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Archaeology: Andean Preceramic Period

So often we read about the “artificial” divisions or names for periods in Inca and Pre-Inca history, i.e., Preceramic Period, Initial Period, etc. I don’t know if anyone else is somewhat confused by some of the Periods, their dates (which are not always constant depending on who you read), and what happened during that time. I’m not an expert by a long shot, but over the next few editions, I am going to try to bring some cohesion with brief summaries of the chronology of the Central Andean Region.
Archaeologists and historians alike break up time into discrete units. Archaeologists divide time according to the appearance and disappearance of significant cultural developments, such as new tool types or ways of producing food. Many chronological schemes have been presented for the Andean region, but all document the same series of important cultural events. Unfortunately, the events occurred at different times in different areas, so any one scheme is hard to apply over the entire region of Tahuantinsuyu. Nevertheless, one scheme, the Rowe-Lanning chronology (named for John Rowe and Edward Lanning, the two archaeologists who developed it), is generally accepted and used. Western Andean prehistory can be divided into periods during which large areas were unified relatively quickly by some common cultural influence. In archaeological terms, this situation is called a horizon. The Rowe-Lanning scheme identifies three: the Early Horizon, Middle Horizon, and Late Horizon. Between these horizons were the Early Intermediate Period (which falls between the Early and Middle Horizons) and the Late Intermediate Period (which falls between the Middle and Late Horizons). During the intermediate periods the integrating influences of the horizons broke down, and societies developed along individual lines. Two earlier periods are also identified: the Initial Period (which precedes the Early Horizon) and the Preceramic Period (which precedes the Initial Period). The Preceramic Period refers to the time before pottery was invented; it begins with the arrival of humans in South America. The Initial Period refers to the time when pottery first appeared. This chronological scheme is best applied in the area of central Peru where it was developed. As one goes farther away from this region – into southern Peru, Chile, Bolivia, or Ecuador and Columbia – the periods have less utility because the cultural events on which they are based occurred at very different times, if at all. For the central Peruvian region, the dates and principal cultures of these periods are as follows:
Period: Preceramic
Date: ? – 1800 B.C.E.
Cultures: various local

Period: Initial
Date: 1800 – 900 B.C.E.
Cultures: various local

Period: Early Horizon
Date: 900 – 200 B.C.E.
Cultures: Chavin, Paracas

Period: Early Intermediate
Date: 200 B.C.E. – C.E. 600
Cultures: Moche, Nasca

Period: Middle Horizon
Date: C.E. 600 - 1000
Cultures: Huari, Tiahuanaco

Period: Late Intermediate
Date: C.E. 1000 - 1438
Cultures: Chimu, Chancay

Period: Late Horizon
Date: C.E. 1438 - 1532
Cultures: Inca

It is important to briefly discuss the cultural developments that preceded the Incas in order to pout their achievements into a historical perspective. Much of what the Incas accomplished was based on earlier cultures’ activities, discoveries, and lifestyles. For example, the Incas relied on domesticated crops for their food. Yet the domestication process began during the Preceramic Period. Also, the Incas are famous for their road system, yet it was an elaboration and expansion of an earlier system built by the Huari culture of the Middle Horizon. Therefore, a brief description of the major cultural developments in each period follows:

Preceramic Period [? – 1800 B.C.E.]

This period begins with the arrival of humans in South America. The original inhabitants of the western hemisphere came from northeastern Russia, following game animals across the Bering land bridge. The land bridge existed where the Bering Strait (which separates Alaska from Russia) is today. During the last ice age the sea levels were lower than today, so the straits was actually dry land. After crossing the land bridge, people migrated southward through Canada, North America, and Central America, finally arriving in South America.

The actual date of the arrival of these people in South America is under dispute. A fairly widely accepted date is approximately 13,000 B.C.E., although some humans might have arrived earlier. At the beginning of this period, people lived in small groups of 25 to 50 individuals. They hunted wild animals and gathered wild plants. Nomadic, they moved frequently to find food and shelter. On the basis of cultures today that follow a similar lifestyle, one can say that men probably hunted animals and women gathered plants.

As time went on, however, these groups began to learn more about their environments – whether coastal, highland, or foothills – and to stay I more restricted areas, such as a single valley or river basin. They learned the reproductive cycles of plants and animals, and they ultimately domesticated many species of plants as well as animals such as the llama, alpaca, and guinea pig.

In the highland region the process of domestication began quite early – almost as soon as people arrived, according to remains found in Guitarrero Cave in northern Peru. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated by 3000 B.C.E., with corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and other Andean foods about the same time. On the coast domesticated foods did not appear until the end of the Preceramic Period; apparently they were introduced from the adjacent highland regions.

Following the domestication of plants and animals, the basic way of life of Andean peoples changed. Villages sprang up as people settled in a single location to be near their fields and pastures. Houses became more permanent and larger, perhaps as a result of the demands of expanding families. In the highlands, following the shift to an agricultural way of life the basic patterns of exploiting the puna, quechua, and yunga zones developed.

Along the coast, people began to use the abundant resources of the Pacific Ocean at a very early date. Around 2500 B.C.E., toward the end of the Preceramic Period, there was an increase in the number of settlements located right along the coastline and an associated increase in the use of marine resources. Farming appeared at about the same time, and it is important to note that two of the earliest domesticated plants to appear on the coast were cotton and gourd, both non-edible. These two plants gained importance through their use in the fishing industry. Cotton was used for making fishing lines and nets, and gourds were used as floats for the nets. The fields where these plants were cultivated must have been located in the valley floodplains, which provided the only sources of water for farming.

A new pattern of life may have been established along the coast during this time. Part of the population of a river valley would live along the coast, where they fished, collected shellfish, and gathered seaweed and other marine resources. Another part of the population would live along the rivers, growing gourds, cotton, beans, and squash. The two populations would exchange products. This reflects the first division of labor among coastal communities, which was to become much more elaborate in later periods.

One final development of the Preceramic Period was the beginning of the large-scale public buildings. Until about 3000 B.C.E., all constructions in Andean communities were houses or other small structures for ritual or social events. However, between 3000 and 1800 B.C.E., several very large structures were built at villages both in the highlands and on the coast. These structures are interpreted as having had some kind of ceremonial purposes, rather than being the homes of individuals. They were much larger than the houses of typical families, rising as much as 10 m (33 feet) above the surrounding landscape. Their size reflects a considerable amount of coordinated labor, suggesting not only that these societies were much larger than previous ones but also that leaders were in charge. Thus not only do we see evidence of the first division of labor during this time, but we also infer the emergence of some sort of leaders or rulers.

Several sites along the coast show evidence of these cultural developments, from the area around modern Lima to the vicinity of Trujillo. Two examples are Salinas de Chao, in the Chao valley of northern Peru, and El Paraiso, in the Chillon Valley of central Peru. Salinas de Chao was a settlement occupied around a bay that has since dried up. A very large pyramid mound was constructed, which was probably used for ceremonies. A small distance away was an area of housing clustered against a hillside. In front of the houses were two sunken circular pits, which also might have had ceremonial uses. Two different kinds of ceremonial constructions – mound and sunken pit – suggest different kinds of ceremonies, perhaps to distinct gods. Such evidence suggests that even at this early date the inhabitants had a rich religious life.

El Paraiso is located near the mouth of the Chillon River, outside of modern Lima. It is a set of nine large mounds of rubble, resulting from the decomposition of a series of rooms and corridors. Over 100,000 tons of stone were quarried to build the site, indicating that a large amount of labor went into its construction. The rooms were built by piling up mesh bags of stone. One complex of rooms has been reconstructed and indicates the enormous size of the original undertaking: the complex is 50 m (165 feet) on a side, and 8 m (26 feet) high. And this is one of the smaller complexes at the site! The size of the site and the amount of labor involved indicate that a large group of people was responsible for its construction, and it is likely that there were individuals in charge of the activities. Some have even suggested that people from both farming and fishing communities over a large area contributed labor. The use of mesh bags of stone for construction suggests that there might have been some standard amount of stone that different groups had to contribute to the building activity. This indicates planning, most likely by the authorities in charge. The use of mesh bags for building is known from other contemporary sites such as Aspero, located in the Supe valley north of El Paraiso.

Similar developments were occurring in the highlands to the east of the coast. Temple mounds appeared during this time at the site of Kotosh, near modern Huanuco, and at La Galgada, a remote site on a tributary of the Santa River in northern Peru. These temples are generally smaller than those found along the coast, suggesting that the groups who constructed them were smaller.

An interesting feature common to both Kotosh and La Galgada is the use of small rooms with central hearths, or fireplaces, where offerings were burned. The hearths had a ventilation shaft that ran under the floor to the outside of the room. The shaft brought air to the fire, allowing it to burn. This distinctive way of building a ceremonial room suggests that the rituals conducted within them were the same at both sites; hence we can infer that the religious beliefs were the same as well. The common religion is called the Kotosh Religious Tradition. This religious tradition has recently been found at costal sites, suggesting it may have been even more widespread than previously thought. Indeed, evidence indicates that people were communicating and sharing religious ideas over a large area.

The source of this article is Daily Life in the Inca Empire by Michael A. Malpass.