Science + Technology

UCLA Team Discovers Andean Trade Route, Clues to Origins of Civilization

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The road to civilization may be the same asthe road to riches, suggest findings from a UCLA archaeological team active inthe Peruvian highlands.

Over the past 15 years, the team led byUCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish has uncovered a circuit of almost 100pre-Inca settlements, some dating back more than 4,000 years, along a traderoute that is still used today for commercial purposes.

"These settlements reveal the role of tradein the origins of civilization in this part of the world, perhaps elsewhere aswell," said Charles Stanish, a professor in UCLA's anthropology department andthe director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. "A number ofarchaeologists believe that trade is a key factor in the development of complexsocieties, or 'civilization,' as it is commonly called. This certainly appearsto be a case where civilization developed in an area where trade was a centralfactor."

Stanish compares the 150-mile-long circuitthrough the highlands of the Lake Titicaca Basin to a small version of the SilkRoad, the ancient trade route through Asia that dates back millennia. Insteadof silk and other goods that flowed between China and the West, suchpredecessors of the Inca as the Qaluyu and Pucara peoples appear to have tradedgold, feathers, pelts, honey, hardwoods and herbal medicines. Also unlike theSilk Road, which has been known to Westerners since the Middle Ages, thehigh-plains trade route remains unexplored because the area is so remote anddifficult to navigate and because it has been terrorized for years by theinfamous revolutionary group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.

Stanish's discoveries, most of which haveyet to be excavated, dot an area that is about the size of the country Belizeand are located in the high Andes, or "altiplano." Religious temples with stonefoundations are the most common prehistoric remains that the UCLA team hasfound along what is today a dirt road that leads into Amazonian forest throughmountain passes. Pottery shards and other remains suggest that houses and smalltowns or villages once surrounded the temples, but have since decayed.

Stanish's team has found stylisticallysimilar pottery shards at the sites along the circuit, suggesting that thesettlements traded among each other.

The team has also found shards of fancypottery known to have been produced at Pucara, a large pre-Inca settlement thatarchaeologists had previously dated to 1300 B.C. The shards suggest a historyof trade between Pucara and the other settlements along the high-plains traderoute.

"For generations, archaeologists andhistorians have debated why people stopped wandering and what caused them toform the first civilizations," Stanish said. "These findings join mountingevidence pointing to the importance of trade."

Stanish's most recent discoveries — twotemples in the northern Titicaca Basin — were made in November, and they havebeen tentatively dated as between 1300 B.C. and A.D. 200. These templescorrespond to the Qaluyu and Pucara cultures.

"When people think of temples, they thinkof something like classical Greek structures with columns," Stanish said. "Butthese sites are just mounds on hilltops. They're not visually compelling, butthey are some of the earliest temples ever found in the highlands and they revealorigins of civilization in this part of the world."

"Roads follow the paths of leastresistance, and in this case they followed older roads that linked togetherthese older settlements," Stanish said. "The new discoveries help us determinethe extent of Pucara and earlier trade into the forested eastern Andean slopesdown into the Amazon basin. Little by little, we are piecing together ascientific puzzle that will give us answers to the origins of humancivilization. This is one of the great goals of modern archaeology."

Stanish isthe co-author — with Brian Bauer, a University of Illinois at Chicago associateprofessor of anthropology — of the 2001 book, "Ritual and Pilgrimage in theAncient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon" (University of TexasPress). In addition, Stanish is the author of a forthcoming book, "AncientTiticaca" (University of California Press).

Stanishalso is the moderator for "Empire Buildersof Ancient Peru," a Saturday, Feb. 9, daylong program presented by UCLA Extensionand the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. The event, which assembles leadingexperts on the foundations of the great Peruvian civilizations, runs from 9a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in UCLA's Lenart Auditorium, Fowler Museum of CulturalHistory. For more information, call (310) 825-2272.

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