Van Valen on Smith, 'Landscape and Politics in the Ancient Andes: Biographies of Place at Khonkho Wankane'

Scott C. Smith
Gary Van Valen

Scott C. Smith. Landscape and Politics in the Ancient Andes: Biographies of Place at Khonkho Wankane. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. 296 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-5709-0.

Reviewed by Gary Van Valen (University of West Georgia) Published on H-Environment (December, 2017) Commissioned by David T. Benac

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Archaeologist Scott C. Smith’s Landscape and Politics in the Ancient Andes is a reconstruction of the role of religion in the growth of Khonkho Wankane, an important settlement in highland Bolivia, from about AD 50 to AD 500. Smith worked on the site at the invitation of archaeologist John Janusek and participated in his Proyecto Arqueológico Jach’a Machaca (PAJAMA). The project has investigated Khonkho Wankane and other sites of what Janusek has labeled the Late Formative period (200 BC-AD 500); the era is “formative” in the sense that it preceded the fluorescence of the great religious center of Tiwanaku.

The book is a study of the emergence of place out of power relationships created in the context of ritual practice. Smith engages with several newer theories and methodologies. “Biographies of place” include multiple people’s experiences and incorporate change over time. The author extends earlier models of llama caravans spreading goods and political influence to foreground the role of religious ritual. He uses methodologies of space syntax and proxemics analysis to understand the sensory experience and movement of visitors within Khonkho Wankane at different phases of its history. Smith demonstrates how the architecture of the site brought people together by defining it as a generative power source and an axis mundi, but at the same time separated people by controlling ritual observants’ movements and aiding ritual specialists’ strategic revelation of secret religious knowledge to them.

Smith links the emergence of Khonkho Wankane to a postulated change in llama caravan routes during a dry period, which made the site a new “axis settlement.” He theorizes that during the Early Khonkho period (AD 50-150), the settlement rose to ritual importance by processing the human dead of visiting caravans, defleshing bones with a quicklime solution inside a circular structure and returning them bones as portable ancestors.

Middle Khonkho (AD 150-300) people built walls around residential compounds and constructed an earthen platform and a sunken court with a stela at its center. The processing of the dead continued at the round structure, which was now enclosed within one compound, further concealing these ritual preparations from visitors’ view. The people of Khonkho Wankane constructed a passage limiting access to the sunken court, and pilgrims moved into the court from the south and left by the same route. Finds of food-serving vessels in the court suggest that food consumption was an important part of the rituals held there.

Late Khonkho (AD 300-500) inhabitants built large earthen platforms, including one with two levels with a possible cistern on top, as well as drainage works. To the west of a Central Plaza, they constructed a two-level earthen platform with two new sunken courts; they abandoned the earlier sunken court and may have purposefully broken and buried its stela. Two new stelae were erected in the two new sunken courts, and another was placed in the Central Plaza, which was also engineered to hold water. It is unclear if Khonkho Wankane people continued processing the dead in the same way, but the former site of these rites became a food preparation area. While food consumption was still clearly important, Smith could not determine where it occurred. Pilgrims now passed through the incense-filled sunken courts in procession from west to east, entered the Central Plaza, and there witnessed water (released from the cistern by ritual specialists) flow down drainage canals in imitation of mountain streams and fill the Central Plaza.

Smith is cautious about using recent ethnographic knowledge to interpret ancient Khonkho Wankane, although he does use information on the sacred character of openings to the underworld and of mountain peaks to explain the symbolism of sunken courts and earthen platforms. Further review of the ethnographic literature might have suggested other connections between water, the underworld, and the dead, as well as ideas about using the forced descent of water to stimulate rainfall. One particularly interesting question is unasked: why were two virtually identical sunken courts with similar stelae constructed side by side in the Late Khonkho period? Did they serve the ethnographically known moieties of Andean societies, or some other complementary social groups such as men and women, or farmers and pastoralists?

Landscape and Politics in the Ancient Andes is a thought-provoking analysis that benefits greatly from the shared insights of fellow PAJAMA team members. Smith makes his own substantial contribution through both his engagement with spatial theory and his ingenious reconstruction of the activities that took place in different spaces, deducing food preparation and consumption, incense burning, and processing of human remains from excavated artifacts. Perhaps most importantly, he decenters the previous narrative on the Late Formative period by studying Khonkho Wankane not merely as a precursor to Tiwanaku, valuable only for comparative purposes, but rather as an important place in its own right.

Citation: Gary Van Valen. Review of Smith, Scott C., Landscape and Politics in the Ancient Andes: Biographies of Place at Khonkho Wankane. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. December, 2017. URL:

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