The thing that has always most interested me about anthropology is evolution. It fascinates me to look at characteristics today and be able to figure out why they are that way, that there is a purpose, a reason, an adaptation which overcame a threat to survival. Adaptation can be seen on many scales from accumulating over millions of years to just a few generations changing their way of life to better suit their surroundings. I was at once intrigued when the South American cultures were presented as having adapted to a variety of extreme environments along the Andes Mountain Range. Where these took place, in modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, have several directions along which the settings change. The west coast contains a thin band of fertile micro-climates, the north is mainly desert plain and the east and south are decided more by the Andes Mountains. The survival strategies in these areas ranged from alpaca and llama herding (animals who themselves are expertly adapted to their specific environment) in the highest altitudes where no agriculture is possible, farming of potatoes, maize, and beans lower down (though still fairly high altitude), and utilization of water wildlife along the west coast low altitudes. One specific example we were given which I thought was very clever adaptation took place in the highlands of the south central Andes. Here one difficulty is that it gets fairly hot during the day and very cold at night. In order to adapt to this dilemma, the Tiwanaku people developed an agricultural technique, “flooded-raised field”, in which mounds of soil are built up above the natural level of the ground and canals are dug through them. These canals are then filled with water, serving several purposes. Most obviously this supplies the crops with moisture, but it also serves to absorb the heat of the day and emit it during the night, keeping the crops from getting too cold.
We also see these cultures’ political strategies adapt to the environment. In the lowlands the Moche were able to expand their control by having several satellite political centers which each ruled over individual valleys. This delegation of power increased their reach without making themselves move over several valleys. Apart from their religious influence, the Tiwanaku seemed to have expanded their control by taking possession of trade – something both necessary and difficult in mountainous environment.
Though these cultures were well adapted to their extremely variable environment, it was still environment which in the end caused their collapse and led to the vacuum filled by the Inca.