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«Man's Use o f an A n d e a n E c o s y s t e m 1 Stephen B. Brush 2 The Andes are characterized by valley systems that differ according to the steep- ...»

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Human Ecology, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1976

Man's Use o f an A n d e a n E c o s y s t e m 1

Stephen B. Brush 2

The Andes are characterized by valley systems that differ according to the steep-

ness o f the environmental gradient as well as the human occupation and land use

patterns. This article discusses the natural and crop zonation in one valley o f the

eastern Andes o f northern Peru which includes many o f the principal plant and

crop zones o f the Peruvian Andes. The entire valley is exploited by one peasant community. The article describes some o f the land use patterns o f the commu- nity and compares this valley system with others on the eastern slopes o f the Andes.

KEY WORDS: mountain ecosystems; crop zonation; land use; Andes.


The Andes provide one of the richest areas for the study o f h u m a n ecology in the world. The area is marked b y sometimes dramatic ecological diversity, where numerous climatic belts are compressed into small areas by sudden changes o f altitude. Moreover, it is an area where isolated subsistence c o m m u - nities survive on their ability to exploit several different natural life zones, s This article will outline the ethnogeography o f one Andean c o m m u n i t y and suggest three different patterns w h e r e b y diverse crop zones are integrated into single subsistence systems in the area o f the eastern slopes o f the Peruvian Andes.

a This article is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the symposium, "Cultural Adaptations to Mountain Ecosystems," given at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 28, 1973.

2 Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

SThe natural life zone is the ecological unit used by Tosi (1960) in his detailed ecological work on Peru. Tosi and Voertman (1964:191-193) define the natural life zone as anal- ogous to a "plant formation" which is a reflection of three climatic variables: (1) mean annual biotemperature, (2) mean annual precipitation, and (3) the potential evapotrans- piration ratio. Any one life zone may contain several "plant associations." Tosi's model is an adaptation of the Holdridge system.

147 9 1 9 7 6 P l e n u m Publishing C o r p o r a t i o n, 2 2 7 West 1 7 t h Street, New Y o r k, N. Y. 1 0 0 1 1. N o part of this publication may be reproduced, stored In a retrieval system, or transmitted, In any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, microfilming, recording, o r otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.

148 Brush The subsistence strategies of many highland communities in Peru include methods which predate the Spanish Conquest and which crosscut several differ- ent linguistic, ethnic, and even national boundaries. Recent ethnohistorical and ethnographic analysis, dealing with the topics of Andean ecology and subsistence, has widened the Andeanists' knowledge of the general patterns of the man-land relationship in the area. This recent work rests on a very sound foundation of work done by earlier generations of botanists (Weberbauer, 1936, 1945) and geographers (Bowman, 1916; Troll, 1958; Pulgar Vidal, 1946).

One of the most important contributions to the general understanding of ethnohistorical Andean economic and subsistence systems is Murra's (1972) model of "vertical control" or "verticality." This model deals with an "Andean ideal" of "simultaneous control of 'vertical archipelagoes' which are divided among groups which are geographically distant from one another and which differ according to the complexity of economic and political organization" (Murra, 1972:430). Murra's model of vertical control is one in which different ethnic groups attempt to control the maximum number of ecological "floors" in an effort to achieve self-sufficiency. Systems of reciprocity and redistribution mark the internal economies of communities, but trade may occur between communities. The model is applied to five pre-Columbian cases (dating from 1460 to

1560) in the Andean region and draws on ethnohistorical and archeological evidence.

The significance of Murra's model of vertical control is that it reconstructs a native Andean type which was established to fulfill Andean needs with Andean technology and organization. There is no doubt that the system of verticality suffered greatly at the hands of the Spanish through the introduction of new crops and animals, the resettlement (reducci6n) of large numbers of persons ~m new towns which were often established to meet European rather than Andean needs, the destruction of the native administrative system, and the destruction, through disease and maltreatment, of the majority of the Andean population.

Perhaps the strength of the model is best supported by the fact that after over 400 years of European influence and complete reorganization of much of Andean life there still are many communities whose subsistence economies are organized along the same lines of vertical control as Murra's ethnohistorical examples. To put it another way, the fact that many Andean communities are still organized in a pattern which may have its roots in pre-Columbian times testifies to the resilience and resourcefulness of the Andean people and to the success of a particular mode of adaptation in a particular ecosystem. Several isolated communities found along the eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes and differing greatly in ethnic and ecological characteristics have recently been described as having "vertical" economies that correspond to Murra's ethnohistorical model.

These include communities in the northern Peruvian Andes (Brush, 1973), in the central Peruvian Andes (Burchard, 1972; Mayer, 1971, 1972; Fonseca Martel, 1972a,b), and in the southern Peruvian Andes (Gade, 1967; Webster, 1972;

Man's Use of an Andean Ecosystem 149 Custred, t972). Whereas Murra's model incorporates both the eastern and the western Andes as well as the Pacific coastal area of Peru, these contemporary systems of vertical control are found mainly along the eastern slopes of the Andes.

–  –  –

The Andes, like other mountain areas, have a very steep environmental gradient where diverse climatic zones are compressed into single valleys, and hillsides may span several thousand meters of altitude. As one geographer noted, "nowhere else on earth are greater physical contrasts compressed within such small spaces" (Milstead, 1928:97). Botanists such as Weberbauer (1936, 1945) and geographers such as Yosi (1960) have described the tremendous range of microclimates and plant communities that can be found within relatively small areas in the Andes. The critical factor in the relationship between these microclimates is altitude or vertical location. It is a central core to which other environmental phenomena such as rainfall, temperature, winds, slope, drainage, and soils can be linked.

Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to map the climatic diversity of the Andes is that of Tosi (1960). Following Hotdridge (1947), Tosi mapped the natural life zones of Peru by using airphotograph analysis and by relying heavily on Weberbauer's botanical fieldwork. In covering the Andean area of Peru, Tosi deals with seven altitudinal floors and eight "humidity provinces" (Tosi, 1960: 5).

These altitudinal floors and humidity provinces are combined in different ways to yield 35 natural life zones or plant formations ranging from intermontane deserts to alpine tundras to cloud forests.

In spite of the tremendous natural diversity that this indicates, the resource system of the indigenous population in the eastern Andes is limited to a relatively few crop zones. These vary somewhat according to locality, but the pattern of most communities on the eastern slopes of the Andes generally involves four major crop or other resource zones. The highest is the zone of natural pasture which lies outside the range of cropping because of frequent frosts.

Animals that are pastured here include llama and alpaca in southern Peru and Bolivia, and horses, cattle, and sheep throughout the Andes. Terms that are applied to this zone include puna in the south andjalka in the central and northern highlands. Immediately below the pastures is the zone of potato and other tuber production, also called puna or jalka. This has traditionally been the major focus of subsistence activity in the Andes. It is here that the potato and other Andean tubers such as the oca (Oxalis tuberosa) were domesticated. The large number of varieties of potato, numbering over 400 indigenously named cultivars (Ugent, 1970), indicates the importance and diversity of these crops. In many parts of the Andes, potato cultivation receives more attention in terms of land 150 Brush and labor input than all other crops combined. Ancient field and settlement patterns indicate that the potato was equally if not more important to prehistoric Andean people.

Below the tuber zone lies one of cereal production known throughout the Andean region as the kichwa. Pre-hispanically, the major crop grown here was maize, but since the Conquest, European grains such as wheat and barley have made significant inroads. Although the cereals produced in the kichwa are important subsistence items in many parts of the Andes, in some communities maize (or more correctly maize beer, chicha) is used as a ceremonial rather than subsistence crop (Webster, 1971). The lowest major crop zone, referred to as the montaaa, yunga, or temple, is used to grow tropical crops such as coca, plantains, manioc, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, hot peppers, and sugar cane. Many of these crops, such as coca, are important for their ritual and exchange values rather than as subsistence crops. Along the eastern slopes of the lower Andean foothills, crops are grown without irrigation, but in the intermontane valleys, where the rain shadow effect creates a hot, dry zone, irrigation is essential.

The growing literature on contemporary subsistence systems in the eastern Andes, as well as archeological and ethnohistorical accounts of pre-Hispanic subsistence systems, indicates the persistence of these four major crop zones over a very wide diversity of Andean climatic patterns. In discussing the zonation of any mountain agricultural system, we must consider both environmental features (topography, exposure, altitude, precipitation) and the characteristics of the particular crop or crops which are cultivated (Peattie, 1936: Chapter IV). As I shall argue later, however, the physical spacing of these crop zones may be a deciding factor in such things as settlement patterns, land tenure, economic specialization, and exchange networks.

The resource system of subsistence Andean communities may be analyzed on two different levels. The first is community wide: what are the resources that are owned and controlled by the community for its maintenance? The second level is that of the individual household: how are community resources distributed among the inhabitants? On this one, such things as social and economic strategies and networks may be analyzed (Brush, 1972). The first is needed to indicate a particular community's economic focus and its place in a larger regional context, and the second will help us assess the functioning of the subsistence system. The two levels are, in many respects, analogous, and similarities and differences between communities vis-d-vis their resource systems are comparable to similarities and differences between individual households within single resource systems. Just as there are communities that do not have access to the entire range of regional resources, there are individual households within communities that do not have access to all community resources. In each case, both the community and the individual household must develop strategies and methods to tap the larger resource system for their subsistence. On both the community and individual household levels, subsistence strategies designed to Man's Use of an Andean Ecosystem 151 provide access to resources involve systems of specialization and exchange.

Within communities, cycles of reciprocity are often used in the distribution of scarce resources, and subsistence strategies usually rely heavily on the kinship system (Brush, 1972).


Uchucmarca is a mestizo village in the Chachapoyas region of northeastern Peru (Fig. 1). The community stands at 3035 m altitude in the middle of a valley that runs into the Marafi6n River, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon River. Uchucmarca is an "indigenous community" or "peasant community" that was founded in the late sixteenth century by a Spanish reducci6n. As such, it controls its land as a corporation (lands cannot be alienated from the community), although usufruct rights are granted indefinitely to individual households for subsistence purposes. The community's lands cover an altitude range of some 3500 m, crossing the eastern range or cordillera of the Andes to end in the high jungle zone known as the edja de montana ("eyebrow of the jungle"). These lands begin at 800 m altitude and cross a line of peaks that are over 4300 m.

Uchucmarca functions as an essentially self-sufficient subsistence community. Two major factors play a role in this: isolation and resource diversity. The village of Uchucmarca is situated some 8 hr by mule from the nearest road, and 14 hr from the nearest regional market center, Cetendfn. Unitl 1966, when the road was extended closer to Uchucmarca, Celend/n was over 30 hr away by horse. Economic independence has resulted from the fact that the economy of Uchucmarca, like that of many other isolated subsistence communities, remains essentially nonmonetized and has only a few resources that can be readily and profitably converted into cash. Any appreciable participation in larger market systems is tied to the degree of monetization of the village economy.

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