Ecology Human Ecology of the Andes
Vladimir R. Gil Ramón
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0175


Human ecology encompasses a broad field, contemplating the relationships between human societies and the biophysical environment. Investigations include anthropogenic impacts and feedbacks, mostly of non-Western and nonindustrialized societies, or rural populations within more contemporary urban societies (see Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article “Human Ecology”). The Andes is the world’s longest aboveground mountain range, a chain of mountains that runs north to south from Venezuela and Colombia to Tierra del Fuego, stretching approximately six thousand kilometers through territories of seven countries in western South America. Demarcating the Andean geographic and cultural region and subregions is problematic, evolving since colonial times (see Gade 1999, cited under General Overviews). Western observation of the connections between humans and the Andean environment can be traced to 16th and 17th-century Spanish Colonial chronicles. Reports such as Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga’s visit to the León de Huánuco province in 1562 inspired modern Andeanists such as Ukrainian anthropologist John V. Murra, who studied ecological factors affecting the development of Andean civilizations (see Land Use and Verticality and Agrarian and Exchange Systems). Murra’s ethnohistorical work in the mid- to late 20th century on the vertical nature of Central Andean production systems has deeply marked human ecological Andean studies. Earlier influences on discussions of environmental dynamics influencing Andean cultures included the work of naturalists and field researchers such as Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, German geographer Carl Troll (see General Overviews), and Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello (see Defining the Andean Region). This article emphasizes human ecological research informing connections between humans and the physical environment. Sustainability and social development both emerge as major topics, in more than less conflictive relationships, especially since Colonial Spanish times. The highlands of the Central Andes are the core of studies of the Andean region, as reflected in this article. Nonetheless, the questions and approaches are applicable to the whole region. Predominant attention on Central Andes—Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia—mirrors its peculiar history as the heartland of pre-Hispanic civilizations, including Inca and early colonial developments, as well as the unique domestication of flora and fauna, making this area one of the most biodiverse on the planet (see Gade 1999, cited under General Overviews). A considerable segment of recent research evidences public concern about environmental crises caused by industrialization, as well as interventions based on the social and natural sciences. The Andean region illustrates these global-local conflicts, through debates on human ecology linked with concerns about the environment’s impact on human livelihood and development, as well as the biophysical footprint of anthropogenic actions. The preparation of this article was possible thanks to a Research Fellowship at the Central European University (CEU), supported by the Higher Education Support Program of the Open Society Foundations. The administrative work of the Fellowship Coordinator program, Maja Skalar, was crucial. Substantial conversations with CEU Professor László Pintér and colleagues at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy were important for the article organization. Megan Anderluh, Assistant Editor at Oxford Bibliographies, as well as James Titus and Sinchu Mohan, from SPi Global, were very helpful during the article revisions. The generous support and insights from language faculty, professional translator and interpreter, Patrícia Beták, were essential to the completion of this work.

General Overviews

Considering its remarkable size and long history, the Andean region still awaits appropriate socio-ecological and geological historical interdisciplinary study. The first widely acknowledged scientific attempts to analyze Andean environment and cultures feedbacks can be traced to the work of naturalists and field researchers, such as Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) (see Humboldt and Bonpland 2009, Humboldt and Bonpland 2011), Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello (1880–1947) (see Tello 1930, cited under Defining the Andean Region), and German geographer Carl Troll (1899–1975) (see Troll 1935). Troll’s pioneering work in landscape ecology and mountain geoecology in tropical America had a fundamental role in Andean cultural geography (see also Troll 1968, cited under Defining the Andean Region). His maps and diagrams have been borrowed or adapted for decades by Andeanists such as Ukrainian anthropologist John Murra (see Murra 1975, Murra 1985a and Murra 1985b, all cited under Land Use and Verticality). Murra is probably the most recognized scholar within human ecological Andean studies, mostly recognized for his work on precolonial verticality, while promoting scholarly work on societies and their livelihoods over several millennia in the Andes (see Murra, et al. 1986). Masuda, et al. 1985 debates human-nature conceptual models from Murra’s “vertical archipelago” (see Murra 1975, cited under Land Use and Verticality), while covering “ecological complementarity” to include concurrent control of ecological zones contiguous or horizontally disseminated, beyond macro vertical management. Murra, et al. 1986 presents a multifaceted view of societal organization and their livelihood in the Andean region, from Inca times to the colonial conquest until the transformations of 19th-century republics. Brush and Guillet 1985 (cited under Cultivation and Herding) provides a valuable synthesis of the small-scale agro-pastoralism subsistence model in the Andes through the articulation of household production and consumption, complemented with supra-household resource access, exchange, and management. Gade 1999 offers an environmental history of Andean organisms and biodiversity, informed by the lenses of societal livelihoods that interacted with a vast arrange of creatures, both native and introduced species. The articles emphasize dissonant harmonies on a region where scholarship emphasized purportedly isolated and stable communities. Young 2011, a geographic overview of the tropical Andean mountains, emphasizes change and biodiversity in the varied earth surface and ecological systems, within biogeographical barriers and elevational gradients, including human impacts on biodiversity in coupled natural-human systems. The most salient review for Andean socio-technological studies is Morlon 1996, which covers agriculture and herding socio-technologies, including traditional infrastructure and planting tools, as well as social systems of rural Andean agriculturalists. For studies on Andean exchange and market cultures since precolonial times, Lehmann 1982 and Larson, et al. 1995 are remarkably useful resources, especially if combined with more current reviews, such as Mayer 2002.

  • Gade, Daniel W. 1999. Nature and culture in the Andes. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Gade, an US geographer, provides an environmental history of Andean species and nature, such as forests, malaria, tapirs, llamas and alpacas, coca, rats, and food plants, with essays deeply informed by the lenses of the societal livelihoods that interacted with them. For nature/culture interfaces, provides an assessment of the depiction of lo Andino (the Andean) tradition and its spatial boundaries. Compares cultural ecology and ecological analysis, including cultural and historical geography perspectives.

  • Humboldt, Alexander von, and Aimé Bonpland. 2009. Essay on the geography of plants. Edited by Stephen T. Jackson and translated by Sylvie Romanowski. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Humboldt’s 1799–1804 investigation expedition to Central and South America with botanist Bonpland inspired remarkable scientific explorations of the 19th century. Chronicles of the journey were published after Humboldt’s return to Europe, starting with this essay, which is among the most referred writings in natural history, and one of the foundation works of ecology and biogeography. Humboldt was the first to publish precise descriptions of Andean topography through cross-section diagrams, which appeared in this book (see also Gade 1999).

  • Humboldt, Alexander von, and Aimé Bonpland. 2011. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the new continent: During the years 1799–1804. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Humboldt engraved the Andes in the intellectual world map. In the colossal thirty-four volumes of his discoveries, Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, the Personal Narrative section amalgamated with scientific meticulousness and poetic elicitation, and became particularly significant. Considered the most renowned scientist of his time, Humboldt’s writings inspired figures such as South American liberator Simón Bolívar and naturalist Charles Darwin, along with artists and essayists, such as Henry Thoreau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Edgar Allan Poe.

  • Larson, Brooke, Olivia Harris, and Enrique Tandeter, eds. 1995. Ethnicity, markets, and migration in the Andes: At the crossroads of history and anthropology. Durham, NC, and London: Duke Univ. Press.

    Collection of ethnohistorical essays on different periods of Andean history, with case studies in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia written by anthropologists and historians. Focuses on the history of market development in the highlands, debating the residents’ participation, as well as nonmarket-based economies, including the extent of the presence of commercial exchange and different interpretations of money.

  • Lehmann, David, ed. 1982. Ecology and exchange in the Andes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This assemblage of essays contains rural Andean case studies written by anthropologists, economists, and historians. Addresses the impact of capitalist development on peasant societies and the extent that influence was shaped by Andean cultures, ecologies, and climate. The discussion of the limits of the verticality system (see Land Use and Verticality) includes cultural debates of reciprocity and market-oriented strategies. Useful for scholars interested in accessible ethnographies of peasants in globalized neoliberal economies.

  • Masuda, Shozo, Izumi Shimada, and Craig Morris, eds. 1985. Andean ecology and civilization: An interdisciplinary perspective on Andean ecological complementarity. Papers from Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Symposium No. 91: “An Interdisciplinary Perspective on Andean Ecological Complementarity,” held in Cedar Cove, Florida, USA, May 18–25, 1983. Tokyo: Univ. of Tokyo Press.

    Significant collection of essays and case studies selected from a symposium on the “character, evolution, and effects of the creative dynamism between man and environment in the central Andes” (pp. xii–xiii), influenced by John Murra’s “vertical archipelago” (see works by Murra under Land Use and Verticality and Exchanges). The term “ecological complementarity” includes contiguous or horizontal control of ecological zones, beyond macro vertical management.

  • Mayer, Enrique. 2002. The articulated peasant: Household economies in the Andes. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    This substantial book covers findings and detailed reflections from more than three decades of research in Andean communities. Reflects how rural household livelihoods are embedded within larger socioeconomic structures since pre-Hispanic times, overcoming extreme challenges for their production, mostly in Andean Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Central aspects include trade reciprocity and redistribution in pre-Columbian economies; the impact of the Spanish Colonial regime on rural households; cargo systems and wealth, profit-loss relations of on-site conservation, land tenure histories, and networking in contemporary barter communities; and the impacts of neoliberalism.

  • Morlon, Pierre, ed. 1996. Comprender la agricultura campesina en los Andes centrales (Perú–Bolivia). Lima, Perú: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos y Centro de Estudios Regionales Andinos Bartolomé de las Casas.

    Anthropologists, geographers, agronomists, and economists present a vast array of agriculture and herding socio-technologies of rural Central Andean agriculturalists. Covers traditional Andean infrastructure and planting tools, such as terraces and chaquitaclla, the functionality of sectorial-fallow systems, models of ecological complementarity, and agricultural risk minimization in the high Andean plateau. Available in Spanish and French.

  • Murra, John V., Nathan Wachtel, and Jacques Revel, eds. 1986. Anthropological history of Andean polities. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Valuable assortment of essays by scholars from the Andes, Europe and the United States, combining archaeology, anthropology, and history. A multifaceted view of societies in the Andean region over several millennia. Analyzes social organization facing the challenges of the Andean landscape through the impact of the Inca system on different regions and how colonial conquest altered 19th-century republics.

  • Pulgar Vidal, Javier. 1996. Geografía del Perú: Las ocho regiones naturales. Lima, Perú: Peisa.

    Based on verticality concepts, Peruvian geographer and lawyer Pulgar Vidal presents the most commonly adopted conceptual model of geographical differences in Peru, combined with field observations, including toponymical denominations of folk categorizations.

  • Troll, Carl. 1935. Los fundamentos geográficos de las civilizaciones andinas y del imperio Inca. Revista de la Universidad de Arequipa 9:127–183.

    Published in German in 1931, “Die geographischen Grundlagen der andinen Kulturen und des Inkareiches,” Ibero-Amerikanisches Archiv 5:258–294. Describes Andean culture as formed by the synthesis of indigenous and colonial traits. Highlighted native Andean farming tools, which are manual and individual, unlike European agricultural utensils such as the plow that used animals. Some technologies above 3,500 meters are still used now. Insightful remarks on the central division of lifestyles and the Inca civilization in the upper limit forest on the eastern Andean slope. Available in Spanish and German.

  • Young, Kenneth. 2011. Introduction to Andean geographies. In Climate change and biodiversity in the tropical Andes. Edited by Sebastian K. Herzog, Rodney Martínez, Peter M. Jørgensen, and Holm Tiesse, 128–140. Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI) and Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE).

    In this scholarly report, US geographer Young presents an updated overview of the tropical Andean mountains (above 500 meters) in the countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, emphasizing features of change and diversity in the varied earth surface and ecological systems, within biogeographical barriers and elevational gradients. Also reviews the complex factors contributing to the distribution of species and ecosystems, besides the human impact on biodiversity in these “couple natural-human systems.”

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