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Stored crops of the Inka August 11th, 2019 by

Much of what ancient people leave behind is related to farming, as I was reminded on a recent trip to Inka Llajta, the largest Inka site in Bolivia, in Pocona, Cochabamba.

Little is known for sure about Inka Llajta, except that it was built on the far, southeast border of the Inka Empire, which they called Tawantinsuyu. The Inka were often at war, expanding into the territory of their neighbors, so it’s possible that the 30-hectare settlement was built as a garrison. Inka Llajta is built on the bottom of a steep cliff, on a bluff above the river. The spot would have been fairly easy to defend, while a waterfall on the site provided essential water.

Fortunately, the site has recently been cleared of much of its vegetation and it is now easier to see. Although I have been to Inka Llajta several times, thanks to the recent brush removal I was now able to see that ringing the front of the site is a row of storage pits.

Until a generation ago, potatoes were planted mostly in the rainy season. Now there is more irrigation and potatoes can be planted somewhere in Bolivia year-round. But until twenty or thirty years ago, some potatoes were stored in underground pits, where the tubers could be kept for six months or more.

I pointed out the row of pits to our guide, doña Berta, who is from one of the local communities. The pits were not on the tour. They had no sign to label and explain them. Humble agricultural features are easy to ignore.

“These were phinas,” I suggested, using the Quechua word I had learned for potato storage pits.

Doña Berta said that in Pocona, such pits are called “k’ayus,” but she immediately recognized them. “We used to make pits, put straw on the bottom, fill them with potatoes and cover them with earth,” she said, confirming that the pits were for potato storage. She added that the pits can also hold other roots and tubers, such as oca.

Inka Llajta is a grand site. It has one building that was 70 meters long, one of the largest roofed structures in the ancient Americas. But Tawantinsuyu lived by farming, and if we look close enough, we can still see where they kept their potato harvest, just a few steps from the fortified buildings, overlooking the valley below. 

When I first visited Inka Llajta 20 years ago it appeared much the way that the Inka had left it. Since then, the site has acquired a parking lot, a visitor’s center, and now you have to hire a guide (like the good-natured Berta, or one of her 16 colleagues, all from the local area). Inka Llajta is now full of signs offering information, including speculation about the site’s past.

One large block of rooms is labelled as an administrative area, while another was supposedly a “specialist’s area” where astronomers, agricultural specialists and builders gathered to organize their calendar based on the weather and the stars. The signs refer to another building as an aqllawasi, where girls of Tawantinsuyu were trained in weaving and brewing chicha, an alcoholic maize drink. In fact, these rooms could have been used for anything, and everything.

A natural boulder in the center of the large plaza is described as an “altar”, based on tales told by the hacienda workers to Erland Nordenskiöld, the Swedish ethnographer, in 1913.

A small tower near the edge of Inka Llajta has a view up the river, where a sentinel might have looked out for approaching enemies. But a sign says the tower was an astronomic observatory that the Inka used to gaze at the stars and decide when to plant. No explanation tells why being two meters closer to the heavens provides a better view for a stargazer.

As we have seen in earlier blogs, contemporary Andean peoples do look at the stars, but they also observe foxes, lizards, wild plants, cactus, clouds, mountains and use many other indicators to predict the year’s weather. A tower would have been of limited use.

Archaeologists use ethnographic analogies to interpret the past. The function of a structure or an artifact may be understood by comparing it to a similar item used by recent people. For example, it is reasonable to interpret the pits at Inka Llajta as places to store tubers, because rural people living near the site still kept potatoes and oca in similar holes until recently.

When archaeological sites are interpreted for the public, speculation can do more harm than good, fixing ideas in peoples’ minds that are hard to shift when new evidence emerges. As surely as an army marches on its stomach, in past civilizations agriculture made the world go around. Ancient peoples no doubt worshipped their gods and pondered the stars, but they also went about the mundane business of feeding themselves, and at archaeological sites you can still get a glimpse of how they produced and stored their food, if you keep your eyes open.

Further reading

Jesús Lara popularized Inka Llajta in newspaper stories after his 1927 visit. Lara’s description of the site is admirably free of speculation; he debunks the idea that the boulder on the site was an altar. His book can still be read with profit.

Lara, Jesús 1988 Inkallajta—Inkaraqay. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. 109 pp.

Previous blog stories

Forgetting Inca technology

Let nature guide you

Reading the mole hills

Death of the third flowers

Betting on the weather

Scientific name

Oca is a native Andean tuber crop, Oxalis tuberosa

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