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Llama Caravans and Interregional Trade in the Southern Andes: Ethnographic and Archaeological Persperctives

Axel E. Nielsen, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Fellow 2012/13

The goal of my project is to advance our understanding of Andean long distance trade, integrating archaeological, historical, and ethnographic data from published sources with my own fieldwork among contemporary llama pastoralists in the Bolivian highlands. As an ethnoarchaeologist, I focus on the material dimension of caravan journeys, i.e., the artifacts and features involved and the settings where material traces of this practice could potentially be found, such as pastoral homesteads, trails, mountain passes, overnight campsites, shrines, and caravan resting areas or hubs.  My strategy is to develop models relating observable attributes of these “settings” (location, refuse, internal spatial structure) with the activities carried out there and with the cultural logics underlying them. These models can help Andean archaeologists in finding the material traces of Pre-Columbian caravan trade and learning from these evidences about the organization of ancient traffic and its change over time. To demonstrate this potential, I am working on a series of case studies combining ethnoarchaeological models with archaeological data collected along interregional routes of the Southern Andes during the past two decades, illustrating how they can contribute new insights regarding the organization of past economy and society.

Conversations with other fellows and members of the DO community in all three programs helped me to refine some theoretical concepts that are central to my project; for example, concerning the multiple meanings of trade items, the possibility of analyzing caravan routes as landscape forms, or looking at shrines as ritual installations.

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