Friday, September 24, 2010

Bolivia Diaries: Pre-Trip Blogging - Topography & Pre-Columbian History Part 1

I've been reading from Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society by Herbert Klein, Chapter 1: Geography and Pre-Columbian Civilization. I'd like to share some of the chapter with you, particularly a map that I find incredibly instructive.

Even today, Bolivia has a majority of indigenous people. Many, but not all, are descended from the people we call the Incas. In the past, I've always associated the Incas with Peru, but as it turns out, the country lines weren't drawn yet back then, and they inhabited both Bolivia and Peru, with their capitol in Cuzco, Peru. In recent centuries, until the 20th century (at least), the whites descended from the Spanish held the power in Bolivia, even after Bolivia gained independence from Spain. I think it's important to learn about the indigenous cultures that Bolivia's modern indigenous people descended from.

So here's the awesome map:

And a close-up (click to make larger):

The high plateau (in Spanish, altiplano) begins to the north of Lake Titicaca in Peru, but two-thirds of the altiplano is in modern-day Bolivia. And you'll notice, of course, that the Altiplano is bordered by two branches of the Andes. The Western branch (to the left on the map), the Cordillera Occidental, is "an extremely narrow and well-defined range" containing "few river valleys or habitable plateaus." It prevents access to the see and "contains relatively few minerals worth exploiting." To the East (or right on the map) is the Cordillera Real, Central, or Oriental, which "contains numerous fertile plains and river valleys at altitudes from 14,000 feet down to a few hundred feet above sea level."

As a result, most of the civilization developed in the Altiplano. Klein says "The western half of the altiplano contained few minerals, largely unfertile soils, and extraordinarily dry climate; the eastern half, however, had reasonably fertile soils, enormous mineral deposits, and a relatively more humid and warm climate resulting from the presence of Lake Titicaca." Here, humans first domesticated potatoes, quinoa, and many root crops, as well as llamas and alpacas. (Llamas are twice the size of alpacas and used as pack animals; alpacas are used for fiber. Vicuñas are wild ancestors of alpacas, also valued for fiber, and at one point they were critically endangered.)

As noted above, the eastern side of the Altiplano is also rich in minerals. There is gold in the areas closer to Peru, and tin, silver, and "a host of rare metals, many of them unique to Bolivia" in the modern day departments of Oruro and Potosi. There's more than that though. Klein sums it up by saying, "Thus, the only minerals or hydrocarbons Bolivia lacked were coal, bauxite, chrome, platinum, and precious stones." (In modern times, minerals have been a huge source of wealth for Bolivia, and miners have been a politically active and important group.)

At this point, Klein introduces the term "vertical ecological integration," which describes how Andean people used each of the available altitudes and their associated climates and ecosystems to produce what they needed - and then trade.

Here's a rough timeline of development in this region:

  • 21,000 years ago: First humans arrived
  • 8000 BC: End of last ice age
  • 2500 BC: Settled village agriculture, increased population density, more complex social organization
  • 1800 BC: First pottery
  • 800 BC-100 BC: "Chavin" culture (north of Titicaca)
  • 100 BC: Discovery of bronze
  • 100 AD: Tiahuanaco culture begins just south of Lake Titicaca
  • 600: Tiahuanaco culture spreads beyond local site
  • 1000: Rapid expansion of Tiahuanaco
  • 1200: Collapse of Tiahuanaco
  • Late 1100s-1500s: Aymara dominates central highlands of Bolivia
  • Late 1400s: Expansion of Incan (Quechuan) empire
  • 1500s: Arrival of Spanish

In a future diary, I will elaborate a bit more on the Tiahuanaco, Aymara, and Quechuas.

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