The Incas and their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru (II)

Here’s my first post about the book. I gave it 3 stars on goodreads. This is my 49th completed book this year.

The last two-thirds or so of the book actually doesn’t have a lot of stuff about the Incas – that part of the book mostly deals with the people who came before them. I knew very little about this part of South American prehistory, so I learned a lot and it was quite interesting.

I should note that in the Epilogue (last three pages) Moseley can’t stop himself from displaying some of that bottled-up hatred he clearly has towards the later colonial rulers and the current “international financial institutions” that ‘indirectly govern’ “a denigrated ethnic underclass”. Just to make clear – if there’d been just two sentences like that in the first 10 pages of the book, I’d have slammed the book shut and given it one star on goodreads. I have zero tolerance for overt politicizing in books like these. But there weren’t any such sentences to be found – the book is about the archaeology of prehistoric Peru and surrounding areas, and he keeps his mouth shut about ‘other stuff’ until the very last few pages, where you can sort of forgive such digressions. In the last couple of pages he incidentally also repeats a problematic claim from the beginning: “The era opened when Tahuantinsuyu was arguably the largest nation on earth”. This sentence really annoyed me. Has he heard about the Ottoman Empire? The Ming Dynasty? The Grand Duchy of Moscow? For those who haven’t, here are a few numbers:

Inca Empire in 1527: 2,000,000 km².
Ottoman Empire in 1520: Roughly 4,000,000 km²
Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1533: Roughly 2,800,000 km².

Wikipedia doesn’t have an area estimate for the Ming Dynasty during the 1500s, but in 1403 it was estimated at 6,500,000 km² and it didn’t lose more than two-thirds of its total area during the intervening 100-150 years (the population doubled during that century). The estimated Ming population around the year 1500 incidentally was 125 million people (Inca empire: 20 million).

Authors of books like this one tend to feel very strongly about the things they write about and sometimes that means they end up exaggerating certain things. The rest of the book is fine and it’s the only place where I’m aware that he does it – but when I see stuff like that, it annoys me a lot. There’s no doubt the Inca state was a major international player, you don’t need to add inaccurate claims to the mix to impress me.

All that said, most of the book is solid (and interesting!) work. In the stuff below I’ve mostly focused on agricultural developments in part because that’s much easier to blog. There’s a lot of stuff about the platform mounds, sunken courts, ceremonial architecture, sanctuaries, etc. in the book, and in order not to completely disregard all that stuff I decided to add some links at the bottom. Here are also a few pictures:


450px-Sechín_Archaeological_site_-_relief_(warrior)(image credit: Wikipedia)


(image credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, below some stuff from the last five chapters:

“The spread of intensive farming and pottery followed the path of least resistance, moving from low to high and moist to dry environments. In the well-watered tropical north of Colombia and Ecuador, agriculture was adopted well before 3000 BC. However, extension down the arid Cordillera lagged, and only after an episode of dusty, and apparently dry, climatic times did farming take hold in northern and central Peru around 1800 BC. Further south there was again a lag until 1600 BC when rainfall increased in the Titicaca region and supported the rise of agropastoralism. From here it still took many hundreds of years for farm plants and pottery to diffuse into the hyper-arid environments of San Pedro de Atacama and the very dry Chilean coast. […] As mountain populations decreased their dependence on wild resources and increased their reliance on cultivation, they were slowly drawn away from the higher elevations to lower settings where warmer temperatures and milder conditions favoured plant tending in the bottomlands of sierra drainages. A gradual downward shift in the locations of camps and residential sites is well-documented during pre-pottery times […] human colonization of the Andes was a gradual matter of sedentary parental communities giving rise to more mobile daughter colonies seeking new terrain […] Andean people experienced a many-fold increase in their numbers during the Preceramic Period. In the sierra, residential sites became more numerous and scattered, on the coast fisherfolk filled in the littoral around sources of potable water, and large civic-ceremonial complexes arose in the mountains and deserts of northern and central Peru.” […]

“In many valleys it seems that irrigation developed along the path of least resistance, and most canal systems were situated well inland. Developments began in canyons and valley necks where river gradients are relatively steep […] Reclamation then advanced downstream where shallow gradients required greater investments in canal construction. In many valleys land immediately behind the coast was either never irrigated or only reclaimed very late. Because canal irrigation pulls farmers inland, the Initial Period is marked by split patterns of residence, with fisherfolk living along the littoral and farmers settling inland. […] less than 5 percent of the desert that is farmed today could be easily reclaimed by individual effort, and this condition certainly worked against the rise of independent farmers during the Initial Period. Preceramic economies supported the evolution of corporate organizations capable of executing large building projects.” […]

“In the Ayacucho region Initial Period settlements have yielded pottery assemblages, called Andamarca and Wichqana, with limited decoration and few suggestions of tropical influence. The Wichqana site has a ceremonial structure […] associated with the buried skulls of decapitated women. In the nearby Andahuaylas Valley, excavations in the Muyu Moqo sector of the Waywaka site produced a 3,440-year-old stone bowl containing metalworking tools and gold beated into thin foil. This is the earliest evidence of precious metalworking in the Andes.” [Severed heads? Gold? What’s not to like?]

“In the beginning, mountain agropastoralism and desert irrigation fostered economic boom times with people spreading into under-exploited niches, prospering and increasing their numbers. Yet growth inevitably slowed, and by the time of Christ refinements of Arid Montane and Maritime-Oasis adaptions had led to the filling-in of easily exploited habitats and further agrarian expansion required substantial investment. […] now governance was in the hands of an elite class, the kuraka, who claimed special descent from founding figures. This fostered great elaboration of ancestor veneration among commoners in general and elites in particular. […] competition and hostilities increased as easily farmed land was filled in by growing populations and during episodes of drought” […]

“Geoglyphs at Nazca and elsewhere certainly served more than one function. Calendrial significance for the lines has long been suspecteed, but not yet demonstrated. The great concentration of figures on the Nazca pampa represents by far the largest cultural artifacts of the region’s ancient inhabitants. Similar to the many mounds at Cahuachi, they are numerous and impressive, but do not represent great expenditures of energy. Although the geoglyphs are technically similar, each seems to have been created separately, used for a time, and then forgotten. New figures cross old ones in amazing confusion, and the works were obviously not part of a larger, centralized conception planned by one mind at one time.” […]

“Triggered by deep drought, the Middle Horizon was an era of punctuated cultural change as old empires withered and new ones arose. […] Technically the horizon dates between AD 600 and 1000 in the Ica Valley. Yet it was set in motion in AD 562 when rainfall began a 25-30 percent plunge that lasted until AD 594. This was the most pronounced Andean rainfall abnormality of the last 1,500 years […] Famine certainly occured because agrarian systems in many settings stretched beyond their modern limits. We can infer that the productivity of highland rainfall farming declined proportionally by 25-30 percent and that the productivity of desert irrigation declined disproportionally by at least twice as much due to dry mountain soils absorbing scant runoff moisture. Consequently coastal populations were more severely disadvantaged than their sierra counterparts. During drought, however, both populations were ill-equipped to deal with normal disasters, such as large-magnitude earthquakes and El Niño crises […] Huarpa people in the Ayacucho area were among the first to terrace and irrigate inclined terrain. […] Building such a reclamation system required substantially more labor than other communities were investing in agricultural works at the time. Nonetheless, such investment gave Huari distinct economic advantages over its neighbors, and in a sense preadapted it to weather the great drought. […] The demise of Huari remains undated and not understood, but the original spread of its appealing ideology, featuring a resurrected Staff God, was farreaching due to accompanying agrarian innovations. By introducing mountain-slope, terrace farming to many highland regions Huari preadapted sierra populations to drought […] intensification of pastoralism was an important response to drought.” […]

Tiwanaku people considered cranial deformation a mark of beauty and bound the heads of babies to shape their skull growth. Individuals in a cemetery shared the same deformation pattern, and patterns varied from one Omo graveyard to another.” [And you thought foot binding was bad! (okay, foot binding is bad, but…] […]

“beginning around AD 1100, four centuries of climate change saw precipitation decline and reach a 10-15 percent below-normal nadir shortly after AD 1300. Drought endured until AD 1500, and we can see a range of human responses to the waxing and waning of protracted stress. Sierra populations dispersed to higher altitudes where rainfall could still support farming, albeit with large investments in terracin mountain slopes. There was also migration into the wet eastern face of the Cordillera, where tarracing was again essential. Desert farmers fared very poorly […] the pre-Inca altiplano was a landscape of combative señoríos that the lords of Cuzco played off against one another and conquered in piecemeal fashion. […] The Incas conquered the lake region as drought waned and gave way to exceptionally wet conditions that permitted farming to be renewed at lower, less hostile elevations. Consequently, Tahuantinsuyu often moved people out of fortified hilltops and resettled them in low-lying localities that gave better yields, afforded easier political control and were closer to the imperial highway system. […] Pushing north as dry times waned, Cuzco’s forces often encountered little organized opposition. […] In overview, from northern Chile through northern Peru drought prompted mountain people to move higher, as well as eastward where rainfall could still sustain farming and herding. Opening these vast reaches of the Cordillera to intensive production required extensive investments in terracing and agricultural infrastructure, but they sustained significant population growth in spite of dry times. This changed the demographic balance of power in favor of the sierra, as coastal populations wilted in the wake of protracted drought.” […]

“It is doubtful that combat and blood sacrifice permeated everyday life. More likely, iconographic themes expressed ideological rituals that were scheduled and enacted over the course of an annual ceremonial calender, much like the Inca’s sacramental almanac.” [Note that people in power didn’t suddenly start all that human sacrifice stuff when the Inca’s came into power. This stuff was tradition at that point and had been for a while.]

Links: MocheEl Paraíso, Huaca del Sol. Chan ChanChavín de Huántar. Lima Culture. Nazca Lines. Pachacamac. Wari culture, Pikillaqta.

September 14, 2013 - Posted by | Anthropology, Archaeology, Books

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