Time and Process in an Early Village Settlement System on the Bolivian Southern Altiplano

Jason (Jake) R. Fox

PhD Thesis 2007

The emergence of sedentary village lifeways occurred in many regions of the world, and was one of the most significant landmarks in prehistory. Traditionally, archaeological research has concentrated on understanding the origins of village life and its evolution into politically ranked chiefdoms and states. Relatively less attention has been paid to the many regions of the world where village society did not lead to the formation of more complex political organization. The current research is a diachronic study of some very long-lived village settlements known as the Wankarani Complex in the Oruro Department of Bolivia. It is focused on change and continuity within a persistently small-scale village settlement system over the course of more than a millennium. Rather than studying one of the early prehistoric village societies that gave rise to complex societies and asking “why?,” this study centers on a very resilient early village society that did not give rise to ranked polities and asks “why not?.”

Excavations at two Wankarani sites that were occupied for more than a millennium during the southern Andean Formative Period (1800 BC – 200 AD) were directed toward obtaining sizeable samples of artifacts from all phases of occupation in order to detect changes in subsistence, economy, and socio-economic and political organization. Results suggest considerable changes in subsistence and economy, including a trajectory of increasing importance of herding and agriculture and the development of long-distance trade networks in which these early villages participated. Despite these changes, growth of the political economy was minimal, and did not result in the emergence of marked social ranking or economic inequality.

The Wankarani trajectory provides an excellent comparative perspective on Formative Period social evolution in the Lake Titicaca Basin, where early village society led to the rise of larger settlements, politico-religious centers, and eventually centralized polities. The different trajectory followed by the Wankarani Complex may be a function of an extremely risk-minimizing agro-pastoral system that inhibited the growth of both the regional population and the political economy.The Wankarani trajectory provides an excellent comparative perspective on Formative Period social evolution in the Lake Titicaca Basin, where early village society led to the rise of larger settlements, politico-religious centers, and eventually centralized polities. The different trajectory followed by the Wankarani Complex may be a function of an extremely risk-minimizing agro-pastoral system that inhibited the growth of both the regional population and the political economy.