Andean States Research Paper

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The early civilizations of the Andes were shaped by the geography of the region—rugged mountains, desert coastal plains, and narrow river valleys—into independent, self-sufficient communities. Gathering these villages under state rule required coercion and the redistribution of goods. Because no written records exist, the history of the pre-Incan Andes has been interpreted entirely from the archeological record.

A state can be defined as a regionally organized polity that contains a hierarchical and centralized political structure that maintains social stratification and coordinates human efforts. Unlike civilizations in many other regions of the world, the civilization in the Andes had no system of writing prior to the Spanish conquest in the 1530s. Therefore, there are only eyewitness accounts of the last Andean state, the Inca Empire. The Incas, however, were the culmination of a process of state development that began more than 4,000 years earlier. Our understanding of earlier states of the Andes must be gleaned almost exclusively from the archaeological record. This reliance on the artifacts and sites left behind unfortunately creates interpretation problems for scholars. The “footprint” of a state can look very similar to the “footprint” of a chiefdom; the nuances of a state’s ideology and economic system can be difficult to understand from collections of pots and rocks. Nonetheless, a tentative picture of the evolution of Andean states can be drawn based on decades of meticulous archaeological work.

State Foundations

By about 6000 BCE, hunting and gathering groups both in the high Andes and along the Pacific coast of South America transitioned slowly into a mixed subsistence strategy of gathering, fishing, and farming. This transition led to the establishment of small, semipermanent villages that dotted the seaboard by 3000 BCE and to the development of more politically complex societies on the coasts of present-day Ecuador and central Peru. In Ecuador, the Valdivia culture (3500–1500 BCE) shifted slowly toward more intensive fishing and agricultural practices, and some status inequalities may have emerged. The largest Valdivia sites, such as Real Alto, grew to more than 30 hectares, and at their height they boasted a ring of houses surrounding a plaza and two small mounds. Valdivia’s monumental architecture, however, pales in comparison to that of the Supe valley of central Peru. In the middle of the third millennium BCE, as many as eighteen cities grew in the valley on the strength of an economy based on cotton cultivation and interregional trade. The best documented of these sites, Caral, is a 68-hectare complex containing six stepped pyramids, the largest of which is 19.5 meters tall and 135–150 meters at its base. The site, radiocarbon dated to 2627–1977 BCE, boasted elite residences, workshops, and commoner dwellings.

While the Valdivia culture declined in the second millennium BCE, the monumental architecture tradition continued on the northern and central coast of Peru. From 1800 BCE to 800 BCE, villagers built scores of sunken courts, platform mounds, and temples. These sites were suddenly abandoned around 800 BCE, perhaps due to catastrophic flooding from an El Nino weather phenomenon. The highland site of Chavin de Huantar, located in the northern highlands of Peru, rose in importance after this event. At the peak of its power from 400 BCE to 200 BCE, the site was an important pilgrimage center—as evidenced by artifacts found there from a wide region, along with ritual objects and shamanic iconography—whose influence could be seen on artistic styles throughout much of Peru. At this time, the site covered almost 30 hectares and was dominated by a 2.25-hectare monumental stone temple riddled with galleries, airshafts, and water channels. The sites from these periods were often massive, but were likely not the products of a state-level civilization. At this time, the degree of status differences and labor specialization appear insufficient for a state. Nonetheless, the harbingers of the state can be seen in the ability of these polities to organize large amounts of labor for construction projects, the separation of people into different status groups, and an increasing tendency toward labor specialization. The trends toward statehood culminated in the development of the Moche culture on Peru’s north coast.


By the end of the first century CE, the site of Cerro Blanco gained control over the other cities along the Moche and Chicama rivers. By about 400 CE, Mochestyle ceramics and architecture could be found from the Lambayeque valley in northern coastal Peru to the Nepena valley, some 250 kilometers south. Known for its public architecture and high degree of craft specialization, Cerro Blanco, a large site in the center of the state, became the capital of the Moche state. The site covered over 1 square kilometer and was dominated by the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna (the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon), two massive platform mounds constructed out of mud bricks. The Huaca del Sol was one of the largest mounds ever built in the Americas, and recent excavations at the Huaca de la Luna have revealed beautiful polychrome murals and human sacrificial victims. Elite complexes of grand courts, low platforms, workshops, and living residences clustered around the two huacas.

The opulence and pageantry of elite life is also reflected in depictions on pottery and in the wealth of clothing, jewelry, and other items found in the burials of three priests at the Moche provincial site of Sipan in the Lambayeque valley. Lambayeque and the other valleys outside of the Moche-Chicama heartland were likely integrated into the state in different ways. Some groups were conquered and directly administered by centers that likely housed Moche officials, while other groups were nominally independent from the state but closely aligned with it through economic and political ties.

The Moche was not the only culture that flourished during this period. The Lima, Nazca, and Pukara cultures were important regional powers elsewhere in the Andes. However, none of these groups rivaled Moche in size or degree of political centralization. Beginning around 600, Moche unity unraveled. Cerro Blanco was abandoned, and massive constructions at two cities, Pampa Grande in Lambayeque and Galindo in the Moche valley, suggests that the state broke up into at least two parts. While the reasons for Moche’s decline remain unclear, shifts in the El Nino current at this time caused successive waves of long droughts and torrential rains. These environmental pressures, coupled perhaps with internal strife and conflict with the expanding Wari state, likely led to the breakup of the last remnants of the Moche state around 800.

Tiwanaku and Wari

Near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca (on the border of present-day Peru and Bolivia), the site of Tiwanaku became an important regional center by 350 CE. The city, oriented around a complex of mounds, sunken courtyards, megalithic stonework, and statues, appears to have been an important pilgrimage center. By about 550, Tiwanaku became the capital of a state that controlled much of the area around the Titicaca basin. Tiwanaku architecture and artifacts are found throughout the region, and there is some evidence that the state increased agricultural yields by resettling farmers and streamlining the network of irrigation canals and raised fields that were situated around the lake. Tiwanaku had a significant impact on the iconography of ceramics and textiles throughout northern Chile, northwestern Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. This influence likely reflects the persuasiveness of their religion and the length of their trade networks rather than the incorporation of this area into a far-flung empire. Nonetheless, there are a few sites in the Moquegua (Peru) and, perhaps, Cochabamba (Bolivia) valleys that were established by Tiwanaku settlers in order to exploit lands at lower elevations.

By about 500, the site of Wari became the capital city of a state that we know by that name in the Ayacucho region of central Peru. While much of Wari’s iconography was derived from Tiwanaku examples, the rise of the state appears to have been the culmination of local developments. Between 700 and 1000, the spread of Wari artifacts and architecture throughout Peru points to the increasing power of the polity. Wari appears to have taken control over some areas by creating regional administrative centers and shuffling political hierarchies, site locations, and economic systems to fit their needs. At least twenty administrative centers, the largest of which, Pikillacta, measured 800 meters on a side, may have been connected to the capital through a network of roads. Other areas of Peru, however, bear few or no traces of Wari domination, and it is likely that these areas enjoyed more independence from the state. The Wari state ended around 1000, and Tiwanaku followed soon after. Some scholars suggest that their demise can be linked to a multiple-year drought, though no definitive reasons for the states’ collapse have been agreed upon.

The Chimu State and the Kingdoms of Peru

In the wake of the Tiwanaku and Wari collapse, regional polities filled the power vacuum left in the central Andes. The most complex of these societies was the Chimu state on Peru’s north coast. By about 900, the state controlled about 1000 kilometers of coast from the city of Tumbes in the north to the Chillon valley in the south. The capital, Chan Chan, was a sprawling metropolis of more than 6 square kilometers. Ten palaces, each built by a successive Chimu king, dominated the heart of the city. A palace would serve as the administrative hub of the state during the ruler’s lifetime, and then turn into a mausoleum to the ruler after his death. The Chimu also erected several regional centers in other areas, but their most impressive achievement may have been the construction of an intervalley irrigation system of massive earthen canals that brought water to fields from as far as 70 kilometers away.

Although other polities during this period are often called kingdoms, they do not appear to have achieved sufficient size and complexity to be classified as states by most archaeologists. The Chincha culture of southern Peru, for example, was the preeminent trader along the Pacific coast, but the Chincha chose to control the sea instead of controlling the lands around them. The Aymara kingdoms of Lake Titicaca were perhaps the most populous and powerful in the Andes, yet remained politically fragmented. Other cultures, such as the Ica, Wanka, Chiribaya, Inca, and Chanka, were important regional powers that also failed to develop into states. By at least the beginning of the fifteenth century, however, one of these groups, the Inca, consolidated the area around Cuzco into a state that eventually dominated Chimu and the kingdoms of Peru.

The Inca

The Inca Empire, the largest pre-Hispanic state ever known in the Americas, stretched from the northern border of Ecuador to the present-day Chilean capital of Santiago. According to native accounts and archaeological evidence, the Inca expansion began in the first half of the fifteenth century. Using a mixture of diplomacy and force, the Inca managed to conquer much of the Andean cordillera in less than one hundred years. Cuzco, the capital, contained an assortment of palaces, temples, and residences arranged around two plazas in the city’s center. Royal estates, like the site of Machu Picchu, dotted the landscape around the capital.

The Inca Empire arranged conquered populations into four administrative quarters called Collasuyo, Antisuyu, Cuntisuyu, and Chinchasuyu. Although many local practices were often allowed to continue in conquered regions, the empire frequently made significant changes to a group’s political organization, settlement locations, and economic specializations. The heart of imperial administration was a system of regional centers that were interconnected by a road system. Among the many purposes served by these facilities, the most important was the collection and redistribution of goods obtained by the state through the labor tax levied upon its subjects. The Inca labor tax was couched within an idiom of reciprocity by which the Incas would return services rendered to the state by hosting workers at feasts where prodigious amounts of food and corn beer were consumed.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Inca rulers strained to keep down rebellions throughout the overextended empire. Wave of epidemics and a war of succession further weakened the Inca state in the 1520s. Francisco Pizzaro (1475–1541) and a small band of Spanish adventurers delivered the deathblow to the empire by capturing Cuzco in 1533.

The Evolution of the Andean State

Along with Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, India, and Mesoamerica, the Andes is one of the locations to witness the emergence of the first states. While Andean examples share certain similarities with these other early states, we cannot understand the evolution of Andean social complexity without an appreciation for the region’s landscapes and cultures. The Inca Empire, for example, was adapted to the rugged mountains, desert coastal plain, and narrow river valleys of the Andes. The people of the Andes adapted to this environment by creating kin-based communities that united agricultural and herding settlements draped across highly compacted environmental zones. With their few outside needs provided by llama caravans that carried products from place to place, the challenge faced by Andean states was to find a means by which to coax these independent, self-sufficient groups to come under their control. The earliest societies in the Andes failed in their attempts to build states through the manipulation of religious ideologies alone. Successful states in the Andes, including the Inca, also had to rely on coercion and, more importantly, the redistribution of food, drink, and prestige objects. Clearly, to understand the evolution of the Andean state, one needs to understand the Andes.


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