Episode 27: Culture and Empire in South America
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
Benjamin discusses three main South American cultures in this lecture: the pre-Incan coastal and Andean civilizations, the Incan empire and Amazon chiefdoms.
The pre-Incan agrarian civilizations include
- Chinchoro culture (9000 – 3000 BC) – along modern Chile’s west coast day coastal Chile, where agriculture first emerged along modern Chile’s west coast around 5000 BC. Early Chinchoro crops consisted of corn, beans, peanuts, sweet potatoes and cotton. Mummies discovered here predate those of Egypt by 2,000 years. Chinchoro developed irrigation technology around 2000 BC and left huge monuments consistent with hierarchical governance. Highlands residents grew tobacco and potatoes and domesticated guinea pigs and llamas for meat and alpacas for wool.
- Chavin (a prehistoric city-state in the Andean highlands of modern day Peru) – first appearing around 1000 BC as a hub surrounding town-states of up to 10,000 inhabitants. Fish and sweet potatoes were abundant in coastal Chavin villages, beans and squash in the foothills and potatoes, lama meet and alpaca wool in the highlands. This culture is associated with the Nazca lines (dated around 100-800 AD), etched into desert bedrock and visible from the upper atmosphere.
- Mochica – appearing in modern Peru’s coast regions around 700 AD and renowned for superb ceramics and royal tombs. It was destroyed by by drought and earthquakes followed by torrential El Nino rains between 562-594 AD.
- Wari – ruling from the mountain state of Ayachuko around 1000 AD.
- Tiwanaku – on Lake Titicaca (altitude 10,000 feet) appearing around 800 AD. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, residents grew potatoes and raised alpaca and llamas for wood and food.
- Cusco – settled by Incan people around 1050 AD after Tiwanaku collapsed (due to drought?). Around 1250 AD, they were growing crops in mountainside terraces, freeze-drying crops and weaving textiles at an altitude of 13,000 feet.
Forming alliances via marriage, the Incas began military campaigns to expand their territory. Under the rule of Pachecuti (beginning in 1438 AD), the Inca empire stretched from Quito Ecuador to Santiago Chile. With a population of 10 million, it was among the largest agrarian civilizations in the world in the 15th century. Its main crops were potatoes, beans, pepper and corn (reserved for armies and royal households and making beer, owing to difficulty growing it at altitude).
The Incas had no formal writing but used a system of three dimensional knotted strings (called khipu) to convey complicated mathematical and narrative detail. Celibate priests and priestesses who oversaw worship of the sun god and mood goddesses and sacrificed llamas and rarely particularly beautiful children. Their emperor built an elaborate citadel at 8,000 feet called Machu Picchu. Warmer because of its lower altitude, he used it for personal retreats.
Amazon Basis Societies
From 5000 BC Amazonian tribes were growing manioc, sweet potatoes and squash, which they supplemented with fish. From 2000 BC, many settled in agrarian villages, with some evolving into complex societies. From 1000 BC to 1500 AD they were governed by chiefdoms, which unlike true states, weren’t coercive and didn’t collect tribute (or tax). The most noteworthy included Marajo Island in the mouth of the Amazon, which left behind impressive earthen mounds; Santarem, built by the Tapajo people 150 miles upstream, which was ten square miles in area (as large as Tehuacan in Mesoamerica); and Acutuba 150 miles upstream from Santarem. Seventy-five acres in area, Acutuba served as a ceremonial center for a network of towns.
Owing to the extremely poor soil,* early Amazon farmers used biochar combined with feces and fish and bird bones to enrich the soil, leaving behind what appear to be fruit and nut orchards in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Archeologists have also found gold, precious gems, bird feather and medicinal plants among their remains. Following the arrival of Europeans, their populations plummeted and they reverted from agriculture to foraging.
* Torrential rains wash all the nutrients out of Amazonian soil leaving it highly acidic.
The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.