John Murra developed his now-famous theory of the Andean “vertical archipelago” in Formaciones Económicas y Políticas del Mundo Andino (1975, trans. Economic Organization of the Inka State, 1980), which grew out of his research in the Peruvian highlands between 1958 and 1973. Murra argued that pre-Columbian societies in the Andes sought to control a range of ecological zones across the vertical landscape, taking advantage of varying climactic conditions found at different elevations in the mountain environment.
Using colonial-era surveys and censuses, known as visitas, for the Huánuco and Chucuito regions, Murra showed how Andean community members would travel, sometimes for days, to lowland and highland plots throughout the Andes and its eastern and western slopes to areas where plants such as maize, ají, cotton, beans, and other warm-weather crops thrived. At higher altitudes, potatoes and camelids, like llamas, were more important, complementing harvests and providing labor and wool for textiles. While noting wide variance in group size, Murra’s suggests that this was a form of cultural and economic reproduction that pre-dated the rise of the Incan empire.
Murra highlighted the significance of economic systems of reciprocity between kinship groups, known as ayllus, their leaders, known as kurakas, and in later times, the Incan state. While unequal, these reciprocal relationships represented a moral economy in which both communities and the Incan elite were expected to pay each other tribute, at least symbolically.
Murra was less clear about the use of these agricultural colonies during Incan times as a tool to project political and cultural hegemony over newly-conquered communities. While Murra focused primarily on what is today central Peru, later scholars have cautioned that his theories seem less applicable in other areas of the Andes, especially in what is today Ecuador. In the northern Andes, regional markets appear to have played a more important role in economic exchange than the systems of reciprocity posited by Murra.
Other essays in the volume can be read as a survey of the different ecological zones in terms of their economic function and cultural meaning. The reader finds an essay on maize and its ceremonial uses, and rites associated with warm-weather crops. Murra explores the importance of highland pastoralism and how the increase in the size of the llama herds affected regional life through wool production and textile manufacturing, which formed an important commodity within exchange networks. Much of his work continues to form the core of our understanding of Andean history today.
Murra also examined Andean labor systems used to work these fields and pastures, including the mit’a, a form of communal labor, and yanaconas, which Murra refers to as “servant populations.” His discussion of yanaconaje is a good example of his recurring exhortation to avoid using Eurocentric concepts, such as feudalism and slavery, to describe Andean social institutions. Commenting specifically on the historical debate over whether yanaconas were slaves, and if the Incan Empire was a slave society, Murra said it made more sense to seek out local and regional sources and understand them on their own terms instead of trying to fit Andean concepts into European frameworks of social theory.
Although pre-dating the criticism of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory in the late 1970s, Murra attempts to view the Americas and its indigenous populations from their perspective, the so-called “periphery,” as opposed to the European “center.” Overall, his early advocacy of multidisciplinary research, including an emphasis on the benefits of archaeological, historical, as well as ethnographical methods to analyze historical societies was path-breaking and continues to influence scholarship of the Andes today.
Murra, John V. Formaciones Económicas y Políticas del Mundo Andino. Primera edición. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1975.
Murra, John V. The Economic Organization of the Inka State. Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1980
By N. H. Gill