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Pre-Columbian Urbanism in Comparative Perspective: Space, Society, and Long-Term Human-Landscape Relations

John W. Janusek, Vanderbilt University, Fellow 2008–2009

A central purpose of my proposed project was to develop a theoretical framework for conceptualizing past cities in the New World by comparing key early examples from Mesoamerica and the South American Andes. Living the Dumbarton Oaks experience, which has involved intensive reading and conversing across disciplines, encouraged me to refocus that project in unexpected but very effective and gratifying ways. It became clear that my original project was too geographically dispersed for me to develop a substantive framework for effectively treating both the similarities and substantial distinctions among Pre-Columbian centers. My project thus split into two books: one based on the original idea, to be written second, and one more theoretically robust and geographically focused, which has become my primary project.

The manuscript I have been researching and writing (tentatively entitled: Ancient Andean Centers: Nature and the Social Construction of Space and Time) has a fundamental argument: that Pre-Columbian centers/cities were not simply spaces for social activity to happen but they also actively shaped human activity and experience, including intuitive experiences of space, time, value, and personhood. I develop this position via two themes. First, in line with recent turns in urban geography and sociology, a center or city is, as Lewis Mumford noted long ago, a geographical plexus. This perspective shifts the focus on cities as centered places to the networks and connections that give rise to and are anchored in them. Second, in line with emerging ideas at the junction of numerous disciplines, this project focuses on past cities as dynamic components of particular societies and landscapes, and as characterized by especially dense, mutually generative relations among humans, the physical environment, and its perceived animacy. I argue that for much of the Pre-Columbian world, urbanism is best understood in light of an animistic view of human-environment relations, or what I term an animistic ecology, in which centers emerged as places for mediating relations among human and perceived non-human agents.

The geographical focus of this manuscript is the south-central Andean highlands. Over the past eight years I have been conducting archaeological research in the Machaca region of Bolivia, where I am investigating the origins of urbanism and social complexity. Writing this revised book project has allowed me to effectively integrate this new research, with which I am currently deeply engaged, with the thematic issues outlined above. I now have four chapter drafts for the volume, effectively the first half of the book, three of which are manuscripts I am submitting to journals. The first chapter establishes the theoretical framework outlined above, the second synthesizes relevant comparative examples of early pre-urban centers and later cities from across the Pre-Columbian world, the third introduces early centers in the south-central Andes, and the fourth engages pre-urban centers in the region where I have been conducting recent research, focusing on the site of Khonkho Wankane. The following three chapters will tackle the transformation from pre-urban to urban centers.