Beau is a PhD student in Archaeology in the department of Anthropology at UNM.
This research was made possible in part by funding from the Latin American & Iberian Institute and Tinker Foundation Field Research Grant (FRG). For more information about the FRG, please visit the LAII website.
With the support of a LAII Field Research Grant, in the summer of 2014 I traveled to Peru to conduct a preliminary archaeological assessment of an understudied region of the Andes. I have spent several years studying the Inca Empire, with a particular interest in the economic mechanisms that fueled its growth. In 2014 I carried out exploratory work designed to examine a vastly under-researched aspect of this topic; how the Empire acquired prestige goods from the intractable environmental and political landscape of the ‘Ceja de selva’, the term for the rugged cloud forests covering the eastern slopes of the Andes.
The ‘Inca’ started out as a small ethnic group in the Cusco Valley of Peru, until in the 15th century AD they began conquering neighboring valleys and incorporating their populations into a rapidly expanding political unit (Bauer 1992). From AD 1436 until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1532, their remarkably successful conquests established an empire of some 80 multiethnic provinces spanning five modern countries (Morris and Von Hagen 2011). How one ethnic group maintained control over so vast a territory – without the benefit of beasts of burden or the wheel – has been the subject of a great deal of archaeological research.
Of particular relevance here are the economic underpinnings of Inca imperialism. Non-Inca subject populations in this vast empire were usually required to provide tribute to the state in the form of labor, military service, utilitarian pottery, or maize (Hayashida 1998). Research has also established that the Inca would take over entire areas simply to gain access to ‘prestige goods’, items that had no direct subsistence utility but imbued the owner with increased social standing (Earle 1994). For example, coastal communities were conquered specifically to access supplies of spondylus shell (a symbolically important sea shell), while precious metals used in craft production were funneled to Cuzco from territories in northern Chile (Earle 1994; Salazar et al. 2013; Zori et al. 2013). Rulers who controlled the flow of these goods could redistribute them among the leaders of subordinate provinces to reinforce their loyalty, making access to these prestige items critical to political control (D’Altroy and Earle 1985).
We also know that products such as coca leaves, jaguar pelts, exotic bird feathers, and cacao were highly regarded as such prestige items in Inca society and could only be acquired in the Ceja de selva and greater Amazonia (Church 1996; Gade 1979). Due to a lack of archaeological research, however, we know virtually nothing about the cultures that produced these goods or how the Inca acquired them (Bonavia 2000: 124). Some research indicates that in earlier periods the cloud forests were a hub of interregional trade between Amazonia and the Peruvian coast (Clasby and Bartra 2013), however it is also possible that the militant Inca Empire attempted to conquer the peoples of the cloud forests and Amazonia to access their resources directly. Researching this topic has the potential to inform our knowledge of the Inca Empire as well as our understanding of prehistoric Amazonia, which is increasingly recognized to have housed politically complex societies (Heckenberger et al. 2008; Heckenberger and Neves 2009; Neves 2008). In 2014 I took the initial steps towards investigating this topic from an archaeological perspective.
My initial field season researching Inca imperial activity in the Ceja de selva was highly exploratory. By this I mean that no data was being collected that would constitute the basis of a formal study, but instead an area in the Ceja was assessed for its potential value in conducting such a study in the future. In consultation with senior American and Peruvian colleagues, a small area in the Department of Apurimac, Peru was selected to visit with this intention. The eastern part of the province – in the vicinity of the Apurimac River – grades into the forests of the Ceja de selva and is known to evidence Inca activity in the nearby area. In addition to working with museum collections, the primary objective of this project was to assess a small but promising portion of the Ceja de selva for archaeological research potential via in-person examination. This would involve trekking from a small Andean community through some rugged portions of the Andes to visit the known Inca imperial retreat of Choquequirao, and inquiring among local communities about the existence of archaeological sites that have eluded documentation in the in-between area. Note that such an activity can only be done in collaboration with Peruvian researchers, and the consent of both local communities and the Peruvian government.
The desired outcome of such an endeavor is to be informed of an archaeological site or array of sites that are relevant to the topic of interest and that appear substantive enough to support a doctoral research project. The discovery of a large Inca fortress in the Ceja de selva, for example, may suggest that the Inca did in fact engage in military conquest of the region in order to acquire coveted prestige goods. Should we instead encounter only local (non-Inca) sites that date to the same time period, it may indicate that the Inca were unable or unwilling to incorporate jungle societies into the Empire and instead employed trade for the acquisition of prestige goods. If a trend such as these were to appear evident from initial assessment I could then begin the process of initiating formal doctoral work in the area for the following field season.
Scheduling permitted the accomplishment of several important goals prior to assessing the designated rural area for research potential. This included visiting recorded Inca sites in the area in order to familiarize myself with the vernacular architecture, which would be helpful in identifying Inca sites in the field. For similar reasons time was also spent at the Municipal Museum of Andahuaylas studying the ceramic chronology of the region. Previous fieldwork has established that cultural groups in Apurimac produced diagnostically distinct pottery correlating to definable time periods (Bauer et al. 2010; Kellett 2010; Grossman 1983). Ceramic is perhaps the most frequently encountered type of artifact in the field, and is frequently used to identify when an archaeological site was inhabited and by whom.
Fieldwork in the Ceja de selva itself produced both significant results and difficulties. In the past the perception of the Ceja as a particularly rugged and challenging landscape to conduct archaeological research in has deterred significant work from taking place, and our project team would certainly be willing to substantiate this notion. The landscape near the Apurimac River is indeed extremely vertical and well vegetated, complicating the process of locating areas of interest. Despite these challenges, a number of archaeological sites were encountered en route to Choquequirao.
In total six archaeological sites that had not been recorded in published archaeological literature were visited during the course of the assessment, in addition to a number of spot finds of isolated prehistoric artifacts. Most sites consisted of small retention walls used to manage water or soil, though more complex archaeological features clearly existed in the area. Community members described several sites containing residential and possible administrative components, however many of these proved impossible to relocate on the landscape without the assistance of a guide familiar with the area.
The archaeological potential of the area was however evidenced by the characteristics of one site we did manage to locate. We were directed to a site locally known as Chanchayllo by several individuals, though it still required several hours of searching and eventually hired assistance to find it amongst a thickly vegetated hillside. Once found, Chanchayllo was clearly recognizable as an Inca archaeological site, with an archway, staircase, and associated structures built from cut stone. This provided strong evidence of Inca investment in the area, however the true extent and nature of the site could only be guessed at due to its position within a nearly impenetrable pocket of vegetation that had overtaken the area.
We were informed of several additional sites that may have helped reveal the nature of Inca investment in the Ceja, however despite a return trip to the area we were not able to find these locations within the limited timeframe of this small exploratory project. Eventually we had to settle for noting the existence of these additional sites, as well as descriptions of their characteristics based on the accounts of local farmers who had seen them in person. This was not unproductive, as it allowed us an increased opportunity to speak with several senior community members whose consent and collaboration would be essential to the initiation of any doctoral work in the area. By the conclusion of the field portion of the project, we had documented several sites of interest for informing the nature of Inca involvement in the Ceja de selva and established the contacts necessary to facilitate more thorough research projects in coming field seasons.
Though for logistical reasons we were unable to visit a number of sites that may have enhanced our immediate understanding of Inca activity in the Ceja de Selva, this did not preclude a valuable assessment of the area for doctoral research. After becoming familiar with the area, it appears possible that archaeological sites such as Chanchayllo are common in this part of the Ceja but remain undocumented due to their relatively inaccessible locations. A thorough survey could bring to light clear trends regarding the political involvement of the Inca in the region, and thanks to this exploratory work we now know what type of financial and temporal resources would be needed to conduct such a project.
The site of Chanchayllo itself is impressive, and its extent is currently unknown. The costs and potential benefits of revisiting this site or initiating a survey in the area, in which the entirety of the landscape is systematically searched for all archaeological sites, are currently undergoing careful consideration in regards to planning further investigations of the Ceja de Selva. I would like to thank the continued support of the Latin American and Iberian Institute and The Tinker Foundation for making this scholarship possible, as well as The Proyecto Bioarqueologico Andahuaylas and the Municipal Museum of Andahuaylas for providing in-country support for our activities. Lastly the participation of Peruvian colleagues Guni Baslut and Alcides Escobar, whose fluency in Quechua was indispensable, was instrumental in making this a productive collaboration in the field.
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