The Peoples And Civilizations Of The Americas

The Andean World

The rise of civilization in South America paralleled many of the

processes in Mesoamerica, but it was also conditioned by the specific

geographical features of that continent. The Andean world presented to men and

women a peculiar geography of complex microregions with extreme changes in

altitude and temperature. The narrow and arid strip on the western coast, cut

by a few rivers that flow to the Pacific, gives way quickly to the high Andes

where some peaks rise to over 15,000 feet. Between the two major chains of the

Andes lie high valleys and steppes, or puna, that form the highlands, or

altiplano. On these cool uplands (usually above 10,000 feet) the land is

relatively level and there is adequate water. Here potatoes and maize could be

grown and the puna provided good grazing for llamas and alpacas, the "sheep of

the Andes." Andean populations concentrated here or down on the arid coast in

the river valleys that made irrigation possible. On the eastern slopes of the

Andes a number of large rivers run down into the tropical rain forest

concentrated at the basins of the Amazon and La Plata rivers. This is the

humid montana, where tropical fruits and coca leaf can be obtained.

This rugged topography imposed limitations and created opportunities for

civilization to develop. The arid coastal valleys demanded irrigation, and

this spurred population growth and social complexity. Irrigation projects were

enormous, involving miles of canals and ditches and requiring constant

maintenance and construction. Did the need for irrigation create the state, or

did irrigation result from the formation of centralized authority? Scholars

disagree, but it is clear that once formed, a major function of the coastal

states was to irrigate. In the highlands, irrigation and terracing increased

the food supply in regions where the amount of arable land was limited.

Populations concentrated in the fertile valleys but were separated from each

other by steep mountains. Trade and communication were difficult. It took

large and well-organized projects to build roads, bridges, and agricultural

terraces. The reasons for state building were good. The warfare, military

images, and trophy heads seen in much ancient Peruvian art represent a world

of limited resources and competition.

Recall that, in the Andean world, sharp vertical changes created

microclimates within relatively short distances. Peoples and even individual

communities or families strove to control a number of ecological zones where

different kinds of crops could be raised. A community might reside in the

altiplano growing potatoes and quinoa, an Andean grain, but could also have

fields in lower valleys to grow maize, pastures miles away at a higher

elevation for their llamas, and even an outer colony in the montana to provide

cotton, coca, and other tropical products. In fact, access to a variety of

these ecological zones by colonization, occupation, conquest, or trade seems

to have been a constant feature in Andean life that determined pre-Columbian

patterns of settlement and influenced the historical development of the Andean


Early Developments And The Rise Of Chavin

Much of early Andean history fits a pattern of alternation between

periods of decentralization, in which various local or regional centers

developed distinctive cultures, and periods when one of these centers seems to

have spread its control over very large areas, establishing a cultural horizon

under centralized authority. Between 3000 and 2000 B.C. permanent agricultural

villages were established in both the Andean highlands and on the arid Pacific

coast. Maize was introduced from Mesoamerica and was grown along with

indigenous crops such as the potato. By about 2700 B.C., pottery was produced,

first on the north coast in present-day Ecuador and then in the highlands of

central Peru. This early pottery, called Valdivia ware, indicates advanced

techniques of production. It is remarkably similar to Japanese Jomon-period

ceramics, and this has led some scholars to hypothesize a transpacific contact

by Japanese fishermen. Whatever the origins of pottery in the region, the

presence of sedentary agriculture, ceramics, weaving, and permanent villages

marked a level of productivity that was soon followed by evidence of political

organization. Early sites, such as El Paraiso on the Peruvian coast, contain

monumental buildings of great size, but we know little of the societies that

built them.

Between 1800 and 1200 B.C. ceremonial centers with large stone buildings

were constructed both in the highlands and on the coast. Pottery was now

widely distributed; the domestication of the llama had taken place; and

agriculture had become more complex, with evidence of simple irrigation at

some places. The most important of these centers was Chavin de Huantar

(850-250 B.C.) in the Peruvian highlands. Chavin contained a number of large

temple platforms and adobe and stone constructions. Its craftsmen worked in

ceramics, textiles, and gold. Chavin culture was characterized by artistic

motifs that were widely diffused through much of the Andean region and seem to

represent a cult or a system of religious beliefs. Jaguars, snakes, birds of

prey, and humans with feline characteristics were used as decorations, often

along with scenes of war and violence.

The artistic style was so widely diffused that archeologists refer to

this epoch as a horizon, a period when there seems to have been a broad

central authority that integrated a widely dispersed region. In truth, we do

not know if the religion of Chavin was spread by conquest, trade, or

missionary activity, nor do we know its origins. It does have some remarkable

stylistic similarities with Olmec art in Mesoamerica; some archeologists have

pointed out certain tropical features in both and have suggested the Amazonian

lowlands as a possible point of origin for both traditions.

The evidence of warfare in early Peruvian agricultural societies may

indicate a general process. With the development of intensive agriculture and

a limited amount of arable land, the organization of irrigation and the

creation of political authority and eventually states that could mobilize to

protect or expand available land, was a vital necessity.

Regional Cultures And A New Horizon

By 300 B.C. Chavin was in decline, and whatever unity the widely spread

Chavin style indicated was lost. The Andean world was now characterized by

regional centers, each with its own cultural and artistic traditions. This was

a period without political unity, but it produced some of the Andean world's

finest art. Irrigated agriculture producing a wide variety of crops, the

domestication of llamas and related animals, dense populations, and

hierarchical societies could be found in a number of places. Some societies,

such as Nazca on the south coast and Moche to the north, produced remarkable

pottery and weaving.

Nazca weaving reached a high point for the Americas. Discovery in the

1920s of a group of richly dressed mummies at Paracas near Nazca revealed the

artistic accomplishments of these ancient weavers. Over 100 colors were used

and many techniques of weaving and cloth types were produced; designs were

often abstract. The plain near Nazca is also the scene of great figures of

various animals, which cover many hundreds of feet and can only be seen from

the air. There are also great straight lines or paths that cut across the

plain and seem to be oriented toward distant mountains or celestial points.

Why these lines and designs were drawn is unknown.

The Mochica state (A.D., 200-700), in the Moche valley and on the coast

to the north of Chavin, mobilized workers to construct great clay-brick

temples, residences, and platforms. Artisans produced gold and silver jewelry

and copper tools. The potters' art reached a high point; scenes on Mochica

ceramics depict rulers receiving tribute and executing prisoners. Nobles,

priests, farmers, soldiers, and slaves are also portrayed in remarkably

lifelike ways; many vessels are quite clearly portraits of individual members

of the elite. The Mochica also produced a great number of extremely explicit

pottery vessels showing a variety of sexual activities. These scenes are

almost always in a domestic setting and indicate descriptions of everyday life

rather than ritual unions.

Moche expanded its control by conquest. Mochica art contains many

representations of war, prisoners, and taking heads as trophies. There is also

archeological evidence of hilltop forts and military posts. Politically, Moche

and the other regional states seem to have been military states or chiefdoms,

supported by extensive irrigated agriculture and often at war.

Some idea of life in Moche society has been spectacularly revealed with

the discovery in 1988 of the tomb of a warrior-priest. Buried with retainers,

servants, and his dog, this nobleman was covered with gold, silver, and copper

ornaments, fine cloth, and jewelry. The scenes depicted on these objects and

in the pottery buried with him include scenes of captive prisoners, ritual

sacrifice, and warfare.

This pattern of regional development continued until about A.D. 300 when

two large centers, Tihuanaco on the shores of Lake Titicaca and Huari, farther

to the north in southern Peru, began to emerge as large states. How much

centralized political control they exerted is unclear, but as in the earlier

case of Chavin, the religious symbols and artistic style associated with these

centers became widely diffused in the Andean world, creating perhaps a second

or Intermediate Horizon (c. A.D. 300-900) roughly contemporary with the

classic Maya and Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica.

Tihuanaco was an urban ceremonial center with a population of perhaps

40,000, supported by extensive irrigated agriculture. Recent archeological

work has revealed an extensive system of raised fields, irrigated by canals,

that could produce high yields. Tihuanaco's inhabitants probably spoke Aymara,

the language of the southern Andes that is spoken today in Bolivia. The art

style of Tihuanaco and representations of its gods, especially the Staff God,

spread all over the southern Andean zone.

In typical Andean fashion, Tihuanaco extended its political control

through colonies as far away as Chile and the eastern Andean slopes in order

to assure access to fish, coca, and tropical plants - the products of

different ecological zones. Huari may have begun as a colony of Tihuanaco, but

it eventually exercised wide influence over much of the North Andean zone.

While the period of its control was relatively short, the urban area of Huari

eventually covered over six square miles and its influence was spread by the

construction of a system of roads.

The Intermediate Horizon, represented by Tihuanaco and Huari, came to an

end in the 9th century A.D., about the same time as the end of the classic

period in Mesoamerica. Whether these two processes were connected remains

unknown. With the decline of these expansive cultures in Peru another period

of regional development followed as different peoples, especially those along

the coast, sought to establish control over their neighbors. The Chimu state

on the north coast, based on its magnificent capital city of Chau, eventually

controlled over 600 miles of the coastal zone.

The Chimu state, founded about A.D. 800, was still expanding when it fell

to the Incas in 1465. In this period other small states had formed. From Lake

Titicaca westward to the Pacific coast, the Lupacqa created a kingdom. On the

eastern margins of the lake and into the rich valleys on the eastern slope of

the Andes other small chiefdoms formed. Meanwhile, in the highlands various

ethnic groups were struggling for control of their neighbors. One of these, a

group of Quechua-speaking clans, or ayllus, took control of the highlands

around Cuzco and began to expand, especially after A.D. 1400. These were the

Incas, who were in the midst of creating a new horizon of centralized control

and considerable cultural influence over the various ethnic and linguistic

groups of the Andean world from Ecuador to Chile, when the Europeans arrived

in 1532.

Andean Lifeways

Although it is difficult to reconstruct much of the social and political

organization of early Andean societies on the basis of archeological evidence,

by using later observations from Inca times along with archeological materials

we can identify some characteristic features. We have already spoken of

verticality, or the control of a number of economic niches at different

altitudes, as a principle of Andean life. This control and related

self-sufficiency was sometimes the objective of states, but it was also the

goal of families and communities. Kin groups were another constant of the

Andean world.

Andean peoples were divided into ethnic groups and spoke a number of

languages, although Aymara came to predominate in the Bolivian highlands and

the Incas later spread Quechua from the central Andes to the coast and north

to Ecuador. Despite ethnic and linguistic differences, communities were

generally composed of households, which together recognized some form of

kinship. These kinship units, or ayllus, traced descent from some common,

sometimes mythical ancestor and they referred to other members of the ayllu as

brother and sister. People usually married within their ayllu. The ayllu

assigned each household land and access to herds and water to each household.

But rights and access were not equal for every household or family within an

ayllu. Ayllus were often divided into halves, which might have different

functions or roles. This was a form of organization the peoples of the

highland civilizations shared with many tribes of the Amazonian forests.

There were also community leaders and ayllu chiefs, or curacas, with

privileges of dress and access to resources. Groups of ayllus sharing a

similar dialect, customs and distinctive dress were bound together into ethnic

groups, and sometimes a number of these were forged into a state. The ties of

kinship were used to mobilize the community for cooperative labor and war. The

ayllu was a basic organization, and kinship provided an understanding of the

cooperation and conflict from the village to the empire. Some authors have

suggested that, even in the large states, conflicts were more often between

ayllus or groups of ayllus than between secondary social classes.

The principle of reciprocity that lay beneath the cooperative

organization of he ayllu infused much Andean social life. Reciprocal

obligations existed at many levels - within the family between men and women,

between households within the ayllu, and between the curacas who were expected

to represent the interests of the ayllus. Eventually, in theory at least,

reciprocity also existed between communities and a large state such as Huari,

which in return for labor and tribute was expected to provide access to goods

or to mobilize large projects, such as irrigation or terracing, that would

benefit the community. Reciprocity also infused religious belief. Andean

peoples lived in a world where sacred spirits and powers, or huacas, were

apparent in caves, mountains, rocks, rivers, and other natural phenomena.

Worship of the huacas and of the mummies of ancestors (which were also

considered holy and part of Andean religious life), at least from the Nazca

period, was a matter of reciprocal exchange as well.

Author: Michael Adas
Date: 1992

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