Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons
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Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.
Compared to other places where large civilizations have developed, the Andean environment presents many difficulties. For starters, it is mountainous, not only making communication difficult, but also hindering agriculture. Further, it's hemmed in between the coast, the sheer density of the Amazon rain forest, and the seething heat of the Atacama Desert, which also happens to be the driest desert in the world. Additionally, there are no major rivers, a hallmark of practically every other early civilization.
Further, there is no easy trade route linking it with other civilized groups, namely the Mesoamericans. In fact, even today, there is no easy overland route between North and South America, as the land is that rugged. However, the environment did provide a number of considerable advantages. The most important of these, beyond any conceivable doubt, is the potato.
Today, our association with a potato may be limited to French fries or mashed potatoes at dinner, but for the early people of the Andes Mountains, it was absolutely crucial. Most obviously, the potato could be hidden underground if any raiders came through, meaning that it was a safe food source during times of trouble. Also, there is a surprising amount of diversity within the potato.
In the West, we typically encounter only a handful of potatoes, from the starchy Russet, the in-between Yukon Gold, waxy red potatoes, and the newest addition, purple potatoes. Count them, four varieties of potato. That was a small plot for the people of the Andes, who grew dozens of varieties, in all forms of taste, texture, and nutrient levels. Not only could a diet of potatoes be complete, it could also be satisfying.
Another real advantage of the Andean people was the llama and its related cousin, the alpaca. Just like people in mountainous regions of Asia have long used sure-footed goats and sheep as a supply of food and wool, so too were the Andean people able to use these animals. In fact, other than dogs and turkeys, these were the only animals consistently domesticated throughout the New World. Additionally, as a bonus over the goats and sheep of the Old World, llamas and alpacas could also be used as beasts of burden, easing the restrictions of the mountains somewhat.
However, with all of these limitations on movement, it was difficult for a single culture to establish political power. Instead, if the Andes were to be united in any meaningful way, culture would have to play an important role. This is because, frankly, if people didn't want a conqueror present, it was relatively easy to hide in the mountains, and it was even easier to hide crops. Since potatoes grow underground, they just had to destroy the leaves and stems above ground. Therefore, the first culture to really establish power over the Andean region was actually a religious movement originating in Chavin. Chavin's religious practices are still shrouded in a great deal of mystery. However, we do know that much like early cultures in the Old World, rituals involved dark places and consuming beverages with hallucinogenic effects. One of these was able to help people see in the dark, allowing them to see images in caves and dark corridors that would be impossible to be seen without imbibing the beverages. The power of beliefs like this spread throughout the Andes, including the coastlines.
Ultimately, the loose assembly of cities assembled by Chavin under the pretext of religion fell apart. Instead, other federations of loosely aligned states began to emerge. Notable among these were the Moche and Nazca cultures. Both societies featured numerous sites that cooperated on external affairs, but largely agreed to stay out of each other's business when it came to trade and internal government. That said, truly remarkable works were completed by both groups.
The Moche were able to construct impressive agricultural works, including irrigation ditches that placed much more land under the plow. However, frequent windstorms soon filled these ditches up, leading to the abandonment of the new works and ultimately a collapse of the Moche. Much of this could have been the effect of climate change, particularly El Niño-style weather events that changed the amount of rainfall over a 30-year period, due to wind changes over the Pacific Ocean. This would have, in turn, led to considerable unrest among the population.
The works of the Nazca are much more permanent, but only because of the enigmas that surrounded them. Known the world over, the Nazca people constructed a number of geoglyphs, or lines on the ground, known as the Nazca Lines. We are still relatively unsure how these were built, as some people have even proposed that the Nazca had the technology to build early hot air balloons to assist. That said, we've yet to find evidence of that. Still, despite putting their aqueducts underground, the Nazca suffered from the same unrest caused by climate change as the Moche.
In this lesson, we learned about the earliest cultures of the Andean region. The Andes presented many difficulties with regards to settlement due to the hilly nature of the land, but also offered advantages in reference to potatoes and llamas. The Chavin culture was the first to unite large swathes of territory, using religion as a tool to do so. However, the Moche and Nazca cultures were more successful in the long term, using a loose confederation to link different cities. Ultimately, despite the abilities of both, including sophisticated agricultural works and the Nazca Lines, these cultures were gravely weakened by internal unrest, as a result of decreased crop yields caused by El Niño.
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Back To CourseHistory 112: World History I
30 chapters | 246 lessons