Neo-Environmental Determinism and Agrarian 'Collapse' in Andean Prehistory

By Erickson, Clark L. | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Neo-Environmental Determinism and Agrarian 'Collapse' in Andean Prehistory


Erickson, Clark L., Antiquity


Introduction: neo-environmentalism in Andean archaeology

In early anthropology, environmental determinism was used to explain race, human demography, material culture, cultural variation and cultural change. As anthropological interpretation evolved, simplistic reductionist thinking was replaced with more complex socio-cultural explanations. Despite these theoretical advances, environmental determinism continues to be invoked to explain Andean prehistory. The rise and fall of Andean civilizations are 'mapped onto' sediment cores, pollen diagrams and ice cores and somehow this 'explains' cultural change. In the extreme incarnations of neoenvironmental determinism, humans are considered passive pawns at the mercy of droughts and floods. I will evaluate a recent hypothesis proposed to explain the collapse of the Tiwanaku State and raised-field agriculture from a landscape perspective informed by a 'bottom-up approach' to Pre-Columbian farming systems, the ethnography of wetland peoples and insights from the New Ecology.

The collapse hypothesis

Andean archaeologists have long been infatuated with the idea that cultural change could be explained by climatic shifts in rainfall and temperature (e.g. Shimada et al. 1991; Cardich 1985). These ideas appear and disappear in regular cycles of about 20 years for the south central Andes. The 'collapse hypothesis' recently proposed by Kolata, Binford and Ortloff (Kolata 1993; Kolata 1996; Binford et al. 1997) for the collapse of the Tiwanaku civilization bears a striking resemblance to that proposed by Puleson (1976) for the explanation of the 'horizon/intermediate period' phenomena in Andean prehistory, and that proposed by Posnansky (1945) for the collapse of Tiwanaku. Since much of the world is still recovering from a major El Nino event, a critical examination of neo-environmental determinist explanation is relevant.

According to Kolata and colleagues (1997: 235), 'Environmental thresholds vary through time as climate changes, populations grow, cultures and their technologies evolve, and resources are depleted and substituted'. They define an environmental threshold as 'climatic extremes that limit the complexity of cultural development'. In this perspective (Binford et al. 1997: 246),

Human cultures adapt to changing environmental conditions within a range of normal variation. 'Normal' is usually defined by recent and short-time scales, rather than by long-term variability during which thresholds at environmental extremes can significantly affect cultural adaptability. In commonly defined normal periods, thresholds can be exceeded for short periods without seriously affecting a civilization. However, in the long term, lower frequency variation with larger amplitudes may exceed the limits of human adaptability.

According to the collapse hypothesis for Tiwanaku, the threshold was exceeded when 'chronic drought' conditions prevailed in the South Central Andes after AD 1150.

Kolata and colleagues have marshalled impressive evidence from the Quelccaya ice cores, sediment cores from Lake Titicaca, water budget modelling and archaeological excavations in raised fields. The scenario of Tiwanaku collapse can be summarized as follows: a drastic rainfall deficit beginning at AD 1150 caused a 'chronic drought' of 300 years. The water level of Lake Titicaca dropped between 12 and 17 m and much of the lake was reduced to a saline swamp surrounded by a bleak arid landscape. The raised-field system was abruptly abandoned because it became impossible to maintain due to drought conditions, higher labour costs and salinization. Because Tiwanaku's food production was based on intensive agriculture, the collapse of the regional raised-field system brought on the collapse of the Tiwanaku urban centre and state administration. Populations dispersed and migrated out of the region. According to Kolata and colleagues, this resulted in a total 'cultural collapse', plunging the Lake Titicaca basin into a post-Tiwanaku 'Dark Ages' lasting until the conquest of the region by the Inka in the late 15th century. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Neo-Environmental Determinism and Agrarian 'Collapse' in Andean Prehistory
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.