From the Island's Point of View: Warfare and transformation in an Andean vertical archipelago

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John Murra’s theory of the “vertical archipelago” – a dynamic model of the changing historical relations between Andean societies, the complementary ecologies they inhabit, and emergent “State”-formations – rests on a geographical metaphor. Drawing on ethnographic work with a living “archipelago” in the valleys of the Macha Ayllu (Northern Potosí, Bolivia), this text compares Murra’s geographical image with Andean textile and vegetable metaphors of “verticality”. It shows the conflictive experience of socially isolated valley islands, which must make concessions, even inverting their moiety affiliations, to survive pressures from the larger groups in which they are inserted. At the same time they respect the solidarity of their own vertical “minor ayllu”. The confusion, or “mixing”, of levels of social segmentation in the valley (Que. chaxrusqa, “mixed-up”) is compared with other chaxru forms of valley culture. If the “islands’ point of view” demands different alliances from those practiced on the puna, it still presupposes a shared horizon of ideas concerning violence. It is shown that Andean warfare is characterized by the same “ontological” instability and shapeshifting at the blurred frontier between humans and animals that has been found among other Amerindian groups, as well as elsewhere in the world. However, the frontier changes in different conjunctures. In its more festive, socialized forms (tinku), warfare becomes a balanced “game” that privileges confrontations between human embodiments of domesticated “bulls”. At other times, frontier warfare between social groups or with the State (ch’ajwa) threatens to undermine society as we know it: here, humans transform into wild animals (felines, birds etc.). The emphasis on each of these kinds of transformation varies according to political and historical context.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-70
Number of pages38
JournalJournal de la Société des Américanistes
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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