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Surveying the Borderland

Posted On March 23, 2020 | 17:08 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Patrick Mullins sees diversity, conflict, politics, and coca in an ancient frontier landscape

Patrick Mullins, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh this year, was a 2018­–2019 junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. His research report, “The Transformation of Political Frontier Landscapes in the Upper Moche Valley of Peru,” drew on his full-coverage pedestrian survey of the chaupiyunga region to examine the highland frontier landscape of two of Peru’s largest coastal political traditions: the Moche and Chimú. 

Q&A with Patrick Mullins 

What is the chaupiyunga? 

In the Moche Valley, and Peru more generally, there are traditionally two zones that have been studied: the highlands and the coastal valleys.

Nestled between the two is a little region called the chaupiyunga that has a mixture of qualities from both but is often overlooked. It’s hilly like the highlands but gets little rainfall, like the coast. It’s also sunny year-round—people have called it the land of eternal spring. The drawback is that it doesn’t have big swaths of land for cultivation or pasture like the highlands or coast, so its populations were likely much smaller.


What makes the chaupiyunga so important to study? 

The chaupiyunga’s unique characteristics make it important to study in its own right. Its location meant that it was well-positioned to control water for coastal canals and the ridge routes that channeled exchange between the highlands and coast. 

Also, most polities and peoples on the Pacific side of the Andes were dependent on coca from the chaupiyunga—one of the only places it grows on the Western Cordillera—for rituals and daily life. In Moche iconography, you see coca associated with rain or given as payment to ancestors, lords, and deities. You could go anywhere in the Andes with a bag of coca, and someone would probably want to trade you for it.

Though it had advantages, the chaupiyunga was not without its drawbacks. Evidence from my survey indicates that people in the chaupiyunga periodically lived in fortified hilltop settlements. This was particularly true in the centuries when the Chimú Empire likely was expanding into the region, between 1000 and 1470. Generally speaking, people only choose to settle in such defensive areas if they feel threated by raiding or endemic conflict. Thus, the chaupiyunga was likely contested.

Several ethnohistorical documents shed more light on similar themes. The Huarochirí Manuscript that [junior fellow] Carla Hernández Garavito studies is rich in descriptions of highland groups conquering or claiming chaupiyunga communities or lands. Several legal documents from the Spanish colonial period also mention coastal kingdoms as having claims to chaupiyunga territories. Most of the time, the goal of conflict was likely to secure tribute or fields of coca. But it wasn’t all violence. Many of these same sources point to times of peaceful integration, trade, and intermarriage with the people of the chaupiyunga

The pottery I found at sites in the Moche Valley chaupiyunga remarkably echoes these points. Dating as far back as 200 BCE, many chaupiyunga communities were using a diverse mixture of highland and coastal pottery. Such diversity was even true in the fortified communities of the later periods. This is fascinating, as it illustrates that chaupiyunga communities were intertwined with both highland and coastal economic, cultural, and political realms for over a thousand years of the region’s history.

Another important finding was that this diversity persisted through both peaceful and violent parts of that history. Conflict is not an inevitable outcome of diversity. Instead, I argue that the political ambitions of the Chimú Empire and local highland kingdoms are the more likely culprits for this borderland becoming so violent. Given the tensions common in modern political borders, I think this may be an important lesson for us to remember.


How are you beginning to reinterpret mounds in the Moche Valley?  

Lots of fun things happen while doing a large pedestrian survey of sites spanning nearly three millennia (1800 BCE–1600 CE) of human history. You often come across unexpected sites and artifacts that make you go down paths, literal and conceptual, you’d never have thought you would go down.

During my survey, I noticed that many of the adobe or stonemasonry mounds I recorded were associated with, on top of, or directly below prominent or auspicious mountains. Probably the most spectacular example of this was a large u-shaped temple complex likely contemporary with the Chavín phenomenon dating from 900 to 200 BCE. This temple was built on a mountain peak overlooking the final confluence of the Moche River where two of its tributaries joined. The temple itself even aligned with that confluence! 

Among some Andean communities, certain mountains are revered as gods, ancestors, or otherwise powerful places. Not only are mountains seen as possible birthplaces of rivers, but river confluences themselves are often associated with the Andean concept of tinku: the joining of two halves to make a whole. To encounter archaeological evidence that possibly supports a deeper antiquity of such beliefs was inspiring, and an exciting avenue for my future research.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.