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Early Civilizations of the Andes

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  • 0:01 Andean Environment
  • 2:24 Expansion Through Religion
  • 3:32 Federations
  • 5:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Inca were far from the first society to thrive in the Andes Mountains. This lesson introduces the Andes as a region, as well as the cultures of the Chavin, Moche, and Nazca peoples.

Andean Environment

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.

Expansion Through Religion

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.

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