Basic Andean Structure and Land Use




1.  Land is managed in general in a similar way as in all kinship-organized society – as an integral part of communal being rather than a commodity to be bought, sold and divided by private landowners.  Thus the land that produces the staple crops for the society as a whole is communally owned.  However, families may hold small garden plots individually for their own use


2.  As noted in the previous lecture, the chief ayllu lands are farmed communally with agricultural workers contributing ayni (labor tasks) as part of their reciprocal obligations to the wider social group.  In this work families may work as a unit, again underwriting the collaborative expectations of a kinship-based society. 


3.  Lineage elders supervise the agricultural work, ensure that the correct times are chosen for each task in the cycle, and provide the food and drink for related festivals while village shamans officiate at the rituals that invoke spiritual support for the work and ensure that the earth receive the sacrificial gifts that maintain balance and success between humans and the all-providing earth.




                              Vertical and Lateral Zonal Complementarity and Land Use


The Andean topography/geography encompasses two general physical axes - vertical and lateral. These correspond to two complementary but distinctive strategies used by Andean people to best utilize the land.  In general the vertical strategy is highland based while the lateral is coastal.  They are by no means exclusive of each other, especially in the south where first Titicaca Basin, later Inca, societies dominated all ecological areas of the Andes.    



The Vertical Archipelago


1.  Because of the need to adjust to the extreme mountain slopes and climatic zones, highland Andean peoples developed a social and economic strategy that utilizes the full complementary potential of the distinctive environment to most successfully exploit their habitat.


2.  The Andes form an environmental complex where, especially in the southern region around the Titicaca Basin where the altitudes were greatest, a variety of ecological zones extend up and down the western mountain slopes, each offering its own peculiar subsistence potential to the people who inhabit it.   These ecological niches, often separated by uninhabitable mountain slopes, create an “archipelago” extending from sea level to the highest tundra area of the altiplano (high plains).


3. The chief components of the vertical archipelago in ascending order are:


- Fertile coast valleys with their warm climates that support a variety of tropical fruits and vegetables on irrigation agriculture.  The lowest slopes above the coastal river plains are the primary production areas for coca, a plant that has long held religious as well as medicinal qualities central to Andean life.


- Valleys located it the intermediate mountain slopes or high sheltered river basins, both of which support the Andean staple maize as well as a variety of beans, peppers, and hardier fruits.


- Highest mountain slopes where the frequent frosts prohibit all crop production but the most hardy such as tubers.  These slopes are the habitat of the numerous varieties of Andean potatoes.


-  In the south the wide high plains of the circum-Lake Titicaca Basin and the lands to the south in southern Peru and Bolivia, are located largely above the tree line.  These high arid grasslands – the Andean altiplano - form the natural habitat for the South American camelids, the llama and alpaca.  These animals that produce meat and wool represent an important resource for the people of the region and herding comprises an important component of economic activity.


4.  While the products of each zone taken by itself were was insufficient to provide an adequate subsistence (with the obvious exception of the lower zones), together they formed a complementary aggregation of resources that served all economic needs – the vertical archipelago.


5.  Andean peoples managed this archipelago by incorporating all of its components into a unified economic, religious (see next lecture) and social entity.  Thus the central village of the ayllu, often located in the sheltered areas of the middle valleys sent “colonies” into the higher and lower areas where they lived with their families in subsidiary villages and farmed the environmental zones or, in the case of the altiplano, lived a semi-nomadic life of camelid herders.  All of the different zonal residents retained their full social membership in the community and distributed the fruits of their specific zones throughout the archipelago.  Thus again, the human settlement and social unit mirrored the natural configuration, a pattern that as we will see was also manifested in religious/ spiritual belief.



The Lateral (Coastal) Archipelago.


1.  Coastal topography differed from that of the highland in comprising a number of coastal river valleys intersecting the desert plain, each representing a “linear oasis” that produced essentially the same broad variety of crops and marine resources.  Here the lateral archipelago increased the potential of each unit by multiplying these available agricultural and marine resources rather than enabling the complementary accumulation of different resources as in the highlands.


2.  As is the case with highlands the traditional coastal dwellers lived in a social setting in which kinship ordered communities controlled specific areas of the overall irrigation system, managing their own canals and attached to specific valley locations.  When political formations emerged along the coast they coalesced by integrating the basic kinship units into larger accumulations under the most senior lineages, first within each individual valley, then in wider multi-valley polities.  However basic kinship organizational strategy, widened in scope, remained the unifying factor


3.  Within this pattern of similar coastal units there was an overall asymmetry with the northern valleys being larger, supporting more irrigation agriculture, and located closer to each other than in the south.  This northern configuration created the potential for the creation of multi-valley economic and political units that collectively could support large intensive populations.