Mountain Pastoralism in the Andes during Colonial Times

By Montero, Raquel Gil | Nomadic Peoples, December 2009 | Go to article overview
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Mountain Pastoralism in the Andes during Colonial Times

Montero, Raquel Gil, Nomadic Peoples


This article summarizes part of the history of the Andean herders during the colonial period. After the conquest, the Spaniards reorganized the American world in order to satisfy their primary needs: food, labor and transportation. During the silver boom of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Potosi, the most important mining city in the Andes, surpassed 130,000 inhabitants, and there were many other settlements around smaller mining centres. All these urban inhabitants needed to be fed, and because of the location of these cities, food was often brought from distant places. This article shows how the pastoral peoples of the Andes managed to participate in, and adapt to, the colonial economy while at the same time retaining their pastoral way of life.

Keywords: Pastoralism, mining, indigenous, Southern Andes, colonial period


In this article I propose to reconstruct part of the life of Andean pastoral peoples under colonial rule. Although there is an abundant literature on these peoples, we know relatively little about their history. (1) Their existence as tribute payers and their active participation in the colonial economy have been part of the reason why there are so many historical sources that take account of their past. When the Spanish arrived in the Andes at the beginning of the 1530s, they had to conquer the enormous Inca Empire that covered a territory of 4,000 square kilometres, known as the Tawantinsuyu. Once the main centres of power had been dominated, the conquest of the rest of the imperial territory was facilitated by information provided by the Incas themselves. As a result, many of the Spanish sources we consult in order to reconstruct what took place during this period reflect the Incas' view of the native populations that lived under their rule; it is difficult to avoid the fact that our analysis will reflect their worldview. Although the interpretation of these sources can--for all these reasons--be a complex matter, the sheer number of documents, in combination with the archeological evidence available, has allowed us to make headway in understanding the history of pastoral peoples.

In this work I focus on two case studies that are especially interesting, because they represent two different and contrasting forms of social organization among pastoral peoples. One of the groups lives in the north altiplano, near Titicaca (Chucuito), and the other group is in the south, in Lipez. The pastoral peoples in Chucuito combined herding with high altitude agriculture, artisan production, hunting and fishing. This region stands out because of its large population and most importantly for historians--because it was the object of an inspection by the Spanish in 1567 that examined the social and economic life of the population and their relationship with the Spanish during the first thirty years of the conquest. Lipez, on the other hand, was (and remains) a very arid region where agriculture is possible only where there are small oases. In this region, especially in the south near the present-day border of Bolivia and Argentina, the majority of the population are specialized pastoralists.

Before entering into an analysis of the two case studies, I provide a brief description of the areas under study and a summary of what took place during the first years of the Spanish conquest. In the final section 1 will examine the characteristics of each case and then integrate this information into an overall analysis that will show how pastoral peoples related to Spanish colonial society.

The Altiplano and Pastoral Peoples

The tropical Andes in South America are characterized by their altitude and their massive relief. It is not possible to cross the mountains any lower than 4,000 m and the highest summits can reach higher than 6,000 m. In what is modem-day Bolivia, the Andes reach their maximum east-west extension between 500 and 600 km.

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Mountain Pastoralism in the Andes during Colonial Times


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