Permanent Settlement of the Andean Altiplano Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Early peoples first established permanent settlements on the high Andean grasslands, gradually shifting from hunting and gathering to domesticating animals and plants and engaging in agriculture.

Summary of Event

The early part of the Archaic period (8000-2000 b.c.e.) is marked by rapid change in environment and therefore in human lifeways. For the most part, the early Archaic Andean peoples were generalists, hunting and collecting, using spears, atlatls, nooses, snares, and traps to secure animals and opportunistically collecting plants available in the local setting.

Work at Lauricocha and Guitarrero caves in northern Peru indicated that these early peoples had seasonal occupations, with groups dependent on hunting deer and wild camelids (guanaco and vicuña) beginning 8000 b.c.e. In this area, researchers first noticed the virtual depopulation during the middle Archaic period, coinciding with the Hypsithermal climatic period (a warmer period that lasted from 6000 to 3500 b.c.e.), a pattern that is seen much more clearly farther south.

In central highland Peru, the sites of Pachamachay and Telarmachay were inhabited by groups of people ranging in size from fifteen to fifty members, with a norm of around twenty-five members, of relatively egalitarian status. Based on the large quantities of camelid bones found in the excavations at Pachamachay, the excavators argued for the existence of a hunting group with limited mobility by 6000 b.c.e., followed by a group of specialized, year-round, sedentary, full-time vicuña hunters from 4000 to 2000 b.c.e., with a later shift to herding of camelids and some farming of quinoa and tubers. However, reanalysis of the materials indicated a seasonal utilization, not a year-around sedentary camp.

The work at Telarmachay also produced prodigious numbers of camelid bones, but analysis indicated that the site was used only during the wet season from November to March. Telarmachay burials included a child covered with red ocher and wearing a necklace of shell beads and pendants and a woman buried with a hide-working kit, including needles, awls, knives, and scrapers. Based on these burials and evidence from other high Andean sites, archaeologists believe that, beginning in the early Archaic period, these peoples developed a ritual treatment of the dead in which the bodies were treated with red ocher, and individuals were buried with decorative items (pendants and necklaces) and productive items (sewing, hunting, and butchering tool kits).

The Telarmachay site provides the first good evidence for a shift from the mixed hunting of deer and wild camelids to a focus almost exclusively on wild camelids by 4000 b.c.e. and the first domestication of alpaca after 4000, with full-time pastoralism by 3500. Work with mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) indicates a very high genetic similarity between the alpaca and vicuña and between the llama and guanaco. The llama and alpaca were probably not domesticated in the same region. Domestic llama remains from 2500 b.c.e. have been recovered from the south-central Andean region, and it appears that both llamas and alpacas were available to Andean herders by 3000-2500 b.c.e.

In the southern Peruvian zone, the sites at the Ayacucho caves and Asana provide additional patterns of settlement. During the early and middle Archaic period, Ayacucho caves were inhabited by larger bands that broke into smaller bands and dispersed during the dry season. Intensive utilization of guinea pigs began as early as 9000 b.c.e. in Ayacucho, with possible domestication of the animal by 3500. During the middle and late Archaic period, the cave inhabitants added llamas, alpacas, quinoa, squash, bottle gourd, chili pepper, amaranth, potato, beans, and cotton to the list of plants and animals that they used.

Asana was first used about 8000 b.c.e. by coastal groups as a temporary hide-working camp. After 7500, it was transformed into a base camp for a hunting group exploiting the high sierra and puna (basin) resources. During this early Archaic period, the residents constructed small circular residential structures, which were covered with brush and hides. The economy was based primarily on hunting deer, wild camelids, and various small mammals and collecting various wild fruits and tubers. Nearby were short-term field camps (such as stone quarries, hunting blinds, butchery sites, and plant-gathering loci). The site function changed dramatically and abruptly at 3000 b.c.e., no longer serving as a base camp for hunter-gatherers but rather as the herding residence for a single extended family, with a corral. The economy of these herders exhibited more intensive plant usage, including a domestic chenopod (quinoa), algarroba (mesquite) pods, cactus fruits, wild seed plants, and wild tubers. Asana has provided a very dynamic record of evolution of patterns, from the early transitory exploitation of mountain resources by coastal populations beginning to colonize the sierra, to permanent establishment of high sierra base camps used for several millennia, to the shift toward puna agro-pastoralism.

Quelcatani in the Titicaca basin exhibits a slightly different pattern. In this area, from 4500 to 2000 b.c.e., the rainfall was much reduced, resulting in Lake Titicaca dropping in level 380 feet (100 meters) or more, becoming a highly saline, landlocked lake with no functioning outlet, and the basin itself having a comparable greatly reduced number of animals and plants available. Quelcatani, however, was situated on a small marsh. Hunters lived in small ovoid rock houses and used the site as a short-term residential base camp until 2000 b.c.e., when there was a shift to llama herding, guinea pig raising, and the beginnings of potato, oca, ullucu, tarwi, and quinoa agriculture over the new few centuries. Cave sites here are well known for a variety of rock art, including images of deer, camelids, felines, humans hunting and herding, and various geometric patterns—some of the art drawn by earlier hunters and some by later herders.

The dry and salt punas of the south-central Andes show evidence of the Middle Archaic period depopulation. In the north Chile altiplano, paleo-lakes disappeared shortly after 6000 b.c.e. As the area became progressively drier, populations either moved down to the coast or adopted more sedentary patterns of resource use by settling close to the few perennial water bodies. From 6000 to 2000 b.c.e., only a few sites, such as Purpica 1 and Tulan 52, occur near permanent water sources. Both of these were sedentary villages of twenty to forty circular stone houses. Domestication of camelids began 2500 b.c.e., and irrigated agriculture of quinoa, potato, beans, gourds, and chili peppers developed with the large-scale reoccupation of the sierra area linked with the lake level rising, perhaps as early as 2000 b.c.e.


The settlement of the high Andean grasslands, beginning in about 8000 b.c.e., led to a significant increase in their usage by human populations. During the early half of the Archaic period, these populations followed two general patterns of settlement: a high grassland edge or high sierra pattern, in which groups hunted wild camelids and deer, supplemented their food sources by collecting, and moved with the seasons between the highlands and lowland, and a central puna and altiplano pattern, in which the populations were much more sedentary. During the Archaic period, these populations expanded their subsistence resources with the addition of domestic plants and animals, further enabling the settlements to become permanent and the land to become continuously populated. A period of warmer and drier climate led to a reduction in the use of the high grasslands but not their abandonment.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldenderfer, Mark. “An Archaeological Perspective on the Human Use of Cold Montane Environments in Andean South America.” Revista de Arqueologia Americana 17-19 (2001): 75-96. Summary of different archaeological models for the first human exploitative strategies for the high Andes, beginning at 8000 b.c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bruhns, Karen. Ancient South America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Major synthesis of the archaeological cultures of South America from the earliest inhabitants, placing some of the developments in the Central Andes in a wider context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lavallee, Daniele. The First South Americans: The Peopling of a Continent from the Earliest Evidence to High Culture. Translated by Paul Bahn. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000. Archaeological review of the first colonization of South America at the end of the Pleistocene and review of the evidence for early cultural developments leading to later civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, Thomas. “The Earliest South American Lifeways.” In South America, edited by Frank Salomon and Stuart Schwartz. Vol. 3 in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996-2000. Summary of the first colonizers of the high Andean grasslands, by one of the skeptics, with a hard look at the evidence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacNeish, Richard. “The Beginnings of Agriculture in Central Peru.” In Origins of Agriculture, edited by Charles Reed. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1977. Summary of the origins of agriculture in the central highlands, by one of the pioneers in the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peregrine, Peter, and Melvin Ember, eds. South America. Vol. 7 in Encyclopedia of Prehistory. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2001. Six articles on cultural periods detail evidence relating to the Archaic period occupations of the high Andes.

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