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date: 18 June 2019

Ancient and Traditional Agriculture in South America: Highlands

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The Andean highland region of South America was a center for the domestication of crops and the development of novel agricultural intensification strategies. These advances provided the social and economic foundations for one of the largest pre-Hispanic states in the Americas—the Inca—as well as numerous preceding and contemporaneous cultures. The legacy created by Andean agriculturalists includes terraced and raised fields that remain in use today as well as globally consumed foods including chili pepper (Capsicum spp.), potato (Solanum tuberosum), and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa).

Research on modern forms of traditional agriculture in South America by ethnographers, geographers, and agronomists can be grouped into three general themes: (1) the physical, social, and ritual practices of farming; (2) the environmental impacts of farming; and (3) agrobiodiversity and genetic conservation of crop varieties. Due to conquest by European invaders in the 16th century and the resulting demographic collapse, aspects of native knowledge and traditions were lost. Consequently, much of what is known about pre-Hispanic traditional agricultural practices is derived from archaeological research.

To farm the steep mountainous slopes in the quechua and suni zones, native Andean peoples developed a suite of field types ranging from rainfed sloping fields to irrigated bench terracing that flattened the ground to increase surface area, raised soil temperatures, and reduced soil erosion. In the high plains or puna zone, flat wetlands were transformed into a patchwork of alternating raised fields and irrigation canals. By employing this strategy, Andean peoples created microclimates that resisted frost, managed moisture availability, and improved soil nutrient quality.

These agricultural approaches cannot be divorced from enduring Andean cosmological and social concepts such as the ayni and minka exchange-labor systems based on reciprocity and the ayllu, a lineage and community group that also integrates the land itself and the wakas (nonhuman agentive beings) that reside there with the people. To understand traditional agriculture in the highland Andes and how it supported large populations in antiquity, facilitated the rapid expansion of the Inca Empire, and created field systems that are still farmed sustainably by populations today, it is essential to examine not only the physical practices themselves, but also the social context surrounding their development and use in ancient and modern times.