John Earls /






The Andes and the Evolution of Coordinated Environmental Control    

by John Earls (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru)

revised edition of a paper presented at IRICS (Innovation and Reproduction in Culture and Society) Vienna, December 2005

Table of contents of this page
The Andes and the Evolution of Coordinated Environmental Control   
1. Introduction   
2. Order and complexity in the Andean environment   
3. Historical construction of the Andean state ecosystem   
4. Information processing in the Andean state.   
5. System management and the social software.   
6. The khipu   
7. Some indications for today’s world   

1. Introduction    

The world at present is heading into the transitional period that follows the arrival of peak oil. In this period it will be necessary to learn how to effectively administrate the entire planetary environmental system in a sustainable way that allows for human coexistence with it but is not subordinated to exclusively human interests. The world biosphere is an extremely complex system and our misadministration of it, on the base of the abundant energy of cheap fossil fuels, has not prepared us for a viable participation in it in the post peak-oil age. Instead, the oil-age economic system has generated the conditions for the out of control global warming that is now causing such heavy stress on the biosphere that supports us.

The post peak-oil age will be based on organisational principles that correspond to the steady state phase of mature ecosystems. As Howard Odum has summed it up:

“During growth, emphasis is on competition, and large differences in economic and energetic welfare develop; competitive exclusion, instability, poverty, and unequal wealth are characteristic. During steady state, competition is controlled and eliminated, being replaced with regulatory systems, high division and diversity of labour, uniform energy distributions, little change, and growth only for replacement purposes. Love of stable-system quality replaces love of net gain. Religious ethics adopt something closer to that of those primitive peoples that were formerly dominant in zones of the world with cultures based on the steady energy flows from the sun. Socialistic ideals about distribution are more consistent with steady state than growth.” (Odum 1974)

In preparation for this coming world situation it would be wise to evaluate how resilience was maintained in pre-industrial societies before their violent incorporation to the evolving euro-centric global order. The case of Andean societies is particularly interesting in that the complex mountain environment presented a number of formidable challenges to the emergence of large-scale self-sustaining social systems, which can be compared in certain ways to the challenges confronting the world today.

I will argue that the patterns of socio-ecological coordination that characterise those societies entails the management of a very broad-based information flow; and that it reveals general principles which will be useful for the construction of sustainable organisation in the complexity of the global environment.

In digital electronic communication technology copies of messages are made with no loss of information. In human-only communication error is inevitable and easily propagates throughout a social system rendering large-scale coordination very difficult. The Andean states emerged in a historical dynamic that “selected for” the encompassing of the ecological environment, the social system and the universe of symbols, in an ever-wider communication network.

I am obviously not arguing that the Andean states and empires should be held as political models for the mature world system – they were quite authoritarian societies. Nevertheless, excessive top-down control was mitigated by the geographic constraints of the enormous mountain environment. The system was basically self-regulating at all levels and worked through a set of ingenious socio-ecological techniques for political and economic coordination.

  • I will begin by describing some basic organising principles in the Andean environment.
  • I will then briefly trace the history of how the autochthonous society evolved an effective participation in that environment at ever-greater territorial scales through successive socio-technological innovations.
  • Finally I will outline the basics of the social communication network.
2. Order and complexity in the Andean environment    

In the first place there are few places in the world where in a one day drive by car one can cross almost rainless sandy deserts near sea level, climb some 5,000 m. to a frigid region of permanent glaciers (with many peaks of over 6,000 m.), and then descend again to hot and dense tropical rain forests. To experience similar ecoclimatic diversity in most other parts of the world would entail many weeks of car travel over many thousands of kilometres.

A very useful measure of environmental complexity as devised by Western ecologists is that of the life-zone model of Leslie Holdridge (1947, 1979). The life zone classification is based on the correspondence of natural vegetal formations to ranges of variables defined by the intersection of 3 axes: the mean annual biotemperature as calculated from temperature registers within the range of 0 to 30°C, the mean annual precipitation (in mm.), and the annual evapotranspiration ratio given by dividing the annual precipitation by the mean evapotranspiration potential. Each life zone is represented by a hexagon formed by these axes as shown in Fig. 1. The scheme is remarkable for its simplicity. Heat and humidity are taken as the fundamental climatic determinants of biological activity. This allows a mapping to be drawn between latitudinal and altitudinal ranges in terms of their equivalent biotemperatures and humidity regimes. The correspondences are only approximate, particularly so in the case of the latitudes and also though less so, for the altitudes, but give a grounding for the generalizations that are made about the common properties of spatially dispersed ecosystems. In all Holdridge identified 101 life zones in the entire world.

Fig. 1 World Life-zone classification (Holdridge 1947: 367)

The classificatory criteria of Holdridge are reproduced in table 1: for example a mean annual biotemperature of < 1.5°C corresponds either by latitude to the Polar region or the Nival altitudinal range; from 6 to 12°C to the Cold Temperate or the Montane. While an approximate numerical value for altitude range can be given by taking an average gradient of -6°C per 1000 m, the situation is much more complex for latitude because of the irregular forms and distribution of the land masses.

Mean annual biotemp.(Tbio°C)Latitude RegionsAltitude "pisos"Mean annual ETP(mm)
<1.5PolarNival< 88
1.5 to 3SubpolarAlpine88 to 177
3 to 6BorealSubalpine177 to 354
6 to 12Cold temperateMontane354 to 707
12 to *16/17TemperateLow Montane707 to 972
*16/17 to 24SubtropicalPremontane972 to 1414
> 24Tropical > 1414

Table 1: Biotemperature ranges of corresponding latitude and altitude ranges (adapted from Holdridge 1979)

Holdridge’s global biometric was adapted and applied to Peru by Joseph Tossi (1976) to describe the environment in the Peruvian Andes; it is generally used by anthropologists and other Andean scholars (see Mitchell 1981; Mayer y Fonseca 1979; Fonseca y Mayer 1988, Flannery et al 1989, Heffernan 1989 among others). Though Tossi's study initially established 35 life zones of the 101 life zones identified by Holdridge (1947) for the whole world, 84 are now said to be found in Peru [1] with 0.86% of the world’s land surface gives us an idea of the amazing complexity of the country. If we assume that all the 101 life zones are homogeneously distributed into equal sized units over the world's land surface of 148,939,063.133 km² (29.2% of the total) then one life zone would have an area of 1,474,644 km2. Peru’s total land surface area of 1,285,220 km2 would only contain 0.87 life zones rather than 84, and the average life zone would be just 15,300 km2 in size. However since only some 30% of the territory is in the Andes mountain range, and into which are packed the majority of the life zones identified by Tossi, the average size of these would be very much smaller. More to the point is that just as the mountains themselves are dispersed so are the life zones. Even at the rather coarse grain of Tossi’s ecological map each of the mountain life zones is spread like an archipelago over wide areas. The zones are distributed discontinuously and the number visible and their positioning depend on the scale of resolution at which they are observed. Our interest here is in the social and cognitive processes in the human adaptation to that environment, since an effective adaptation to an environment entails an effective classification of that environment.

Added to all this is the fact that at increasing altitudes the microclimatic variability increases. The solar radiation increases while the air pressure and water vapour tension decrease with altitude. With this the energetic changes at surface level are more abrupt in the mountains than at sea level. Slight differences in texture, colour, ground cover, exposition, etc. give rise to quite different local microclimates ·(Geiger 1959, Earls 1998).

As Flannery, Marcus and Reynolds have put it:

"So complex are the environmental gradients between snow-capped mountain peaks and the riverine floor of the basin that all published descriptions are simplifications. The human mind typically reduces a daunting mass of environmental information to a set of model or ideal categories, and this is as true of the Western ecologists who have studied the Andes as it is of the Indians." (1989: 11)

Flannery et al present a simple but very useful discussion of the problems involved in the classification of the Andean environment. They cite the works of John Holland (1975) and Holland et al (1986) as well as a personal communication from Holland. It is argued that "...a simplifying classification is one of the first steps in adaptation: a human group produces a workable coarse-grained model of a much more finely grained environment."(cited in Flannery et al 1989: 11). They quote Holland as having visualised the social-environmentally problem "...as a nested set of Markov processes with progressively coarser structure". At the upper limit of resolution and with "...the finest-grained structure would be a perfectly accurate characterization the environment, including not only the gradients of temperature, rainfall, and evaporation but also the location of every type of rock, plant, and animal." As I interpret this each nested set would correspond to a level of recursion, with its respective level of resolution; the Markov process at each level would run over a similar set of transition probabilities with roughly equal stable probabilities. In other words, the environment would exhibit the self-similar structure of a fractal order. At each successive order of resolution a new variant of the same fractal structure would emerge. This fractal focus can lead us closer to an understanding of the indigenous mode of environmental classification.

As can be seen from the figure 1, the Holdridge life-zone system makes use of the fact that the effects of heat and humidity on biological activities are logarithmic rather than arithmetic. Within their tolerance limits organisms tend to react in exponential patterns to changes in these as well as many other factors. For example, the transpiration of a plant at flowering time, and thus its water requirements, increase in proportion to the logarithm of the water deficit. However the logarithmic scales of the axes suggests a power law relation between the temperature and humidity components and thus a fractal organisation in the mountain ecosystem itself [2]. This in itself is not very surprising given the work of Mandelbrot 1983, Bak 1996 and others on fractal representations in nature (see also Colby and Keating 1998: 1479-1500), and indeed in all complex adaptive systems. What is interesting is that the fractal structure can be read out of the Holdridge model, which is not the case with any other environmental classificatory system that I am aware of.

A simple measure of complexity is the length of a concise description of a set of the entity's regularities. Thus, something that is completely random and something that is totally ordered have near zero complexity (Gell-Mann 1995). The Andean environment is some where in between; it exhibits many sorts regularities and a description of these would necessarily be long. Within a reasonable level of allowance it can be said to reproduce the global environmental complexity in a region of less than 1% of the surface area. It can thus be said to be a model of the global system.

In the following section I will briefly describe the general pattern of the historical evolution of the Andean political system and of the socio-ecological innovations that allowed the emergence of human ecosystem coordination at ever-wider scales. In line with the Holdridge life-zone model, the development of this coordination in the Andes is most clearly expressed in the development of articulation of zones in the vertical special axis.

3. Historical construction of the Andean state ecosystem    

The development of Andean society has been characterised by an alternating pattern of cultural homogenisation and heterogenisation. Anthropologists usually refer to these as periods of unification and diversification. The periods of unification are characterised by the spread of a set of fairly homogeneous cultural expressions over a great area and their adoption by many different regional populations and ethnic groups. In diversification periods these peoples develop distinct local cultures that go their own way without much influence from other regions. The whole process is expressed in the evolution of the crops and can be seen clearly in the case of maize. Qualitative jumps in the yield and structure of new varieties of the crop, and their diffusion throughout the region, occurred in the periods of unification. The periods of diversification are associated with the diversification of maize varieties into many new local adaptations (Grobman, Salhuana, Sevilla and Mangelsdorf 1961).

Given the environmental complexity and the physical barriers between areas, periods of cultural diversity are to be expected. In terms of the argument presented here they replicate the multifarious diversity of human cultural and social evolution in general. The problem is in finding what had to be done in the forging of the great periods of Central Andean unification. Here I will briefly trace the development of agricultural management in the area in terms of the evolution of the Andean pattern of vertical management.

Vertical management was first identified by John Murra (1972, 1975) as the key to understanding the economic and political articulation of the Andean social units. Its evolution does not seem to have been a slow gradual process; the archaeological evidence indicates that the innovation and consolidation of vertical control was a product of the periods of social and economic unification. The last two of these periods are associated with the large imperial states of Wari and the Inca.

In general terms agriculture was independently initiated in different parts of the Central Andes, though it probably originated initially in the tropical forests of the Amazon lowlands more than 7,000 years ago (Lathrap 1970, 1974). Before this time food acquisition was based in hunting and gathering by small groups. Incipient agriculture got going in the lowest parts of the inter-Andean valleys and the coastal river plains. The principal crops were maize, squash, sweet potato and beans though not generally together in the same local environment. Tuber crops like potatoes began to be sown in the higher mountain slopes. In general, each early agricultural group specialised in the production opportunities of a particular niche while they accessed to products of other niches by transhumant hunting of wild animals, fishing, fruit or root collection and by trade. Transhumance (the moving of residence from one place to another for subsistence at different times of the year, though not yet including herding) was a common practice to obtain the products of different regions. In different parts of an area with a single general class of environmental niches, the different social groups tended to cultivate different species and varieties of crops.

In accord with the Holdridge model, the distribution of classes of similar niches is strongly correlated with altitude over a range of some 13-14 degrees of latitude but with increasing latitude the zone height decreases, (Holdridge 1978: 14-28). Murra introduced the term piso ecológico, which can be translated as ecological “story”, “floor” (as of a building) or “belt”, to refer to classes of niches with the same general characteristics. In very general terms for most of mountain Peru, each row of two hexagonal life-zones (to the right in Fig. 1) would correspond to a piso ecológico. The Premontane (or Low Subtropical) corresponds to the piso Yunga [3] (500-2500 meters above sea level.), the Lower Montane to the Qechwa (2500-3500 m), the Montane to the Suni (3500-4100m) and the Subalpine (4100-4600) to the piso Puna. Over time an incredible diversity of species and varieties were developed within and between these pisos: grains (maize) and beans in the Qechwa, tubers (potatoes, mashwa, oka, ulluko) and some other grains (quinoa and cañihua) in the Suni while the Puna is mostly dedicated to llama and alpaca herding.

In this early, or Initial, period the cultural remains associated with these groups (homes, tools and later on ceramics, etc.) tended to differ from place to place, and we can suppose they constituted independent political systems The divergent evolutionary process was characterised by increasing efficiency in the management of the particular environmental niches by their associated groups. In all zones the agriculture was concentrated in the flatter parts of each local niche. These were not closed groups; there were contacts and trade over wide areas from the earliest times and which seem to have increased over time.

Around 1500 BCE the diversification process was superseded by a profound process of regional integration that in northern Peru is associated with the culture of the Temple of Chavín de Huantar, and in the south with Chiripa and Pucara. The period is usually known as the Formative, or the Early Horizon. The influence spread from these sites over what is modern Peru and Bolivia, and would correlate with an intensification of the contacts between peoples. This integration is characterised by a substantial agricultural base and, for the purposes of this paper, of the simultaneous and intensive management of two or more separated ecoclimatic zones as in the islands in an archipelago. This required an elaboration of the earlier agricultural organisation and permitted the accumulation of alimentary surpluses. It represents the beginning of coordinated management of the verticality. There was also a leap in agricultural technology particularly in the construction of large irrigation systems with reservoirs for the ordered control of water distribution. Maize was cultivated on the northern coast in Chavin times and potatoes at higher altitudes. Nevertheless there is no evidence as yet of agriculture on the mountain slopes; cultivation was still concentrated in the flattest areas though the extensive cultivation of both maize and potatoes is good evidence of the articulation of production over different ecological pisos.

In the flatter lands around Lake Titicaca (Moist Subalpine or Suni) ridged fields (camellones) were introduced for the stabilisation of cultivation in face of the irregularities of the water level of the lake and other climatic uncertainty (Erickson 1986, 1993). There were also a number of new techniques for the management of surface water runoff. All these systems operated for a substantial reduction of climatic risk.

The political systems of this period must have been quite elaborate and settlements became concentrated at the sites of sophisticated temple construction though not patterned as in true urbanism. The consensus among archaeologists is that they are not yet representative of state systems. It is generally agreed that the first consolidated state system emerged on the northern coast of Peru with the new wave of regional diversification that succeeded to fragmentation of the Chavin cultural hegemony – the period known as the Early Intermediate Period. The kingdom of Moche was a very complex system and evidences much political and agricultural innovation. However I am not going to describe it here since its productive management was centred in the homogeneous coastal plain environment. The great step to coordinated vertical control emerged with the expansion and consolidation of the Wari empire in most of Peru. This period is known as the Middle Horizon (or the Second Period of Regional Integration); it includes the Wari Empire and the Tiwanaku state system centred in Lake Titicaca.

The consolidation of vertical control in central Peru The Wari Empire arose in the Ayacucho region of south central Peru. In spite of the previous influence of Chavín in the area there is little evidence of any important socio-cultural or agricultural innovation. The details of its historical evolution throughout the Early Intermediate Period are still not well understood though it was clearly a period of local development along with intense contacts with coastal Peru and the Lake Titicaca region. What is clear is that coordinated control of vertical space in the Ayacucho region developed after 500 CE along with intensive urbanism, which was spread throughout the central Andes. The capital of the Wari Empire was at Huari (I use this spelling to designate the capital and the more linguistic spelling, Wari, for the Empire) near the modern city of Ayacucho. Wari imperial expansion occurred in two waves about a hundred years apart and the whole system fell apart by about 800 CE.

While the details of the elaboration of the system around the city of Huari are somewhat confusing (Isbell and MacEwan? 1991), its massive impact in the basin of the Pampas River some hundred kilometres to the south is very clear (Raymond e Isbell 1968, Schreiber 1991; 1992: Meddins 1991; 1994; Valdez and Vivanco 1994, Vivanco and Valdez 1993). Before the Wari expansion to this river basin the local peoples’ agricultural management was limited to one or two spatially separated pisos ecológicos. There is no evidence of any consistent cultivation of the valley slopes, the lands between the valley bottoms and the upper flatter lands were largely covered with bushes and used for hunting and gathering wild fruits and berries.

Around 600 CE the Pampas area was incorporated into the Wari Empire in the first phase of its expansion. The previous dispersed villages were almost completely erased and new planned towns were founded. A huge programme of agricultural terrace construction was undertaken on the slopes, which were then articulated with the livestock herding in the high punas. Although the details of the process differ somewhat in the basins of the three southern tributaries of the Pampas, particularly with respect to the local political control, the pattern of vertical integration is the same. The dispersed natural pisos were transformed into what Enrique Mayer (1979; 1983) designates as production zones. Some 80 years later there was a further expansion and elaboration of the whole system (Schreiber 1992).

Agricultural production zones are like a vertical array of horizontal belts on the mountainside like the ecological pisos but are artificial rather than natural formations and often a separation wall is built between them. Each zone is defined by a particular crop association, a distinctive socio-technological organisation and a specific labour calendar. A typical zone spans about 500 m of altitude though there is a lot of variation. Within each one the ecology is homogenised, and on the slopes the environmental parameters like solar radiation, temperature, humidity, etc. which influence in the flowering times and crop maturation rates are ranged with the vertical gradients and so very much reducing the climatic uncertainty. Hundreds of natural ecoclimatic niches are recomposed into just a few zones and their sectors (see Earls 1998, 2005). The differences between the various sectors of the same zone (i.e. with different topographic orientation and solar exposition, soils, etc.) follow an ordered pattern that could be coded into and read off a solar calendar. The management of this system is made possible by the emergence of a very effective social organisation that is articulated with it (Earls 1996, 1998). The production zone agriculture was one of the great innovations of environmental complexity management and should be considered as an early step in the Techno Garden and Adapting Mosaic scenarios of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (Alcamo et al 2005)

The Pampas basin area is one of the most topographically “wrinkled” areas of the Andes and its transformation by the Wari enabled a great jump in agricultural intensification. For the first time vertical agriculture was coherently articulated with livestock management. The large-scale construction of agricultural terraces was accompanied by a sophisticated system of irrigation for them and of the valley floor as well. Food storage silos (qollqa) were built in the higher parts of the rivers’ headlands taking advantage of the cold temperatures. Most relevant for the present argument is that this new system of technological vertical control permitted the coordination of productive activities between social groups in dispersed geographical areas. Khipus (information registers composed of knotted strings) were used and there is evidence of a complex astronomical calendar (Zuidema 1992), but how they would have operated in this period has to be extrapolated back from Inca times while taking into account what the archaeological record tells us about what was particular about the Wari state. In the following section on the Andean state communication system most of the description comes from our much more detailed knowledge of the Inka state, however the argument equally applies to Wari.

4. Information processing in the Andean state.    

All known civilisations that have reached a certain high level of complexity have developed some sort of state apparatus for the regulation of the relations between people, between people and things, between groups of people, of institutions of different kinds and of any of these with the state, of which people belong to what institutions and between all of these with the environment, have had to develop means of registering and accessing the information necessary for their regulatory activities. (It is well known that the word statistics derives from the word state.). Its existence lies in its management of the web of communication channels that is seen as of benefit to the other components of the society. The state must also be able to siphon off what is seen as a reasonable amount of the goods produced by these other components for the running of the system. To do all this, the state must keep records of all the information necessary for the taking of the decisions that continuously arise. These general considerations apply as much to the Wari state as they do to the Inca, and ideally to any modern state as well.

The basic question that we must ask is: how should society be organised so that when the state had to intervene to rectify any disequilibria or imbalance, it could do so with a minimum of effort and time delay? The state needed to know: when, under what circumstances, and at what scale an intervention would be necessary. Modern cybernetics and systems theory have shown us that effective administration demands least effort and energy expenditure when information processing and decision-making are distributed throughout the system, and ideally with the system organising itself into a hierarchy of self-similar levels. The social units at each level or node should be articulated by combined self regulation and mutual regulation – so that the need for intervention by higher levels can be minimised and the time available for wide scale and long term planning and development maximised, (and so avoid a sort of hyperactive self burn-out). The organising principles operating through the whole system should be clearly spelt out in as many ways as possible and replicated at every level, as I have indicated above. I have argued in other places that this was the case in the Inca state of Tawantinsuyu political organisation was generally consistent with these cybernetic principles (Earls 1982a, 1989, 1998, 2005) (particularly when contrasted with the chaos generated by the Spanish colonial administration).

The question of what the state needed to know then becomes a question of to knowing to what degree were the self-regulatory mechanisms effectively operating. For this the state needed to know of all potential sources of instability at every level throughout the hierarchy: the amount of cropland sown – where it was sown, when and with what crops -- incipient droughts, floods, crop plagues, frost occurrences, excessive rivalries between peoples or groups, political unrest and its expression, the stocks levels of the foods stored in the state silos (qollqa), the size and situation of the state llama herds, etc.. The list is enormous and the values of all the factors under constant change, however the values of these could be registered at specific times of the year on the khipus and any unanticipated drastic changes in such values would be read as “something needs to be done”.

5. System management and the social software.    

So far I have only considered the ecological and technological problems involved in the development of articulation in the Andean political system. It is obvious that the identification of what the state needed to know and the general nature of the fractal hierarchy do not tell us how the state, and the other levels of the social hierarchy, were able to communicate to redress the constantly arising instabilities. I will look at the general problem of communication in the Wari and Inca states and the way they got around the absence of what we define as true writing.

All states, excepting the Andean ones – but including the Mesoamerican Aztec and Maya states -- have come to use paper and ink for information management. Thus they are said to have used writing while the Waris and Inkas did not. However, this is of no help for understanding Andean state information processing. A fundamental characteristic of writing, in common with all human language, is the absence of any intrinsic connection between what is represented and the symbol(s) that stand for it. Meaning resides in a social consensus as to what the symbols stand for; symbolic communication is a process involving culturally shared abstractions, but this property is also shared with pictographic communication systems that are not writing. The big difference between writing and pictographic systems is this: In fully developed syllabic and/or ideographic writing the abstractions themselves can be represented symbolically and reflected upon by further symbolic representation, as can the abstractions of abstractions, and so on (the property of recursive reflexivity).

I shall now describe four of the best-known Andean pictographic symbol systems below; they are not fully reflexive communication systems but were used in such a way that they performed the vital role of broad category definition in the social information system. Following this I will discuss some relevant properties of the Inka khipu communication system – the system which most authors agree comes nearest to a true writing system.

  1. The representation of the basic hierarchical structure of the Cosmos and of the Inca’s, and the rest of humanity’s, place in this scheme. The best known and most studied instance of this is the diagram of the placement of the altars to the symbols of the components of the cosmic order in the Temple of the Sun in the capital city of Cusco presented by the indigenous chronicler Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamque. This order was replicated in many ways at every level of the socio-political hierarchy. It is a pictorial model of how social relations should be organised and related them to the vertical order of Andean space. (Zuidema and Quispe 1973, Earls and Silverblatt 1978, 1981) It is most certainly of preinka origin. At the earlier period we can point to the complex design carved in the “Doorway of the Sun” at Tiwanaku, Bolivia, and replicated innumerably in Tiwanaku and Wari ceramics and textiles.
  2. The ceque system was a complex system of sacred sites radiating out in lines (ceques) like the spokes of a wheel from the Temple of the Sun in Cusco. It expressed the Inca calendar order and the hierarchical organisation of the social groups that made up the Inca capital, and in this way it expressed the duties with which each group was charged, as well as the dates when these had to be carried out through the year. The system was also employed for the direct observation of the astronomical events on which the Inka calendar itself was based. Our knowledge of this system is mostly due to the lifelong study of it by Tom Zuidema (1964). Some Spanish chroniclers affirm that simpler versions of it were represented as paintings in hundreds of towns and villages outside of Cusco. Archaeological and ethnographic research reveals that it was often encoded into the very landscape – a symbolic landscape architecture. Sources indicate that it was in continuous elaboration throughout the Inka period (Earls 1976).
  3. Paintings (qellqa) are reported to have been made and kept depicting the important events of inka history and of other states incorporated into the empire. In some Andean communities the people still register such information as extended family make-up, social and economic obligations, and other data as painted on long wooden “tablas” (boards about two metres long and 30 cm wide) to the present day. The most well known are those of the community of Sarhua (Ayacucho) studied by Hilda Araujo (1998).
  4. There is much information encoded in different forms of textiles. The chroniclers report that each “nation” making up the empire was assigned a particular form and design of dress. Parts of the clothing incorporated pictographic modules in a sort of checkerboard pattern; these were called tocapo and are mostly associated with the ranks of the Inka nobility. Tocapo designs are quite abstract and elaborated, and their meanings in prehispanic times are not yet clearly understood. It seems evident that the tocapos depicted the identity, attributes, and functions of the wearer, but just how to read these still remains unknown to us. It is possible that some tocapu designs represented numbers, and given the importance that the Inkas placed on numbers, this is likely. The modular designs in the woven belts (chumpi) that are worn to the present day are pictographic representations of important geographic and celestial objects and events, can be considered as tocapus. In the ponchos of many communities worn by the men, and in the lliqlla (ornate shawls) worn by the women, tocapu-like designs are woven. Some textiles from the Wari and Tiwanaku states expressed the calendar order (Zuidema 1992, Cook 1996).
The number of information encoding forms used is too great for them all to be listed here. The important thing is that the encoded information expressed the organisational principles governing social life, the place, rank, and function of the persons and groups in the social and natural order. In the terms of information theory, the information was encoded with a high degree of redundancy. In practice this can be understood as encoding the same thing in as many ways so that the message is as clear as possible to as many people as possible. There was special emphasis on expressing the social and calendar order in as many ways as possible with the goal of eliminating any ambiguities and possible misinterpretations: no state could accept that any individual or group did not show up for their work some day with the excuse: “well it’s just that we didn’t know the date”; or “we thought that this day was the X-group’s turn”. While the forms are simpler, these basic patterns apply to the present day Quechua and Aymara communities.

6. The khipu    

A khipu is a device for the register of information in basically numerical form. It consists of a primary chord to which a variable number of adjacent secondary chords (pendants) were attached in a downward direction when the primary was held taut. These pendants were usually ordered into a number of subgroups separated by an empty space on the primary, by colour patterns, by thread style, and other markers. Numbers themselves were represented by knots. Broadly speaking, the non-numerical group markers indicated the categories to which the numbers referred. Often each group of pendants was associated with a top string attached so that it went in the opposite direction to the pendants. The top strings often represented a number corresponding to the sum of the numbers represented in the corresponding subgroup of pendants. To both the pendants and the top strings other subsidiary strings were often attached and to these often-secondary subsidiaries hung, and so on. A very simple khipu is given in Fig. 2, which indicates how the number of turns in the knots and the placing order of these down the pendants represented numbers. Their use did not only involve the four arithmetical operations but also of more sophisticated mathematical structures like matrices and hierarchies (Ascher and Ascher 1981). In another part (Earls ms) I argue that at least in Inka times khipu structure had reached a level of development such that self-referential abstraction could have been encoded in them. If this was the case then spatially dispersed khipu managers (khipukamayoq) could have used them to communicate information about how information was encoded and agree on changes to be made. This would be necessary for the standardisation of khipu structure and communication over the wide areas involved in state regulation. In this context it is relevant that Urton and Brezine (2005) have been able to show that the organisation of khipus that are associated with the Inka state expresses the hierarchy of the state.

Concluding remarks on the Andean system

In general these Andean systems are what Isbell has termed energy averaging systems (1978). In order to assure a high level of productivity for the units at the lower nodes of the hierarchy there had to be a socio-technological organisation that facilitated self-organised productive activity at those nodes. I have argued that given the wrinkled complexity of the Peruvian Andean environment, increases in productivity occurred in steps marked by innovations in the coordination of neighbouring agro-ecosystems over the course of history: first in the Initial Period by the articulation of ecological pisos and later in Wari times by the production zones. The wide scale political articulation of the system disappeared with the fall of the Wari Empire around 800 CE but at the lower levels, equivalent say to the modern communities, the basic patterns of it were maintained up to the time of the Inca expansion some 500 years later and still operate to the present day. The Incas elaborated and extended the system at a scale of 30º of latitude, and introduced innovations like the ceque system mentioned above and the agricultural control system of Moray [4]

Given the limitations of space I cannot explain just how this all worked here; details are to be found in the cited literature.

7. Some indications for today’s world    

The agricultural order of world today is based on the accessibility of abundant and cheap fossil fuels. High levels of production are maintained with a minimum of horizontal coordination. It is what Tainter, Allen, Little and Hoekstra (2003) have termed a high gain system. A measure of energy quality can be expressed in terms of the amount of energy extracted divided by the energy invested, directly or indirectly, for the location, extraction and refinement of that fuel. The magnitude of the ratio – energy return on energy invested, (EROEI, EROI or gain) – for a particular form of energy indicates a lot about the functioning of a society that depends on that energy. A high gain society operates quite differently to a low gain one. The industrial capitalist global society is based on the easy availability of oil – a fuel of very high-energy gain. As Tainter et al (2003) put it: “Energy gain has implications beyond mere accounting. It fundamentally influences the structure and organisation of living systems, including human societies.” A society based in the availability of a high gain fuel can be termed a high gain society, and one that depends on a low gain energy like human labour is a low gain society. A high-gain system deals with increased complexity by extending the vertical hierarchy of the control levels. The problem of error propagation is met by intensive message replication and high-speed transmission. Coordination becomes an essentially statistical process – as long as there is sufficient correlation between enough components of the system and abundant high quality energy then “somehow things will work out”. In the post-peak oil transition period to a low-gain world, wide-scale coordination will depend on the incorporation of low gain organisational technologies such as those I have outlined here. These technologies were developed in the Andes over a period of various millennia; while historical dynamics work at a much faster rate today things can still not be made to work over-night. Still, I hope to have shown that we do not have to reinvent the wheel.


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[1] The 49 life zones that do not appear in Tossi's classification have largely been established by forestry studies in areas which lack reasonably reliable meteorological registers, or have none at all. For overall calculations involving the variety of the Andes with respect to the rest of Earth I will use the figure of 84 life zones, with the conditions specified in fn 14. For variety calculations within Peru I shall use the data given by Tossi (1976)

[2] The Holdridge model might be an elaborated Sierpinski triangle

[3] The terms Yunga, Qechwa, Suni, Puna are the terms commonly used by the Andean peoples to designate the successive vertical ecological pisos.

[4] Moray is an Inca agricultural site in which the production zone system is artificially replicated in a very small space by the manipulation of the local microclimates made possible at high altitudes (Earls 1989, 1998).