Five hundred years ago, through the mountains of what today are Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Chile, merchant caravans with hundreds of llamas trooped along broad and well-tended roads. From Atacama in northern Chile to the Bolivian altiplano around Lake Titicaca, they carried the precious chañar wood—soft when newly cut, hardening as it dries, making it perfect for fashioning dinnerware and adornments. From the desert, they carried copper and semiprecious stones; from the tropical forests, brilliantly colored feathers and hard woods; from the cold seas, salted fish. Charki (dehydrated llama or guanaco meat), chuño (dehydrated potatoes) and many varieties of corn were traded back and forth from west to east, north to south.
At the time the Spaniards arrived, in Francisco Pizarro's fateful expedition of 1531, Andean society had reached a stage of development comparable to that of Europe in the times of classical Greece and Rome. Tawantinsuyu, the great Inka empire extending through the Andes from Colombia to Chile, was a sophisticated urban society. On its edges were simpler societies of horticulturalists and hunters and gatherers — whom the Inkas considered "barbarians." But even these simpler societies were learning new tricks for survival in the rugged Andean conditions.
The victorious Spaniards introduced an alien technology, which had been developed through thousands of years of experimentation, from the Old World's Paleolithic Age to the Renaissance. It had served Europe well, but in a very different ecosystem. Convinced that the same techniques would work anywhere, the newcomers scorned those of native societies and set out to make the New World like the Old. Much of our continent's economic weakness and dependency can be traced to that fateful decision.
In the Andes, where the great Inka Empire and its predecessors had achieved economic success on entirely different principles, the consequences were disastrous. Our fields became filled with new plants and animals, displacing those better adapted to the environment. New cities and a productive infrastructure were faithfully copied from Europe, at great expense: the same food, the same clothing, the same social and productive organization. We Andeans began to measure our success by an “index of modernity” which meant nothing orther than how close our systems were to those of Europe. Aborginal customs and people were segregated and marginalized, and anything “Indian” became stigmatized.
Human settlement began in all parts of the Andes at about the same time, more than twelve thousand years ago. These earliest Andeans all started out as hunters and gatherers. Over thousands of years, Andean societies became highly diversified, pursuing different ways of mastering their resources, each according to its circumstances.
Such unequal development has usually been interpreted linearly, as though everyone were traveling the same development path, on which the Europeans (as they saw it) had advanced the farthest. In reality, they were on separate paths, because they were confronting very different problems and had to invent very different types of solutions.
It is generally thought that agriculture in the Andes was discovered in the moist forests of northern and eastern Peru. If so, this was not the only place. Agriculture in the region goes back to the eighth or ninth millennium B.C., probably with such plants as yucca, sweet potato, and peanuts, which reproduce easily in the humid tropical climate and do not require complex methods of cultivation.
As long as cultivation was confined to a few gardens for minor consumption, people could take advantage of a few natural clearings. Once they began seeking larger harvests, however, they had to clear and prepare fields. Gradually, Andeans learned to rotate their crops, to program the productive cycles and to maintain quality. In the process, they discovered new plant species, increasing the food supply, and this in turn supported a population increase, as evidenced by the larger size of villages.
In those areas that were constantly inundated from heavy rains, the ancient Andeans learned to build elevated fields, now called "camellones," separated by deep furrows. Abandoned for nearly five centuries, their vestiges have been discovered in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. They look like fields plowed by giants, with furrows one to four meters wide and deep separating broad flat lands. Recent experiments show that these lands, today barren and absolutely unusable in times of flooding, must at one time have been highly productive.
Where agriculture was impossible, as in the Chocó region in western Colombia, hunters and gatherers perfected their techniques, for example by developing traps for burrowing animals.
In the puna, the high, barren plateau at the summit of the central and southern Andes, there were very successful societies of hunters of camelids— the camel-like llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos. Living from this meat, plus the tubers and wild grasses they gathered, these societies not only survived but grew. Thousands of years after their formation, descendants of these societies began to domesticate the animals and plants. Probably by selective breeding of llamas, they developed the wool-bearing subspecies, the alpaca. The plants they sowed included potato, olluco (with tuberous roots like a small new potato), quinoa ("pigweed," an annual plant, the seeds of which are ground as cereal and the leaves eaten like spinach), and caniwa or canahua (a food grass similar to millet).
During the second millennium B.C., people domesticated all the Andean species of plants and animals possible. This era is sometimes referred to as the Andes' "neolithic" age, comparable in its accomplishments to the neolithic age of the Old World (which began around 10,000 B.C. in the Mideast, later in other areas).
In Cuzco, the Inkas had established experimental agricultural centers, which still functioned when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. There they tested the adaptability of plants to different ecosystems and improved their qualities and their productivity. Naturally, they also called on the experience and knowledge of the "amautas," or wise elders. There must have been similar experimentation, at a much earlier time, that led to the production of the alpaca.
The domestication of plants and animals is only the first level in the advance of humans' transformation of their natural environment. The next step was to use this new knowledge in ways that furthered the reproduction and growth of the human species.
In this regard, the Andean "neolithic" period was successful in very diverse zones. In the forest areas, domestication soon led to the formation of villages that engaged in cultivation along with hunting, fishing and gathering. Their populations grew, even though they had to move from place to place in pursuit of the various sources of subsistence. In the western forests, near the rivers from Ecuador to Chile, material cultures became quite sophisticated. The Valdivia culture of central Chile flourished around 3000 B.C., and Chorrera on the coast of Ecuador around 1500 B.C. The first to make ceramics were on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, followed by those in the Guayas region in Ecuador. The copper alloy "tumbaga" was developed through a chemical process, using natural vegetable acids, which makes the copper look like gold. Communities in the tropical forest seem to have begun making cloth around 3000 B.C., as well as producing ceramics.
Thus, there was a nascent manufacturing in these areas, including pottery-making, basket-making, wood-working, and the use of animal parts and plants to make polychrome feathered cloths, headpieces, musical instruments, and so on.
In the coastal desert of Peru, plants were first domesticated around the sixth millennium B.C. Cotton, used mainly by fishermen for nets and cords, turned out to be a superior fiber to anything they had known previously for binding the gourds they used as floaters and as containers. But before plant cultivation could have the transforming effect it had had in other areas, coastal peoples had to conquer the desert. This led to another kind of technological breakthrough: the control of water.
In the desert, the rivers that come down from the mountains leave cones of deposits in the form of irregular deltas. Because of the steepness of the slopes, the waters are torrential and flow rapidly toward the sea, easily changing their course each summer when the rains fall in the highlands. In addition, some years the waters do not come down at all and the rivers dry up, and other years the waters pour forth in great quantities at any time of the summer. When there is water, it is distributed unevenly moistening only those areas near the riverbed and leaving the edges extremely arid. This greatly accelerates desertification and sanding of the surrounding area. In those conditions, agriculture cannot develop without a very complex irrigation infrastructure.
The fishing societies' growing experience in weather prediction, and their increasing population—giving them more labor power—made it possible for them to develop irrigation to "domesticate" water via irrigation. They also undertook costly (in labor power) projects of clearing and leveling the lands. This in turn permitted a great expansion of agriculture in the second millennium B.C. Although the coastal people continued fishing and shellfish gathering, agriculture soon became their main means of subsistence.
Causeways were built to channel water beyond the area of the alluvial deposits, forming artificial valleys. These channels also permitted the rationalization of water consumption and the drainage of excess. Pre-colonial canals extended kilometer after kilometer, to supply precisely measured levels and amounts of water. When they crossed the desert hills that surround these artificial valleys, water would seep from one canal into another, creating a moist interstice on the hillside where people grew crops. In the desert landscape these must have looked like hanging gardens twelve to fifteen meters long, amidst the hills. Today, uncultivated and barren, they look like a long necklace with rectangular pendants of varying widths and lengths, attached to a very straight line crossing the sand-covered hills.
The coastal people were very careful not to destroy what they had so laboriously constructed, because agricultural land is very scarce in Peru. For that reason they never invaded the agricultural lands for urban projects. They used barren lands for their cities, some of which eventually grew to great size and complexity. Chan Chan in northern Peru, where the valleys of Moche and Chicama intersect at the edge of the cultivated fields and close to the sea, was six kilometers long in the fifteenth century. Sufficient water was carried to the city via canals, complemented by a system of wells—"huachaques"—that drew waters from the subsoil.
Today, the cities have invaded the valleys, so that the desert area has widened, cement being added to sand. River water carries off the urban waste which is deposited on the beaches, infecting marine flora and fauna in the proximity. The old canals are lost in the desert, and those parts that remain are taken as examples of the impenetrable mysticism of the Indians, with no thought about how they might be used. The new hydraulic projects, designed with dams built according to the Western tradition, bring water to the valleys but remove the natural nutrients that come down with the annual turbulences, and in'their course impoverish the fauna and flora of the coast.
In the heights of Arequipa, beyond Pocsi, there are hundreds of hectares of lands prepared by building stone-walled terraces known as "andenes." Though abandoned, they, and the canals that brought them water, are still part of the desert landscape. Below them, in a little valley, lie exquisite gardens of fruits, pastures for thoroughbred European cattle and crops that have enough water to thrive. The terraces had doubled the cultivable area of the little valley. But they were not practical for pasture for Arequipa's dairy industry, and so were left to die.
The "andenes" represented a productive strategy for maximum utilization of the scarce water resources of the central Andes. They made it possible to prepare lands on the slopes for sowing without serious dangers of erosion. When the Spaniards arrived, evidence shows, they were under construction in many parts of Tawantinsuyu.
In the Andes such terracing was a momentous discovery, which our Western mentality has yet to appreciate. As with the "camellones" to counter flooding, or the great canals of the desert, the West did not know what to do with the terraces and classifed them as "primitive." We froze them, turning those that existed into ruins and curiosities and taking no heed of any possibility of turning to them and using them creatively.
The West became our paradigm; no time or resources would be invested in developing or reproducing the methods of the indigenous world, considered the antithesis of development and modernization. The pursuit of such "modernity" came at a high cost, because our tropical and mountainous lands were not necessarily suited for the procedures of the prairies and cold forests. Very early on, colonial societies had to rely on the importation of capital and consumer goods to satisfy the Old World paradigm. "High technology" industry would arrive in our lands as long as we had the means to pay; when we fell behind in our payments the technology grew ever more difficult and costly to acquire, and our status as poor "Westerners" grew worse, distancing us ever more from the model-countries.
A thousand rich Indians paid tribute to Spain with products of their stock-raising in Chucuito in the sixteenth century. They were truly rich, all of them owners of thousands of head of camelids. These were only one thousand among many thousands of indigenous taxpayers who maintained, even in the early colonial period, a stock of native animals which today we cannot even imagine. From the south of Colombia to the beginnings of the Chilean archipelago in Chiloé, livestock was used for transport, meat, wool and hides. Today the native livestock is unknown in all the north—except for certain limited areas—and in the south is important only in traditional Andean communities. In Lima the sale of llama or guanaco meat is punished the same as the selling of the meat of dogs. Few people living have had the opportunity to eat roast alpaca or llama "charki." Instead, the West has brought sheep and beef, devastating existing pastures and demanding preparation of special lands for them. This sacrificed the cultivation of foodstuffs, but bestowed the seal of modernity.
The great projects of Andean antiquity were abandoned because of Western arrogance and the limitations of Western experience, which did not include having to produce food in the desert. The "neolithic" age of the Europeans had provided them with plants suitable for well-watered lands; their "metal" age had given them access to instruments for plowing lands hardened by the winter cold and for cutting down the trees of the cold forests. None of this knowledge was of use here in the desert. Sowing of plants of European origin in many cases was done at the cost of abandoning immense areas of native cultivation, given the demand for water that agriculture for Western taste required.
In the 500 years since the arrival of the Europeans, nothing new has been done in the direction of developing our own unique ecological resources. The ancestral experiments remain frozen. The forests are used only for the exploitation of their wood, frequently causing irreversible devastation. Having in their culture no procedures for dealing with the humid evergreen forests of America, the Europeans and their imitators have applied methods suitable for the cold leaf-shedding forests of Europe, with disastrous results.
We are still blind to the misdirection of our development. The Andean world remains impoverished because we are unable to see except through colonial lenses. As the pre-European technical development of the Andes demonstrates, our impoverishment is not explained by race or geography, as has often been assumed—that is, it is not due to any technical incapacity of our Indian and mestizo people, nor to the special difficulties of our terrain. Rather, it is a question of recovering the knowledge of our ancestors, and of sovereignty—the capacity to make use of that knowledge. It is not we who have failed; our underdevelopment is the product of a historic failure of the West, whose own patrimony prevented it from perceiving the limits of its power.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peruvian archaeologist Luís Guillermo Lumbreras is the president of the National Museum of Peru and Director of the Andean Institute of Archaeological Studies in Lima. He is the author of The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974).
1. John Hyslop, The Inka Road System (New York: Academic Press, 1994). The spelling "Inka" is preferred (over the older "Inca") by modern anthropologists to distinguish a “k” sound in Quechua which is distinct from the Spanish or english hard "c."
2. Lautaro A. Núñez and Tom Dillehay, Movilidad giratoria, harmonía social y desarrollo en losAndes meridionales: patrones de tráfico e interacción económica (Antofagasta, Chile: Universidad del Norte, 1978).
3. Frank Salomon, Los señores étnicos de Quito en la época de los Incas (Cambridge Univ. Press).
4. Marc J. Dourojeanni, Amazonía: ¿Qué hacer? (Iquitos, Peru: Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, 1990).
5. From the Malayan word for copper, used by Europeans to refer to various copper alloys.
6. Today there are indigenous communities here and there throughout the Andes who have resisted assimilation and have continued to produce their handicrafts, which are often highly prized by collectors. But unfortunately these crafts have not continued to develop.
7. Paul Kosok, Life, Land and Water in Ancient Peru (New York: Long Island University Press, 1965).
8. There is also evidence of experiments with them in places such as the so-called "amphitheaters" of Moray near Cusco.
9. John Murra, The Economic Organization of the Inca State (Greenwich, CT, JAI Press: 1980); García Diez de San Miguel. Visita hecha a la provincia de Chucuito por García Diez de San Miguel en el año 1567 (Lima: La Casa de la Cultura del Peru, 1964).