Latin America in the Precontact Period

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Latin America in the Precontact Period

It is fair to say that very little is known about the vast contingents of indigenous peoples who populated the territory of what is now called Latin America, which is not a geographic entity but a geopolitical construct. In part, this is because the ideological impact of the first European chronicles of the territory and the peoples who populated it is still strong: Present-day impressions of both are still influenced by the impressions of the first explorers and settlers. These chronicles tend to present the land they are describing as a territory populated by "primitive" peoples who did not modify their environment significantly.

It is with the "discovery" of the great states—the Mexica and the Inca—and their wealth, in the third decade of the sixteenth century, that the invaders started to produce accounts that described highly complex societies. This may explain why the peoples about whom more is known are those who built cities and states and were located in the Andean and Mesoamerican regions. The Inca, the Maya, and the Mexica (including the Aztec) to name the best known of them, caught the West's fancy from the moment they were "discovered." Both the chroniclers of the colonial period and the investigations of scholars in disciplines such as archaeology and ethnohistory (to name just two of the most influential ones), affirm that these peoples showed a highly complex organization in the realms of culture, society, religion, and economics.

One of the characteristics of the Maya, the Mexica, and the Inca is that their subsistence patterns were based on the exploitation of the land known as agriculture. In order to feed the large populations of the cities and the countryside, those Amerindian states needed great numbers of agricultural workers; a very significant labor force that had to be organized from above—by the state, the chiefdom, the local lords, and/or other intermediate authorities. Another important trait of these societies is their penchant for monumentality: The ruins of their impressive stone buildings have long attracted the attention of scholars and the general public and indeed have been the first things noticed by Western eyes. These structures (temples, palaces, and other buildings) and public works (irrigation systems, terraces, plazas, etc.) recall the more familiar monumentality of the ruins of classical antiquity.

The resemblance, in more than one respect, of these highly complex societies and their institutions to modern Western societies might explain the interest and admiration that contemporary Western publics show for them. They had, in some cases, a complex bureaucracy, a regular army, institutions of education, commerce, complex systems of belief, and other forms of social organization. Another factor that may account for Western fascination with these indigenous peoples is a certain evolutionist prejudice that pervades contemporary standards and values. According to this prejudice, human societies progressed or advanced from a basic level of minimal social organization to what the developed world has become in the early twenty-first century. The implicit (and sometimes very explicit, as in the case of Hegelian philosophy) narrative is a teleology according to which humans become more complex over time and therefore better than they were at the beginning of their existence on the planet.

Yet, counter to this teleology, it is an undeniable fact that those complex societies coexisted with others who chose to organize themselves in different ways—and by the fact that even today there are many indigenous peoples who prefer not to embrace the Western way of life and their institutions and organizational principles. The other societies that populated the geopolitical region that came to be known as Latin America were numerous and constitute a significant percentage of the total precontact indigenous population. They organized themselves in myriad ways that include the subsistence patterns of hunter-gatherers, foragers, and early agriculturalists. The peoples who gave themselves these different forms of social organization inhabited not only the territories dominated by the great states, but also other areas of the continent: among them, the Amazon basin, the plains of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Brazil, and the cold regions of Argentinean Patagonia and southern Chile.

One of the peoples who existed in great numbers in different parts of the continent are the Guaraní, who inhabited a significant portion of present-day Brazil, Paraguay, and other areas. The agricultural practices of this ethnic group were very different from the ones predominant in the states and chiefdoms: They did not require huge numbers of people and they were not organized from above. On the contrary, the exploitation of the land they practiced did not require a state or a chiefdom to organize and control the production of food. As Clark Erickson and others have proved in the case of the Llanos de Moxos in present-day Bolivia, subsistence agriculture does not require a great number of workers organized by institutions above the kinship units. It can be developed and sustained by small contingents of people tightly organized at the extended family level.

Hunter-gatherers, traditionally presented as ecologically unsound peoples who depleted the territories they inhabited, were (and are) more successful than traditionally thought in the exploitation of the land. The level of complexity of their societies is, in many cases, significant. The same can be said of optimal foragers, who combine a series of practices that result in subsistence patterns much more successful and ecologically sound than predicted by the evolutionist narratives still predominant in the West. Lack of agriculture does not mean lack of complexity, as the studies by José López Mazz and others on the Archaic period of the eastern region of modern-day Uruguay show: Peoples are able to subsist as foragers and still have time and energy to produce a series of monuments related to their belief system. That is, they were able to have a complex society (with incipient social stratification, a complex system of beliefs, and a significant production of monumentality) without needing recourse to agriculture.

The farther one goes back in time, the less is known about the peoples who preceded those Amerindians encountered by Europeans at the time of contact. The human landscape of the continent looks even more diverse: The "great" civilizations were not even close to materializing and the relationships between different groups were much weaker. Archaeological production from the late twentieth century into the twenty-first shows a growing interest among researchers in precontact societies of the continent. Much work will be necessary to recover a more complete picture of human life in the several millennia before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Even more work is needed to understand the conflictive moment known as the peopling of the Americas; since the 1990s a growing number of archaeologists, paleo-ethnobotanists, geologists, and other scholars have shown interest in this topic.

Some of the cultures that flourished in the Andes before the Inca and in Mesoamerica before the peak of the great civilizations have received much more attention than the hunter-gatherers or foragers that populated much of the continent. Scholars have studied cultures such as the Moche, the Chimu, and Chavin de Huantar, and the body of research on those peoples is still growing. Scholars of Mesoamerica have also shown a growing interest in the Olmec, Toltec, and other cultures. However, most of these peoples are generally seen (consciously or not) as steps toward the narrative that leads to the peak of either Inca or Mexica civilizations. Again, there is still much to learn about other human groups that do not fit these narratives or that developed in different areas of the continent—human groups that, in many cases, have not even been given a name by scholars.

The peoples from the great states were colonized by Europeans in different ways, but overall it can be said that their subsistence patterns were, at the beginning, left relatively untouched. The newcomers did not know anything about the local crops and the kinds of agricultural practices needed for their cultivation. For this reason, the productive machine was respected to a point. The incorporation of these societies into a new form of social organization based on European models was relatively smooth in comparison to what happened in areas populated by hunter-gatherers and foragers, who were less prone to adapt to social structures that were completely alien to them. For subjects of a state or chiefdom, for dwellers of a city, things were, to a point, less incomprehensible than for those peoples who lived in different environments and for whom the idea of a city was either irrelevant or repugnant. One of the consequences of these differences among indigenous peoples is that those Amerindians who inhabited the peripheral areas of the great states were more difficult to colonize—that is to say, to incorporate into Western models of social organization. These were, according to the chronicles, the indios infieles ("infidel Indians"), whose subjugation took, in some cases, more than three centuries.

See alsoAztecs; Chavín de Huántar; Chichimecs; Chimú; Incas, The; Maya, The; Moche; Olmecs; Toltecs.


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                                      Gustavo Verdesio

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Latin America in the Precontact Period

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