Daily Archives: 9 March 2022

The Inca Vertical Archipelago

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 48-49, 50-51:

In less than a hundred years the Incas had built the most formidable empire in the Western Hemisphere. Like that of the Aztecs, their dominion was characterized essentially by the levying of tribute from scores of subject kingdoms and tribes. But the Incas went much further than the Aztecs in developing a centralized bureaucratic state at the service of a supreme ruling class. In this the physical peculiarities of the Andean region were directly influential.

The geography of the area covered by the Inca empire is marked by great contrasts of climate and terrain. Ascending from the rainless deserts of the coast to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, one passes through sharply varying ecological environments. On the coast, agriculture is possible only in the vicinity of rivers or on land under irrigation; fishing has therefore always been important. In the highlands, altitude determines the kind of crops that can be produced; for instance, maize will grow well up to 11,000 feet, while at higher levels tubers and grains can be cultivated. In the cold, windswept puna – steppe-like grasslands just below the snow-line – no agriculture is possible, though pasture is available for the llamas, vicuñas and other ruminants that provide meat and wool. Each level forms an ‘ecological tier’ yielding a particular range of produce, and yet there is not enough fertile land on any one tier to sustain a large population. Over the centuries Andean societies developed a way of overcoming this problem by sending out settlers to cultivate crops at different altitudes in order to complement the produce of their native territories. Andean societies were not therefore territorially integrated units, but took rather the form of ‘vertical archipelagos’ comprising the ancestral homeland – which provided the core of tribal identity – and outlying agrarian settlements on a number of ecological tiers specializing in various types of produce for distribution and exchange among the dispersed branches of the tribe. Geography thus produced a unique economic structure, which, in turn, determined social values and practices. Where fertile land, being scarce, needed to be so carefully husbanded, it is little wonder that its distribution had to be closely regulated by the community and that a spirit of co-operation should be so highly prized among members of the tribe. As a result, the two ruling principles of Andean tribal society were redistribution and reciprocity.

As a direct descendant of the Sun God, the supreme Inca was an absolute ruler possessed of an awesome majesty. Just as the sun sustained all living things in the natural world, so the Inca was responsible for the well-being of the social order. In return for his dispensation of justice, his subjects would offer up to him their tribute and labour services. The Inca state, in effect, drew upon elementary tribal relations of reciprocity and mutual aid, and converted them into a sophisticated system of ideological control based upon a relationship between the royal patron and his clients which was not essentially different from that which existed between a contemporary European monarch and his subjects. What many modern writers have seen as unique ‘socialist’ or ‘welfare state’ features of the Inca empire were in reality manifestations of royal patronage. Thus, for instance, the Inca would allow his peasants to graze their animals on common lands as a reward for their labour services on his personal estates. The bulk of the tribute-goods collected from the peasants would go towards provisioning the army, the bureaucracy and other branches of the imperial state, but a portion was kept back in storehouses and released in times of famine by the generosity of the Inca in order to relieve the hunger of the masses. Similarly, the Inca would redistribute some of the tribute to provide for the old and the sick. In the view of Nathan Wachtel, ‘the peasants felt therefore that they shared in the consumption of the produce they delivered as tribute’, though it may be as well to recall that this form of reciprocity rested on the ideological exploitation of peasant labour. Certainly, there was a sharp divide between the hard grind of a peasant’s life in the villages and the leisured circumstances of the Inca nobility and of the curacas (tribal lords) who had been co-opted into the imperial ruling class. These aristocrats – called orejones or ‘big ears’ by the Spaniards because of their custom of distending their ear-lobes with gold discs – possessed private estates and material wealth which they would display as a sign of their power. In addition to the finery of their costume and the delicacy of their diet, they were allowed to practise polygamy and concubinage, and to chew the narcotic coca leaf. These special liberties were strictly forbidden to commoners, for, like all aristocratic societies, the Incas were obsessed with status, and perhaps more than most, the Incas succeeded in using religion to justify social privilege.

Inca religion was very much a family affair, since the supreme Inca and his kin possessed the sacred aura of divine descent. This was another example of the Incas’ conversion of tribal customs into the tools of imperialism.

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