Prehispanic Intensive Agriculture, Settlement Pattern and Political Economy in the Western Venezuelan Llanos

Rafael Angel Gassón Pacheco

PhD Thesis. 1998

Explanations are needed for the small number, scale, variety and limited spatial distribution of intensive agriculture systems in the lowlands of western Venezuela during Prehispanic times. There are two current models to account for the characteristics of these systems: 1) a population pressure model, in which intensive agriculture is related to the basic needs of a growing population in high-risk environments and 2) a political economy model, in which intensive agriculture is a productive strategy related to specific economic needs of privileged segments of the society, in this case, long-distance exchange and warfare. To test these models, a program of regional survey, mapping, and surface collections was done at the Cedral region in the state of Barinas. Calculations on the size of the local population and agricultural potential productivity done under different assumptions, do not support the notion that the Cedral region was experiencing population pressure. It is proposed that moderate to important quantities of agricultural surpluses were produced in that region. However, the imbalance between the local population and the agricultural potential productivity do not validate per se the political economy model. For that reason, we explored the archaeological and ethnohistoric record of the area to generate hypotheses on how these proposed surpluses could have been disposed of. Functional ceramic analysis indicated that at the central place of the region there was a major concern with serving activities, in comparison with lower level sites of the regional hierarchy. Additional archaeological indicators, like causewayed enclosures and regional exchange networks, suggest the existence of ceremonial feasting for political purposes in that region. The ethnography and ethnohistory of South America indicate that ceremonial feasting was a critical mechanism for the creation and consolidation of social ties. These kind of activities seem to be closely related to central places, which may contribute to explain the relatively small size, scarcity and dispersion of these agricultural systems on the Venezuelan savannas during prehispanic times.