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«Chapter 4. HORTICULTURAL SOCIETIES I. Introduction A. Basic Concepts Horticultural societies are differentiated from hunting and gathering societies ...»

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VI. Environmental Gradients and Core Response The ecological and humidity gradient from the Pacific across the Andes into the Amazon Basin is one of the most spectacular in the world. It provides an excellent example of how the same basic subsistence system can lead to very different outcomes in different en


4. Stonehenge, near Salisbury in England, is an example of this type of monument.

Horticultural Societies 4-71 vironments by the Stewardian culture core mechanism. The Coastal Valleys are narrow oasis ribbons in an extremely dry desert, flowing from 6,000m peaks to the sea. On the east, the Andes plunge very sharply from a similar range of tall peaks to nearly sea level in perhaps 50 km, carving spectacular gorges in the eastern flanks of the mountains. The Eastern Lowlands are hot, wet tropical forest, with mostly poor, heavily leached soils. In the mountains are a series of high (3,000-4,000 m), cool, semiarid intermontane valleys covered with fresh alluvium from the eroding Andes.

The human ecological gradient was equally sharp. The wet Eastern lowlands were the home of simple horticulturalists and hunters and gatherers. The intermontane valleys and miniature Niles along the Peruvian Coast were host to sophisticated chiefdoms, citystates, and ultimately the Inca Empire. The Inca Empire developed very late, mostly in the 15th Century, and it was immensely long (ca 2,000 km) but very narrow, following the montane valleys and coastal rivers. The Andean and Amazonian societies were in long, direct and continuous contact along the Eastern side of the Andes at roughly 2,000 m elevation. Machu Picchu, the famous “lost city of the Incas” was a fortified border town on this frontier, only 50 km or so downriver toward Amazonia from the Inca capital at Cuzco. The toolkit of the lowlanders was relatively modest, and the scarcity of good soils kept population densities low, accounting for the relatively simple bigman-led political systems with little division of labor. The Inca Empire and precursor city-states had a much more productive agriculture centered on good alluvial soils. Terracing, irrigation, manuring and other advanced horticultural techniques allowed dense populations and sufficient labor efficiency to permit the emergence of urban centers with considerable craft specialization as well as bureaucracies and professional military forces.

The sharp differences in technology across this frontier cannot have had to do with evolutionary differences due to development in isolation. Trade, raiding, and other forms of contact gave ample opportunity for the lowland people to acquire highland technology, if they could use it. They didn’t apparently because they couldn’t. Thus, the extremely steep natural-ecological gradient on the East side of the Andes was (and still is) matched by an extremely steep human ecological gradient. As we shall see a broad culture core reflects the gradient as well. For Steward (1959), it must have been gratifying to see how well his culture core concept applied in South America.

Horticultural societies also furnish classic examples of differences determined by history rather than ecology. The most famous is the difference between the bigman systems of Melanesia and the ranked chiefdoms of Polynesia (Sahlins, 1963; see also Orlove cite in first chapter). Here, peoples with similar technology inhabiting similar islands differ subHorticultural Societies stantially in their political organization because of different histories. It seems likely that the idea of ranked lineages only arose once as the Polynesians evolved from Melanesians three millennia ago. In most environments, this small difference had little impact on social organization, but on large islands Polynesians quickly developed large-scale chiefdoms and even states, while Melanesian societies remained relatively small-scale even on very large islands like New Guinea. We will return to this problem in Chapter 27 when we consider the evolution of states and stratification. For the present, just remember that the Andes/Amazon contrast, where a historical/evolutionary effect can be ruled out because of long, constant contact, is not entirely typical.

VII. Conclusion

The culture core concept works, but evolution is needed as well.

Horticultural societies cover an impressive range of variation within the type. Steward’s culture core concept does an excellent job of accounting for much of that variation, but there are some quite puzzling anomalies, exemplified here by the contrast between Melanesia and Polynesia. In cases such as Melanesia and Polynesia, we need to invoke historical or evolutionary processes to explain the anomalies. In the case of political evolution in the Andes, the very late development of the Inca Empire is testimony to ongoing evolution.

VII. Bibliographic Notes


Conklin, H.C. 1961. The study of shifting cultivation. Curr. Anthrop. 2: 27-61.

Conklin, H.C. 1954. An ethnoecological approach to shifting cultivation. Trans. NY Acad.

Sci. 17: 133-42.

Hames, R.B. and W.T. Vickers (eds). 1983. Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians.

New York: Academic Press.

Harlan, J.R. 1971. Agricultural origins: centers and noncenters. Science 174: 468-474.

Kirch, Patrick. 1984. The Evolution of Polynesian Chiefdoms. CAmbridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Knauft, B.M. 1985. Good Company and Violence. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Manner, H.I. 1981. Ecological succession in new and old swiddens of Montane Papua New Guinea. Human Ecology 9: 359-60.

Meggers, B.J. 1984. In, H. Sioli, ed. The Amazon. Hague: Junk.

Pospisil, L. 1978. The Kapauku Papuans of West New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Sahlins, M. 1963. Poor man, rich man, big-man, chief: Political types in Melanesia and Horticultural Societies 4-73 Polynesia. Comp. Stud. Soc. Hist. 5: 285-303.

Steward, J.H., and L.C. Faron. 1959. Native Peoples of South America. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Times Atlas of World History. 1979. Maplewood NJ: Hammond. (This is a wonderful reference book. If you have any interest in history you’ll love it. They have a companion one on archaeology. Only drawbacks: they get dated fast and have no referenes to follow up.) Wiessner, P, and A. Tumu. 1998. Historical Vines: Enga Networks of Exchange, Ritual, and Warfare in Papua New Guinea. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press


The journal Human Ecology is a good place to start for descriptive articles on modern swidden cultivation. See especially Vol. 11 #1, March 1983.

Regional summaries and collections of papers from regions where horticulture is common

are useful, e.g.:

Vayda, A.P. 1968. Peoples and Cultures of the Pacific. Garden City NY: The Natural History Press.

General readers in human ecology usually have some of the important classical papers on horticulture. The book-length descriptive works on particular horticultural societies are an important primary reference, as is the growing agronomic literature from the tropics.

4-74 Horticultural Societies

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