Research focus

We propose to examine the precursors of the political systems that culminated in the Inca empire, the largest native polity of the Americas (ca. AD 1400-1532). At the time of their realm, the Andes were characterised by ethnic groups comprised of segmentary kin collectives, or lineages. Each group, or polity, was headed by an hereditary leader who directed the group’s political, economic and ritual affairs. In cases where various segments confederated, one leader could ascend to become the overlord.  

Such polities were especially prominent in the study region, Ancash (Peru), according to 16th century colonial accounts. Each lord levied labour obligations from family-households to coordinate collective tasks (irrigation, ritual, war), while having moral duties to ensure order and the people’s well-being. A leader’s legitimacy was pinned to his bloodline and link to an exalted founding ancestor. Ancestors were seen as conqueror-progenitors, and in taking over a territory, acted to establish a patrimony and descent group; when they died, leaders also came to be venerated as the groups’ patron divinities. ‘Polity,’ in this arrangement, had less to do with a territory or bounded region, than the collective social relations of allegiance and reciprocity owed to a native lord (Espinoza, Gose, Ramirez, Zuloaga). 

This kind of Andean social organisation has three corollaries with key project implications. The first is a tendency, over time, for more groups to feature ancestors at the apex of their social hierarchy. Each ethnic group was divided into ranked segments (lineages, moieties, ayllu), which occasioned competition and alliances. Noble lines could develop or branch off due to various causes, such as rivalry, migration and succession, a process described as ‘heroic segmentation’ (Sahlins, also Godelier, Valeri, Zuidema). By Inca times, the Andean area was dominated by a host of ‘segmentary lordships.’ The principal relationships articulating the segments were embodied in persons of authority and material forms taken to be their manifestations (ancestor effigies, tomb-houses, estates, monoliths, rock outcrops). 

A second corollary holds that esteemed leaders come to share in the status of divinities. We postulate a process that sees living rulers as different from other humans and increasingly associated with supernaturals and celestial phenomena (Castillo, Isbell, Kolata, Makowski, Zuidema). Lords become treated as divine beings: receiving titles, gifts and offerings, and carried on litters. They are also recognised as conduits of riches, seen in finery, public generosity and entourages. Through clothing and ritual performances, leaders also impersonate divinities to legitimise their ontological difference, often as earthly representatives of esteemed forebears (Freidel, Hocart, Houston/Stuart, López Austin, Schele). Their deaths will tend to populate the political landscape with small-scale divine kingships whose ideology is fueled by burial cult. The resulting hierarchy, the ‘cosmic polity’ (Sahlins), incorporates the entirety of social relations, including with nonhuman beings (ancestors, valuables, spirits, animals, landscape features), a common indigenous way of organising their worlds (Allen, de la Cadena, Descola,Viveiros de Castro). 

Third, a critical innovation is the integration of the esteemed dead into the political life of nobles; they become institutionalised as regular actors in the socio-political system. Ancestor cult is a common world religious practice that perpetuates established power structures; its core ideology promotes the authority of elders, smooth transmission of power and resources (upon ruler’s death), and the moral qualities of rulership. In the Inca empire (the best-documented Amerindian case), not only were dead kings seen as omnipresent; they could in fact always be present through durable effigy forms (mummies, relic-objects, carvings). These presided over ceremonies and feasts, were consulted as oracles, and commanded their own estates of land, property and staff. Early accounts also detail how followers cleaned, clothed and made offerings to the effigies, treating them essentially as the living embodiments of former rulers. Where and when such practices were adopted, and under what contexts, comprises the key concern of this project. 

Post-Conquest historical accounts shape our picture of Andean lordships, but archaeology finds elements of such political systems much earlier in time (Burger, Dillehay, Isbell, Lau). This project highlights northern Ancash Department because its record shows very early evidence of elaborate burial cults arising in unison with unprecedented political centralisation in new urban settlements, ca. 200 BC-AD 200. Yet their interrelation has not been recognised or studied in detail, due to limitations of isolated projects, uneven coverage and imperfect datasets for comparison. This project addresses these deficiencies by contributing new complementary case studies which test a regional model—that a new form of Andean complexity arose during the first centuries AD due to: conflict and competition; social segmentation; the institutionalisation of ancestor veneration in political life; and innovative divine lordship ideology as seen in imagery and effigies. The above corollaries are critical to investigate because they should leave detectable archaeological traces. 

Conflict & competition. Previous work already observes resource competition in north-central Peru by ca. 200 BC (Brown-Vega, Chicoine, Giersz, Herrera, Ikehara, Millaire, Proulx, Shibata, Wilson). The record shows a surge of defensive and hilltop sites, often with fortifications and in strategic ‘clusters’ associated with contested territories. High-walled enclosures appear to have protected factions within communities, and increasingly abundant weaponry and warrior imagery on pottery and stonecarving also point to militaristic orientations in art and leadership (Chamussy, Ghezzi, Lau, Rucabado). Increasing warfare and conflict appear to have characterised highland and coastal valleys shortly after the earlier Chavín period of religious integration (1000-400 BC). A key project aim will be to assess the patterns and chronology of fortifications through reconnaissance and surface collections in the Moro and Pallasca regions. 

Segmentation. An indicator for new social segmentation may be the growing reliance on discrete walled compounds, each with its own residential, administrative and funerary sectors. Compound size and layout can vary according to the ranking and means of its respective group (e.g., family, lineage). The compounds should also show their own suite of practices, valuables and markers of rank (Moore, Niles). Inca accounts indicate that each noble compound acted as its own estate, with its own system of wealth (lands and servants for herds/crops, heirlooms, items of office) linked to its respective ancestor. We propose to examine social segmentation through spatial analyses of residential complexes at Pashash and Cerro San Isidro: a profile of the respective groups can emerge by detailing the number, dimensions, layouts and activities of the compounds. Variability will also be revealed in diet and discard patterns, ceramic and architectural styles, access to long-distance goods, and bioarchaeological analyses of skeletal remains (methods detailed below). 

Ancestor veneration. The remains of the esteemed dead, including their associated spaces and ritual equipment, may also act as key lines of evidence. These should be in close proximity to spaces for the living. We would expect tombs and funerary shrines directly in or adjacent to buildings associated with leaders (residential, public and administrative spaces). As part of regular ritual practices, tombs should show repeated interments, as well as episodic re-entry, offerings, and/or closure. 

Fancy burials are known at both project sites, but their connection to adjacent palatial and administrative constructions have not been systematically researched. At Cerro San Isidro, survey work by project members Ikehara & Chicoine observed the presence of ceramics and skeletal remains from looted stone-lined tombs (ca. AD 200); excavations are needed to discern and date their function in relation to the elite compounds and the rest of the site. Meanwhile, recent vandalism and illicit brush fires at Pashash inadvertently revealed dense stone buildings in roughly orthogonal plan, probably a large residential-administrative complex. Earlier work (1970s, Grieder & Bueno) uncovered a major noble tomb in the complex that dates after the initial building phase, but the research was limited to the tomb and did not recognise the surrounding palatial context. Our work will target the earlier building phases and investigate how the complex, as a whole, came to incorporate elite burials into a functioning seat of polity.

Imagery & effigies. Besides burial activities, our model holds that leaders will actively link their authority to ancestors. We should also expect ancestor representations and symbols to become more important in the belongings of lords and nobles (Arnold, Cummins, Hastorf, Lau). Veneration may be evidenced by special vessels and discard from offerings and feasting. There may be many images of ancestors to provide greater opportunities for public engagements. Modeled “faceneck jars” first appear in the region ca. 200 BC and indicate new kinds of physical interactions with effigies of well-attired personages, embodied as corpulent, ‘giving’ vessels (Ikehara/Chicoine). Similarly, the pottery imagery of highland Recuay and coeval neighbouring groups, AD 1-700 emphasises the veneration of lords.

The pottery was used as ritual paraphernalia and offerings to the dead, and modeled figures often featured an oversized male lord/ancestor flanked by women, warriors and animals. They show a series of stylised acts of veneration: pouring libations, embraces, dancing, and presentation of gifts. Depicting such interactions with lords was an innovation that developed in the time in question, and part of increasingly popular practices to involve ancestralised lords in public and political ritual.