1975    The central Peruvian prehistoric interaction sphere. Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology, Andover, MA.

MacNeish, R. S., R. K. Vierra, A. Nelken-Terner and C. J. Phagan (editors)

1980    Prehistory of the Ayacucho Basin, Peru: Nonceramic artifacts. 3. 5 vols. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Matsumoto, Yuichi

2010    The Prehistoric Ceremonial Center of Campanayuq Rumi: Interregional Interactions in the South-central Highlands of Peru. Anthropology Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University.

Rademaker, Kurt

2006    Geoarchaeological investigations of the Waynuna Site and the Alca Obsidian Source. M.S., University of Maine.

Stone, Jane

1983    The socio-economic implications of lithic evidence from Huari, Peru. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, SUNY.

Tripcevich, Nicholas

2007    Quarries, Caravans, and Routes to Complexity: Prehispanic Obsidian in the South-Central Andes. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Tripcevich, Nicholas

2010    Exotic goods and socio-political change in the south-central Andes. In Trade and Exchange: Archaeological Studies from History and Prehistory, edited by C. Dillian and C. White. Springer, New York.

Tripcevich, Nicholas and Daniel A. Contreras

2011    Quarrying evidence at the Quispisisa Obsidian Source, Ayacucho, Peru. Latin American Antiquity 22(1):121-136.

Tripcevich, Nicholas and Alex Mackay

2011    Procurement at the Chivay obsidian source, Arequipa, Peru. World Archaeology 43(2):271-297.

Nicholas Tripcevich, Jelmer Eerkens and Tim Carpenter

Obsidian hydration at high elevation: Archaic quarrying at the Chivay source, southern Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science (in press).

Vaughn, Kevin J. and Michael D. Glascock

2005    Exchange of Quispisisa obsidian in the Nasca region: New evidence from Marcaya. Andean Past 7:93-110.

Williams, Patrick Ryan

2001    Cerro Baúl: A Wari center on the Tiwanaku frontier. Latin American Antiquity 12(1):67-83.

Yacobaccio, Hugo D., Patricia S. Escola, Fernando X. Pereyra, Marisa Lazzari and Michael D. Glascock

2004    Quest for Ancient Routes: Obsidian sourcing research in Northwestern Argentina. Journal of Archaeological Science 31:193-204.

Valdez, Lidio M., and Cirilo Vivanco

1994  “Arqueología de la Cuenca del Qaracha, Ayacucho, Perú.” Latin American Antiquity 5:144-157.