Andean Region

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Andean Region

The history of the Andean region before the Spanish Conquest is long, complex, and poorly understood. In the absence of indigenous alphabetic writing systems, and with the art of the quilcacamayoc and the quipucamayoc (textile and quipu interpreters, respectively) lost to colonialist practices, most information on the subject comes from archaeology, and in many regions little, if any, archaeological research has been conducted. Descriptive chronicles, government administrative records, and other written evidence left by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish regimes shed some light on the centuries immediately prior to the Iberian invasion, but have limited value for understanding the many millennia that preceded it. Recently, anthropologists have looked for clues to the pre-Hispanic past in contemporary oral tradition.

Unlike Mesoamerica, the Andes never constituted a single area of cultural development. In a comprehensive archaeological synthesis by Gordon Willey, four archaeological culture areas were recognized in South America: the Intermediate (or northern Andean) area, which includes much of the present-day Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador; the Peruvian (or central Andean) area, which consists of the Andean portions of present-day Peru and northernmost Bolivia; the South Andean area, which includes portions of Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwest Argentina; and the Fuegian area, which encompasses southern Chile. There was limited contact between the different Andean archaeological areas, and some communication occurred with areas outside the South American continent.

The situation changed dramatically when the Incas of Cuzco created an empire that grew well beyond their homeland in the southern Peruvian highlands and expanded to incorporate portions of what are now Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. With the Inca military and administrative expansion came the introduction of an imperial language (Quechua) and cultural elements native to the central Andes. However, the veneer of similarity left by the short-lived Inca presence never fully obscured the fundamental cultural diversity that characterized the pre-Columbian Andes.


South America was unoccupied by human populations before the arrival of small bands of hunters and gatherers during the Late Pleistocene. These groups entered the New World from northeasternmost Asia by crossing a now largely submerged landmass known as Beringia. Small nomadic groups following animal herds moved into the rich hunting lands of Alaska and eventually down through North America into the Andes. There is little consensus concerning the exact timing of entry into either North or South America, but groups already had dispersed into a variety of Andean habitats by 12,000 years ago.

Due to the limitations of preservation in the archaeological record, most of these groups are known mainly through their stone tools. By 10,000 years ago there was already considerable diversity in the unifacial and bifacial lithic assemblages that they employed. One striking exception to the widespread variability was the production of bifacial tools known as "fishtail points" because of their characteristic shape. Fishtail points have been found at sites in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Chile in early contexts, and the frequent presence of fluting on these points, as well as their early date, has led some to see a relation between them and the famous Clovis points of North America.

Evidence of the perishable structures in which these early Andean peoples lived is rare. However, at Monte Verde in Chile, excavations unearthed a settlement of small rectangular huts built of wood and skin; the dwellings are dated to around 11,000 bce. Although there is evidence that early Andean peoples occasionally hunted large mammals such as mastodon, smaller animals and a variety of wild plant species comprised the core of the daily diet.

With the end of the Pleistocene, the variety of utilizable habitats increased sharply, and many environments that had been glaciated became available for occupation. Human populations expanded both numerically and geographically. Groups focused on a broad range of resources, from the rich marine stocks of the Pacific to the high plains of the central Andes. Over the subsequent millennia, subsistence strategies increasingly focused on stable, localized resources. For example, at rock shelters such as Uchkumachay in Peru there was a shift from a generalized strategy of hunting to a more specialized pattern of wild camelid exploitation, and ultimately, by 3500 bce, to the development of llama herding. During this time, many groups began to manipulate flora to enhance the qualities or the environmental range of food or industrial plants. This process ultimately resulted in domesticated crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, peanuts, squash, cotton, and coca that made pre-Columbian civilizations possible, and which remain one of the most enduring contributions of the ancient Andes to the modern world. Although these plants initially supplemented the core of gathered foods and hunted game, they steadily increased in importance and eventually made possible the shift to a sedentary lifestyle.

A well-documented expression of differing preceramic cultural patterns exists in the sphere of mortuary ritual. The oldest example of New World mummification was developed by the Chinchorro Tradition in what is now northern Chile and southernmost Peru. Between 5500 bce and 2000 bce these coastal peoples introduced artificial treatment of the dead that included desiccation, evisceration, and reconstitution of the body through the use of fillers, clay modeling, and wigs. These elaborate practices contrasted with those of other areas, such as the simple pit-burials placed beneath the floors of houses in the early Peruvian coastal village of Paloma, and the carefully arranged secondary burials of disarticulated human bones by the Las Vegas culture of southern Ecuador.


In the Andes, as in the rest of the world, the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle resulted in population increases, and these demographic pressures ultimately reinforced a dependence on the raising of food crops and, where appropriate, on the breeding of livestock or the exploitation of yearround maritime resources. Sedentary farming villages appeared first in the northern Andes of Ecuador and Colombia sometime before 3000 bce. At sites such as Valdivia and Puerto Hormiga these early agriculturists introduced the first ceramic vessels for the preparation and storage of the new dietary staples.

Along the coast of the central Andes, at roughly the same time, large shoreline settlements focused on the rich fishing and shellfish resources of the Humboldt Current. This maritime emphasis was made possible by the cultivation of cotton for fishing line and bottle gourds for floats. Some domesticated food plants also were consumed, and there were strong ties between the fisherfolk and the inland valley farmers. Communal activity was central to group subsistence and identity, and these coastal cultures were responsible for erecting some of the oldest monumental architecture in the New World. At shoreline sites such as Aspero and Bandurria and inland sites such as El Paraíso and Chupacigarro, stepped pyramids were built as settings for public ceremonies and religious rituals and as the focus for community life.

Archaeological investigation has discovered what might very well be the oldest municipal center in the New World, the city of Caral. This urban center was organized some four and one-half millennia before the Incas, making it coeval with ancient civilizations in the Old World.

In the adjacent highlands in the third millennium bce, dispersed farming populations began to construct public buildings with central hearths for the presentation of burnt offerings. Although these ceremonial structures were small, their repeated burial and re-creation at higher levels gradually resulted in the growth of large pyramid-platforms at sites such as Kotosh on the eastern Andean slopes and La Galgada in the entrenched western Andean valleys.

Agricultural expansion and intensification characterize the second millennium bce in much of the central Andes. Through the creation of gravity canals, the cultivable lands of the Peruvian coastal desert were greatly expanded, and new centers with monumental architecture were established throughout the central and northern coast. Some find it a paradox that although this period produced some of the largest public constructions in Andean history—such as Sechín Alto in Casma and Garagay in Rímac—there is only limited evidence for sharp differences in economic and political power; hence the suggestion that the scale of these constructions may be a function of communal solidarity and cultural continuity rather than an expression of coercive political power by an overbearing elite.

Near the end of the first millennium bce, most of these coastal centers were abandoned, whereas coeval settlements in the adjacent highlands continued to fluorish. One of these highland centers, Chavín De Huántar, achieved special prominence by 500 bce because of the pan-regional importance of its temple, as well as its role in an expanding sphere of long-distance exchange. Its ceremonial center became the focus of pilgrims from distant areas, and branches of the center's religious cult were established elsewhere in the highlands and coast. Distinctive coastal cultures such as Paracas on the south coast and Cupisnique on the north coast were drawn into this sphere of interaction, but maintained their independence and cultural distinctiveness.

It is within this context that we find the first indisputable evidence for sharp hierarchical differences in socioeconomic status. Elaborate elite burials have been found at sites such as Kuntur Wasi and Chongoyape. Innovations in textile manufacture and metallurgy were used to represent the symbols of the Chavín cult, in some cases on clothing or jewelry worn by elites. Although Spondylus and Strombus shells from the shores of Ecuador were imported for use in the central Andes, northern Andean agricultural villages of the first millennia bce, such as Cotocollao near Quito, appear largely free of influence from the central Andes, and do not show a degree of social complexity or cultural accomplishment comparable to that of the Cupisnique or Chavín cultures.

With the collapse of the Chavín sphere of interaction at the end of the first millennium bce, local identity reasserted itself in the form of distinctive local styles. Nevertheless, the existence of social inequality remained as a legacy of the preceding period. For example, on Peru's south coast the large Paracas mummy bundles from Cerro Colorado contained many layers of multicolored cloth mantles embroidered with highland alpaca wool, and dozens of other objects, whereas burials at a nearby coeval cemetery had few, if any, grave goods. Defensive architecture became widespread in the central Andes for the first time as small-scale political units and short-lived confederations engaged in fluctuating cycles of warfare and alliance.

In the lands surrounding Lake Titicaca, a trajectory of local development toward more complex societies occurred during the first millennium bce. With an economy focusing on camelid herding, lacustrine resources, and high-altitude agriculture, large sedentary populations developed and began to produce major centers for civic and ceremonial activities. At centers such as Chiripá in northern Bolivia, highland populations erected public architecture decorated with distinctive stone sculpture in what has been called the Yaya Mama Religious Tradition. By the end of the first millennium bce, Pucará culture and the other heirs to the Yaya Mama Tradition flourished and became increasingly involved with the groups and resources at lower elevations of the Chilean western slopes and coast.


Over the next five centuries, there were repeated attempts by small polities to expand into neighboring territories and establish multivalley states. One of the first attempts was by the Gallinazo culture (ce 100–300), which expanded from the Viru Valley on Peru's north coast into several of the adjacent valleys, including Moche. The capital of this short-lived state was the Gallinazo Group, an urban center that covered 1.5 to 2 square miles. Between ce 300 and 500, the center of power shifted to the neighboring valley of Moche, where a capital was established at Cerro Blanco. Large adobe pyramids were built for religious and civic activities, and substantial residential populations, including specialized artisans, were present. The naturalistic ceramics of the Moche give a vivid picture of a warlike people whose leaders identified with the mythical supernaturals of their cosmology. In 1987 intact tombs of Moche elite dressed in the costume of mythical figures and buried with enormous qualities of fine gold and silver artifacts were discovered at Sipán in the Lambayeque drainage. The Moche culture stretched over 250 miles from the Huarmey to Lambayeque, and materials of the Moche culture have been found still farther north, alongside Guangala materials from southern Ecuador and local cultural materials known as Vicús.

The emergence of elites in the northern Andean area can be traced through the presence of elaborate shaft tombs, such as those of La Florida near Quito and Las Cruzes in southern Colombia. The presence of elites is also suggested by the growth of large public centers, such as La Tolita and Cochasquí, and the artistic sophistication of the ceramics of northern Andean cultures such as the Jama-Coaque, the fine goldwork of the Quimbaya and Tairona, and the stone tomb sculptures at San Agustín. Nevertheless, none of these northern Andean cultures seems to have established a multivalley state comparable to that of the Gallinazo or Moche. Unlike their neighbors to the south, these northern Andean societies appear to have remained small in scale, nonurban in character, and politically balkanized.

Yet, even in the central Andes, some well-known contemporaries of the Moche, such as the Nasca culture of the Peruvian south coast, apparently lacked urban centers. Investigations at Cahuachi, the largest known Nasca site, failed to reveal evidence of large resident populations. The ceremonial center at Cahuachi, along with the nearby geometric and figurative geoglyphs known as the Nasca Lines, apparently provided the religious focus for an otherwise decentralized agrarian society.


The earliest large highland state apparently developed out of the cultural tradition represented by Pucara and the older Yaya Mama Religious Tradition. Its capital was located in highland Bolivia at the site of Tiwanaku. Large constructions were under way there by ce 100, and the center reached its apogee by ce 600, when it covered more than 3.5 square miles. Tiwanaku controlled much of the land surrounding Lake Titicaca, and its authority extended into neighboring valleys to the east and west. Vast tracts of ridged fields were created on the high plains, and government centers were built to administer these lands. Long-distance exchange linked the Tiwanaku heartland to distant resource areas such as the desert coast of northern Chile and the tropical montane forests of Bolivia.

In southern Peru, an equally formidable urban center developed in Ayacucho during the sixth century. Drawing upon elements of the same religious tradition as Tiwanaku, Huari developed its own distinctive architectural and artistic style. From its urban core of roughly 1.5 square miles, the Huari state expanded into neighboring highland and coastal lands, subjugating other cultures and constructing distinctive rectangular multistory administrative structures. Huari expansion eventually reached into the northern and southern highlands of the central Andes. Moreover, burials of the Huari administrators and Huari religious offerings have been found in centers on the south and central coasts of Peru. The Huari Empire provides a clear antecedent for the later Inca Empire in its unification of diverse coastal and highland cultures under the control of a highland center. It also foreshadowed the Inca in many respects, including its maintenance of road systems, its standardization of government architecture and dress, its emphasis on terracing and maize agriculture, and its use of quipus (coded cords that served as recording and accounting devices).

In most areas, the collapse of the Huari Empire around ce 800 and of the Tiwanaku state around ce 1000 led to increased political fragmentation and the reemergence of extreme cultural diversity. On the north coast of Peru, legends tell of the arrival by sea of a cultural hero who established a new dynasty. Archaeologists have tried to link this legend to the appearance of a new culture, known as Sicán, and to equate Chotuna, one of its early centers, with the founding settlement mentioned in the myth. Batán Grande is the largest center of this culture, and it contains vast cemeteries and more than a dozen adobe pyramids. By ce 1100 the center of power on the north coast had shifted again to the Moche Valley, where the urban center of Chan Chan gained ascendency as the capital of the Chimor, or Chimú, Empire, a conquest state that spanned all of Peru's north coast and part of its central coast. A host of other distinctive cultures, such as Chancay on the central coast and Ica on the south coast, coexisted with Chimor, and some of these societies had centers, such as La Centinela in Chincha, that were very impressive.

In the fifteenth century the Inca, a small and rather undistinguished highland ethnic group, successfully resisted defeat by larger cultures to the north and south. Under the leadership of a remarkable king known as Pachacuti, they began a succession of conquests and alliances that ultimately united much of the Andes. Few aspects of Inca culture were innovative, and indeed, their success was made possible by the millennia of Andean cultural achievements that preceded their rise. The Inca built hundreds of state administrative centers throughout their empire. Among the most impressive of these is Sacsahuaman, a temple-fortress that overlooks the Inca capital of Cuzco, and Machu Picchu, a royal estate built within the montane forests of the eastern Andean slopes. An effort was made to transform the Andes into a coherent political unit through a multitude of cultural, social, and economic strategies. Yet, like the preceding empires and states, this attempt was short-lived, lasting less than a century. In 1532, weakened by European diseases, civil war, and internal rebellions by defeated ethnic groups, the empire of the Incas crumbled before an invading force led by Francisco Pizarro.

See alsoCaral; Chan Chan; Chavín; Chimú; Huari; Incas, The; Moche; Nasca; Paracas; Quimbaya; Tairona; Tiwanaku; Valdivia Culture.


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                                        Richard L. Burger