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History of Andean South America

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Title: History of Andean South America  
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History of Andean South America

The Andean mountain range in western South America.

The history of human habitation in the Andean region of South America stretches from circa 15,000 BCE to the present day. Stretching for 7,000 km (4,300 mi) long, the region encompasses mountainous, tropical and desert environments. This colonisation and habitation of the region has been affected by its unique geography and climate, leading to the development of unique cultural and societal organisation. Study of the history of the Andean region began in the 20th century, involving both historical and archaeological investigation.

After the first humans — who were then arranged into hunter-gatherer tribal groups — arrived in South America via the Isthmus of Panama, they spread out across the continent, with the earliest evidence for settlement in the Andean region dating to circa 15,000 BCE, in what archaeologists call the Lithic Period. In the ensuing Pre-Ceramic Period, plants began to be widely cultivated, and distinct religious centres emerged, such as the Kotosh Religious Tradition in the highlands.

This was followed by the Initial Period. Various complex societies developed at this time, most notably the Chavín culture and the Moche civilisation. In later periods, much of the Andean region was conquered by the indigenous Incan tribe, who founded the largest empire that the Americas had ever seen, named Tahuantinsuyu. The Inca governed their empire from the capital city of Cuzco, administering it along traditional Andean lines.

In the 16th century, Spanish colonisers from Europe arrived in the Andes, eventually subjugating the indigenous kingdoms and incorporating the Andean region into the Spanish Empire. In the 19th century, a rising tide of anti-imperialist nationalism that was sweeping all of South America led rebel armies to overthrow Spanish rule. The Andean region was subsequently divided into a number of new states, Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador. The 20th century saw the growing influence of the United States of America in the region, which was increasingly exploited for its natural gas supplies. This in turn led to the rise of a number of anti-imperialist and socialist movements to oppose U.S. and multinational involvement in Andean South America.


  • Lithic Period: c.15,000 BCE—3000 BCE 1
    • First colonisation 1.1
    • Lithic adaptation 1.2
  • Pre-Ceramic Period: c.3000 BCE—c.2000 BCE 2
    • Ceremonial monuments 2.1
  • Initial Period: c.2000 BCE—0 CE 3
  • Intermediate Period: 0 CE—1600 CE 4
    • Middle Horizon 4.1
    • Late Intermediate Period 4.2
    • Tahuantinsuyu 4.3
  • European colonisation: 16th to 19th centuries 5
    • Wars of Independence 5.1
  • Post-colonial period: 19th century to present 6
    • Post-war development 6.1
    • The Pink Tide 6.2
  • References 7
    • Footnotes 7.1
    • Bibliography 7.2

Lithic Period: c.15,000 BCE—3000 BCE

The earliest period in which humans inhabited the Andean region was the Lithic period, sometimes alternately called the Early Archaic period. It was a period characterised by the use of stone tools, or lithics, as the main form of technology, and a hunter-gatherer mode of existence.

First colonisation

An early 20th-century illustration depicting two Lithic Period humans hunting a glyptodon in South America.

After the evolution of anatomically modern humans in eastern Africa circa 200,000 years ago, our species spread across the African continent and into Europe and Asia. It was from the Bering land bridge between Siberia in north-eastern Asia and Alaska in north-western North America that humans first crossed into the Americas. From there, vanguards of human groups headed south, colonising the rest of the continent before reaching the Isthmus of Panama and crossing into the continent of South America.[1][2] Although there had been four biologically distinct genetic human populations in North America, as has been identified by DNA analysis, only one of these populations, that known as the Paleo-Indians, pushed as far south as Mesoamerica and South America, meaning that the indigenous inhabitants of that latter continent were genetically homogenous.[3]

Comparative analysis of indigenous religious beliefs across South America have led academics to suspect that the first Paleo-Indian colonists of the continent would have believed in a multi-layered universe in which the earth was suspended between a celestial outer sphere and a cavernous inner sphere. There would have been strong taboos against incest, something that would have prevented inbreeding (a particular problem amongst the genetic homogeneity of the Indigenous South Americans), and instead marriage was controlled by social conventions, such as the development of moiety systems of societal duality.[4]

The first pioneers in South America, migrating down south from the Isthmus of Panama, would likely have avoided the largely mountainous Andean region, because the upper Cordillera was glaciated, cold and sparsely vegetated, making life there difficult, whilst these early populations would have suffered from hypoxia. Instead, the early hunter-gatherer pioneers would have most likely stuck to the margins of the continent, where they could exploit the resources in the rivers, deltas and salt-water lagoons. Gradually, generation by generation, as the population grew, these Indigenous Americans spread out throughout the continent, with some groups eventually reaching the Andean region. They would have most likely initially inhabited the coastal lowland areas, only travelling up into the mountains to obtain resources like obsidian. Gradually, as their descendents became acclimatised to the altitude, groups of humans began to move up and inhabit higher points of the Andes.[5]

One of the earliest known Andean sites that have been properly investigated by archaeologists is that at Monte Verde in southern Chile, which has been radiocarbon dated to 14,800 years ago. At this site, there was evidence for seasonal settlement along the sandy banks of a creek in the sub-arctic pine forests of the low southern Cordillera, at which were found preserved wooden and stone tools, remnants of wild vegetables such as potatoes, and the skeletal remains of five or six mastodons which had been scavenged or hunted by the human occupants.[6] Other Lithic period sites that have been discovered in the Andean region include Los Toldos, Taguatagua and Quero, all in contemporary Chile, and Pikimachay, Jaywamachay, Huarago and Uschumachay in contemporary Peru; from the evidence unearthed at these sites it is apparent that at this time, horse was most commonly hunted species, although sloth and guanaco were also apparent.[7]

Lithic adaptation

Due to the varied geographical areas in the Andean region, unique communities evolved to suit their own particular locations across the region in the latter part of the Lithic period. Archaeologists have defined these different communities by their unique types of stone tool designs, describing them as the Northwestern tradition, the coastal Paijan tradition, the Central Andean Lithic Tradition, and the Atacama Maritime Tradition.[8]

It was also in this period that Andean communities first began to domesticate crops, genetically transforming various plant species from their wild counterparts.[9]

Pre-Ceramic Period: c.3000 BCE—c.2000 BCE

The Lithic Period was followed by what archaeologists have called the Pre-Ceramic Period, or alternatively the Late Archaic Period, and is characterised by increasing societal complexity, rising population levels and the construction of monumental ceremonial centres across the Andean region.[10] It is the latter of these features that remains the most visually obvious characteristic of the Pre-Ceramic amongst archaeologists, and indicates that by this time, Andean society was sufficiently developed that it could organise large building projects involving the management of labor.[11] The Pre-Ceramic Period also saw a rise in the population of the Andean region, with the possibility that many people were partially migratory, spending much of their year in rural areas but moving to the monumental ceremonial centers for certain times which were seen as having special significance.[12] The Pre-Ceramic also saw climate change occurring in the Andean region, for the culmination of the Ice Age had led to an end of the glacial meltback which had been occurring throughout the Lithic Period, and as a result the sea levels on the west coast of South America stabilized.[13]

Despite these changes, many elements of Andean society remained the same as it had been in earlier millennia; for instance, as its name suggests, the Pre-Ceramic was also a period when Andean society had yet to develop ceramic technology, and therefore had no pottery to use for cooking or storage.[14] Similarly, Andean communities in the Pre-Ceramic had not developed agriculture or domesticated flora or fauna, instead gaining most of their food from what they could hunt or gather from the wild, just as their Lithic Period predecessors had done, although there is evidence that some wild plants had begun to be intentionally cultivated.[15]

Ceremonial monuments

In the mountain drainage areas of the Andes, a series of ceremonial buildings were constructed that archaeologists have identified as being a part of what they called the Kotosh Religious Tradition.[16] One of the most prominent of these sites was that at Kotosh, after which the religious tradition was named. Located on the bank of the Río Higueras, Kotosh was at an elevation of c. 2000 metres above sea level, and consisted of "two large platform mounds flanked by lesser constructions and a number of small structures on a nearby river terrace."[17] Another notable example of the Kotosh Religious Tradition can be seen at La Galgada in the Callejón de Huaylas, modern Peru, which again consists of two platform mounds and several surrounding structures.[18]

In other parts of the Andean region, other traditions of ceremonial monument building also developed during the Pre-Ceramic period.

Initial Period: c.2000 BCE—0 CE

The development of ceramic technology in the Andean region, and the subsequent production of pottery for both cooking and storage, marks the beginning of what archaeologists call the Initial Period.[19] The introduction of pottery was however "simply one part of a much larger socioeconomic transformation" along the Andean coast, as communities ceased seeing their coastal settlements as the major centers of activity in favour of more inland locations, and as such the former maritime-based economy was replaced by one that was dominated by irrigation farming.[20]

Intermediate Period: 0 CE—1600 CE

Middle Horizon

Late Intermediate Period


Machu Pichu, a mountainous settlement that was inhabited during the time of Tahuantinsuyu.

It was in the Intermediate Period that an empire rose up across the entire stretch of the Andes which was called Tahuantinsuyu, meaning "The Four Regions" in the Quechua language.

Although drawing "heavily upon the technological and organizational accomplishments of earlier Andean cultures", the Incan rulers refused to accept these antecedents, instead claiming that prior to the rise of Tahuantinsuyu, the Andes had merely been inhabited by primitive warlike tribes that the Incan tribe unified under their own civilising influence.[21]

European colonisation: 16th to 19th centuries

The Andean region became a part of the Spanish Empire.

Wars of Independence

A key figure in these wars were Simón Bolívar; in gratitiude the nation of Bolivia adopted its name after him.

Post-colonial period: 19th century to present

The flag of the Andean Community of Nations.

Post-war development

In 1969, five Andean states — Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru — founded their own trade bloc, the Andean Pact, and in 1973 were joined by Venezuela. In 1976, Chile then withdrew after Chilean President Augusto Pinochet declared the Pact incompatible with his right wing views. The Pact was renamed the Andean Community of Nations in 1996.

The Pink Tide

In the 21st century, leftist presidents were elected to power in several Andean states, as a part of the wider "pink tide" then sweeping Latin America, in which the political left gained increasing power as a reaction against neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. In 2006, Evo Morales of the Movement for Socialism party was elected to the presidency in Bolivia, whilst later that year Rafael Correa of the PAIS Alliance was elected in Ecuador; both Morales and Correa were socialists, nationalising industry and opposing U.S. and corporate influence in their respective nations. Instead, both allied themselves with the government of Venezuela, then led by Hugo Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, and joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, a trade bloc between Latin America's socialist nations.[22]



  1. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 87.
  2. ^ Burger 1992. pp. 08-11.
  3. ^ Moseley 2001. pp. 87-88.
  4. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 88.
  5. ^ Moseley 2001. pp. 88-89.
  6. ^ Moseley 2001. pp. 89-90.
  7. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 91.
  8. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 92.
  9. ^ Moseley 2001. pp. 102-103.
  10. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 107.
  11. ^ Burger 1992. p. 27.
  12. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 114.
  13. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 107.
  14. ^ Burger 1992. p. 27.
  15. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 107.
  16. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 109.
  17. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 109.
  18. ^ Moseley 2001. p. 109.
  19. ^ Burger 1992. p. 57.
  20. ^ Burger 1992. p. 57.
  21. ^ Burger 1992. p. 7.
  22. ^ Kozloff 2008.


  • Burger, Richard L. (1992). Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilisation. London: Thames and Hudson.  
  • Kozloff, Nicholas (2008). Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  
  • Mann, Charles C. (2005). Ancient Americans: Rewriting the History of the New World. Granta.  
  • Moseley, Michael E. (2001). The Incas and their Ancestors (second edition). London: Thames and Hudson.  
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