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

Topics: Andes, Bolivia, Lake Titicaca Pages: 15 (4412 words) Published: April 14, 2013
University of Pennsylvania

Department of Anthropology Papers Department of Anthropology


Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian "collapse" in Andean prehistory Clark L. Erickson
University of Pennsylvania,

Suggested Citation: Erickson, C.L. (1999). Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian "collapse" in Andean prehistory. Antiquity 73:634-642. © Antiquity Publications Ltd 1999 This paper is posted at ScholarlyCommons. For more information, please contact



281 SEPTEMBER 1999

Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian 'collapse' in Andean prehistory

Key-words: landscapes, drought, climate change, South America

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 Niño 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. 'Nor-

* Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 33rd and Spruce Street, Philadelphia PA 19104-6398, USA. ANTIQUITY 73 (1999): 634-42



mal' 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 d e fined 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."

centres collapsed 100-200 years before the supposed onset of the drought (Kolata & Ortloff 1996: 196, table...
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