South American Archipelago Economics

South American Archipelago Economics

The basic unit of Incan society is the alluyu. An Alluyu is a group of related families responsible for their assigned land and herds. Each alluyu was divided into equal halves. Each half would be composed of people from one lineage. Men and women from the two different groups would marry each other. This would keep land and labor in the same alluyu. Labor was exchanged for labor and this self-supporting unit accomplished many varied tasks.

The close kin relationship between the different villages produced a different type of economy. Rather then looking outside the polity for specialized production each village was able to provide these items for the other. There would be no lack of access to any resource. For example, a family from a high elevation may be centered in a potato-growing zone. This family may send grandma off to tend the coca fields, which are a day’s walk from the main homestead. They may send a brother to herd llama in the highlands. This is looked at as a shared, community/family strategy. The result is that a single kin group has multiple settlements scattered around at various elevations. Murra coined the term “archipelago” or Island group of little villages.

In 1967 John Murra formally proposed an economical theory for Andean settlements. He based his theory on ethnohistorical documents that inspired a lot of archaeological research. This model describes a specific pattern of settlement location across the ecologically varied landscapes. Vertical archipelago explains the economical and social relationship found between these settlements. It was originally claimed to be uniquely Andean but it is now identified in the Himalayas and in the high volcanic Polynesian Islands.

Archaeologists use evidence of domestic habitation and material evidence of maintained identity links to a highland center to define or prove verticality. These are social and cultural ties to a core society. The failure to meet both of these conditions would signify a socio-political configuration other than a colonial “archipelago.” Domestic habitation without clear evidence of highland identity would indicate a resident population of a local tradition. Conversely, Isolated objects of highland identity without evidence of residence would suggest non-colonial patterns such as long distance exchange. (Cohen)

The evidence looked for would be a thing such as reproduction of highland religious practices. This would be found in artifacts such as offering caches, similar sacrifices and libation rituals in the household context. Since burial and treatment of the dead is generally an important ritual funerary rituals should reflect the highland groups of that colonized the area. Both residency and identity requirements must be met before a true archipelago relationship can be accepted. Traditional approaches to recognizing colonies or Verticality have been based on artifact assemblages from individual sites. By linking these sites verticality can be theorized.

The Andean environment is highly variable on a short-distance scale. Within 100 km the environment ranges from a marine rich coast to the arid mountain peaks of the Andes. The landscape can be envisioned as a series of steps or tiers with different resources available in each. Because of the steepness of the Andes, these tiers are relatively close together. Unlike less dramatic territories, where there might be vast expanses of a similar ecological zone to cross before you arrive to a different type of climate or resources. A new climate and resource territory is available with in a few days walk.

In response to this environment a society sets up satellite villages in other tiers. Because of the close proximity of these satellite villages they did not develop into separate cultures but maintained their identity with the main village. Family members move between the different satellites and the main village. All considered themselves to be members of the same ethnic and political group.

The oldest societies to the Incas used verticality and ecological verticality still continues today. The ecological purposes were supplemented by functional verticality, in which the term (mitimaes) is used for ecological colonists and groups of people sent to certain locations for non-ecological purposes, like craftwork or guarding a frontier. When the artisans were sent to these various islands they were granted land so that they could be self-sufficient. They became islands within the islands.

In this verticality theory each ethnic group tries to control a maximum of ecological tiers. The bulk of the population was in the highland, with permanent colonies forming an archipelago of “islands” physically separated from the core. Constant social and trade contact was maintained. This is not considered commerce because no coin or market economy developed. The relations were those of reciprocity and redistribution. All members of the society had rights to products of all zones, based on kinship ties that were reaffirmed through ceremonial activities in the core. The population from each of the islands was considered members of the same group.

The motive behind verticality is identified as a desire to exploit directly non-highland agricultural resources. As various colonists settled in close proximity to each other from different primary settlements multiethnic settlements occurred. This was not always a peaceful situation.

Two changes occurred as the colonies and system grew larger. First the colonies grew more distant from the core. As a result exercising the colonists’ rights became more difficult. As they lost their ability to exercise their rights those settled in the core power began to exploit those living in the periphery. Secondly, non-ecological types of colonies are added, such as pottery, metal working and military colonies. These groups are specialized and not as easily associated with the production colonists. Finally, Pizzaro and the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire. They introduced concepts of individual ownership and a market economy. These are the reasons why the Vertical Archipelago model of Andean economics and settlement has faded away.


Moseley, Michael. The Incas and Their Ancestors. Thames and Hudson. 1992.

Masuda, Shimda, and Morris. Andean Ecology and Civilization: An Interdiciplinary Perspective on Andean Ecological Complementariety. “The limits and limitations of the “vertical Archipelago” in the Andes.” 1985.