Ancient Imperial Frontiers and the Inka
Ancient Imperial Frontiers and the Inka
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores how current perceptions of the nature of ancient imperial frontiers differ. It also includes a brief theoretical overview of the different kinds of ancient imperial frontiers across a spectrum of possibilities. This chapter is valuable for those scholars studying ancient imperialism, the associated frontier socioeconomic processes, and the importance of frontier studies in the study of ancient empires in the Old and New Worlds.
This book explains how the Inka empire exercised control over vast expanses of land and people in the southeastern frontier, a territory located over 1,000 km away from the capital city of Cuzco. This frontier region was the setting for the fascinating encounter between the Inka, the largest empire in the pre-Columbian world, and the fierce Guaraní tribes from the tropical montaña and beyond (Figure 1.1). This singular encounter also occasioned radical shifts in the political economy of many indigenous frontier populations. Despite this situation, these native groups were successful in accommodating their own interests to the new social order. Based on extensive field research, this book explores these changes. This work also provides a unique opportunity to explore the Inka strategies used to exercise control over these contested spaces and the ways in which state institutions were adapted to emerging needs.
As it is with the Inka, ancient empires constitute one of the most multifaceted political organizations that differed in magnitude, scale, and diversity from other formations, such as states. The Inka maintained hierarchical government organizations both in the core and the provinces, and were highly resource extractive. Backed up by standing armies, ancient empires also developed effective transportation and recording systems, and a lingua franca to ease communication and administration (Alcock 1989; Alcock et al. 2001; Doyle 1986; Parker 2002, 2003; Woolf 1992). Often, ancient empires were outward-looking polities that reached subcontinental scales, thriving on the diversity of their constituents. As a result, they encompassed a variety of ecologies and peoples with different cultural traditions and degrees of complexity. Such a situation made them champions in the international arena, and, as a result, their frontiers channeled the flow of resources through different means. Like Cuzco, empires had (p.5)
cosmopolitan capitals and developed broad civilization projects that provided everyone with a sense of cultural cohesion (Barfield 2001; Parker 2002; Schreiber 2001). To contextualize my research on the Southeastern Inka frontier, this chapter examines the importance of ancient frontiers in the study of preindustrial empires, including a discussion of the conceptual framework that guided this study.
Toward a Frontier-Centered Perspective of Empires
Imperial frontiers were dynamic and vibrant zones of interaction, exchange, and confrontation, where the power of the empire was constantly challenged, asserted, and negotiated. Consequently, the study of ancient imperial frontiers provides a unique opportunity to understand the ways in which empires affirmed their presence in the regional and global arenas, (p.6) and to appreciate the agency of frontier communities in the localities confronted with imperial expansion. A frontier-centered perspective is useful for the analysis of the configuration of ancient empires. Since these spaces were the critical interface between an empire’s territory and that outside of it, they were the nexus for the multidirectional transfer of resources, information, and technology. Thus, the study of ancient imperial frontiers privileges an assessment of the basis of imperial power and the mechanics of control in remote and unstable locales. This approach calls for the interrogation and analysis of the ways in which ancient empires maintained control despite social, ecological, and political challenges. In addition, frontier-focused research allows for a more in-depth analysis of native and transborder populations’ responses to imperial state policies—ranging from conflict, rebellion, and acculturation to ethnogenesis. Furthermore, it allows us to understand how, in this process, ancient empires, in this case the Inka, were also transformed.
Before delving into the discussion of the variability of imperial frontiers, let us briefly turn our attention to the terms “frontier” and “boundary.” Although the term “frontier” is used to define the limits or boundaries of different systems, objects, and even social organizations, boundaries and frontiers are heuristically different concepts. Distinguishing between these two terms is crucial for exploring the kinds of processes involved in the dynamics of ancient frontiers. Overall, the term “boundary” is used to define the limits of a bounded entity or system. Because sociopolitical organizations are not simple objects, they are often formed by a set of overlapping boundaries of various natures (ethnic, economic, political, military, religious, and/or linguistic), which may or may not coincide in space. In short, a boundary may be formed by a sharply defined space, or, alternatively, it may be formed by broader spatial areas with overlapping features.
Similar to boundaries, frontiers can be conceived as the limits of a sociopolitical system. Yet an important distinction between the two terms is that, unlike boundaries, frontiers are places of encounter, confrontation, and interaction. Viewed in this way, frontiers are the interfaces from which a system can engage with its surrounding social, political, or ecological environment (Luttwak 1976; Rice 1998). In other words, whereas the terms “boundary” and “border” highlight the circumscribed nature of a system, frontier is a concept that underscores the ways in which the system actually interacts with its respective social and natural environments.
(p.7) Moreover, the location of an imperial frontier is a strategic decision. Usually, imperial frontiers have been established across important corridors of communication intersected by natural or political barriers. This deliberate location can be certainly useful in minimizing state expenditures, while also maximizing the display of control. Often, frontier segments stretched along high-peaked mountains, deep rivers, turbulent rapids, arid deserts, dense jungles, or any kind of impassable geography that could be used as a natural buffer.
Imperial Frontier Processes
State ideologies were based on the notion that empires have no limits in their domination. However, imperial expansion often ended when a set of socioeconomic or geographic constraints were reached along the frontiers (Lattimore 1940; Whittaker 1994). Paradoxically, such frontiers also became the nexus of different forms of sociopolitical interaction that varied in magnitude and direction.
Ancient imperial frontiers were generally maintained through military force. However, maintaining a solid defensive front with large standing garrisons is often expensive. When sustained conflict was irregular and confrontations took the form of sporadic raids, the borders were efficiently protected with defense nodes at key locales (D’Altroy 1992; Hassig 1992; Luttwak 1976). With a minimum deployment of state investment, defense was more likely delegated to indigenous allies backed up by the promise of imperial support. In situations of marked peer polity competition, a common frontier policy was to pit the groups against one another to maintain control. This situation was also beneficial for competing factions as it provided them with the means to confront their own rivals while forming broader coalitions, and, ultimately, to challenge the empire (Barfield 2001; Bronson 1988; Hall 1991; Hassig 1988, 1992).
Surplus Extraction and Heightened Social Stratification
Economic extraction from peripheral and transborder areas is a well-recognized attribute of imperial systems (Hassig 1992; Luttwak 1976). Empires were highly extractive polities, and frontier regions provided them with the means to tap resources in the form of taxes, and beyond, (p.8) as asymmetric exchange, diplomatic gifts, and forced tribute backed by punitive threat (Paynter 1985). In situations where transportation costs were high, military and frontier administrative infrastructure was erected to enhance agrarian and craft production. This provided the means to finance the frontier state activities. For example, indigenous populations in the Roman or Aztec frontiers were incorporated as tribute payers, and their work ranged from agriculturalists to specialized craft producers (Hassig 1992; D’Altroy 1992; Luttwak 1976). In the absence of state markets or standard monetary systems, the Inka exempted privileged ethnicities from paying tribute in exchange for their military service (Espinoza Soriano 2006 ; Wachtel 1982).
The appropriation of resources beyond the borders often took the form of asymmetric exchange. Craft goods were regularly traded in the frontier for exotic and valuable raw materials (Cooter 1977; Paynter 1985; Waller-stein 1976). These activities often occurred in frontier trading depots, and beyond, in advance posts (Algaze 1993; Gorenstein 1985; Gorenstein and Perlstein 1983; Redmond 1983). In the New World, the Zapotecs, in the Cuicuitlán Cañada, instituted neutral ports of trade to channel valuable materials after blocking existing commercial routes (Redmond 1983). Likewise, in the frontier region of Acambaro between the Tarascan and Aztec states, the military installations also served as nodes of exchange and diplomatic negotiation (Gorenstein 1985:104).
Ancient frontiers also witnessed the formation of prestige-good economies, and competing elite segments used imperial goods to display emergent social affiliations and political allegiances (Kristiansen 1991). This in turn promoted sharp status differentiation and competition (Helms 1992; Kristiansen 1991; Schortman and Urban 1987). This was the case of the steppe Mongols of the thirteenth century, who recurrently formed alliances with—or against—the Chinese empire to force more favorable trading conditions. These coalitions disintegrated and reorganized periodically, and raids against the Chinese frontier often correlated with changing trading circumstances (Barfield 2001; Hall 1991).
Frontier Colonization or Abandonment
The establishment of ancient imperial frontiers was also accompanied by marked settlement shifts to accommodate the state requirements. Often, (p.9) ancient empires promoted frontier population aggregation with colonies of soldiers, administrators, or craft producers (Drummond and Nelson 1994; Eadie 1977; Lewis 1977, 1984; Smith 1991; Steffen 1980). Regardless of their origins, these colonies were more likely to participate in the state economy and therefore become progressively assimilated (Eadie 1977; Cooter 1977). In ancient Rome, the frontier facilities encouraged the establishment of new villages, mobile camps, and broad market areas. Beyond the frontier, adjacent Germanic tribes also settled along the frontier gates and trading stations to have privileged access to Roman goods (Drummond and Nelson 1994). It is also likely that some empires organized the massive mobilization of frontier colonies, rather than constituting a civilian effort.
The Inka are well known for the movement of sizable mitmaqkuna colonies for state economic, political, and defensive purposes (Patterson 1992; Rostworowski 1988; Rowe 1946, 1982). In Incallajta, an Inka center in the Southern Andes, the Chui and Cota were brought as soldiers, whereas the state farms in the adjacent Cochabamba valley were attended by 14,000 colonists of diverse origins (Patterson 1992; Wachtel 1982:201). Likewise, in the Inka border of Tucumán in what is presently Argentina, the Chicha became privileged mitmaqkuna frontier soldiers (del Río and Presta 1995; Espinoza Soriano 2006 ; Williams et al. 2009).
More hostile frontiers could also encourage depopulation and the formation of buffer zones as protective shields (Cooter 1977; DeBoer 1981; Myers 1976; Parker 1998; Prescott 1965; Upham 1986). Typically, buffer zones were in ecologically marginal areas like deserts or impassable mountains, and were inhabited by small populations (Parker 1998:382; Prescott 1965). In situations of rivalry between neighboring empires like Assyria and Urartu, smaller polities acted as effective buffers (Parker 1998:393).
Acculturation and Ethnogenesis
As ethnic identity is often structured by political interaction (Barth 1969; Brumfiel 1994; Brumfiel and Fox 1994), ancient imperial frontiers became the catalysts for varying degrees of mutual acculturation and ethnogenesis. Empires often justified these actions as efforts to impart civilization, although deeper economic reasons were at play (Drummond and Nelson 1994). Whereas some borderlanders actively accepted, manipulated, and adopted imperial institutions and cultural practices for their own ends, (p.10) others actively rejected them (Helms 1992; Wells 1992). For example, acculturation was a favorite Roman strategy because it minimized the expansion expenditures while sharing the burden of defense with the natives (Drummond and Nelson 1994; Eadie 1977). In Pannonia, the empire Romanized the inner barbarians, who, by defending themselves, also protected interior Rome. In other border regions such as Mauretania-Tingitana, Roman citizenship was granted to the local elite as an inexpensive strategy to ensure loyalty (Drummond and Nelson 1994; Eadie 1977).
Frontier interaction also created the conditions for the emergence of new ethnic identities (Arutiunov 1994; Barth 1969; Hornborg 2005; Lattimore 1940). The outer pastoral nomads and inner agriculturalists along the Great Wall of China are a good example. Despite the government’s intentions, these populations were distributed along a spectrum of languages, economies, and practices, becoming progressively similar to each other (Elton 1996; Lattimore 1940, 1962:116). In contexts of heightened competition and violence, distinct ethnic differentiation can also emerge as a form of political resistance or to assert political autonomy in the face of imperial encroachment (Arutiunov 1994; Athens 1992; Brumfiel and Fox 1994; Schortman and Urban 1987). This occurred with the Cara populations in the Northern Inka frontier, who enhanced their own ethnic identity and internal unity to openly resist the Inka advances (Athens 1992). In the opposite direction, frontier elite segments can also adopt ultraconservative postures by portraying themselves as the guardians of state cultural traditions in an effort to advertise their imperial affiliation. In the Egyptian frontier of Nubia, imperial representatives adopted “hyper-Egyptian” postures in public spaces, although in a private context this was not necessarily the case (Smith 2003).
Modeling the Variability of Ancient Imperial Frontiers
Cross-culturally, empires proclaimed the notion that their territorial expansion was morally just and therefore had no limits (Drummond and Nelson 1994; Elton 1996; Turner 1993). Despite this ideological justification, their growth was not unlimited and often ended when marked economic, political, or ecological constraints were reached (Lattimore 1940; Whittaker 1994). Ancient empires usually expanded over continuous stretches of land, although their growth could be discontinuous and (p.11) in the form of strategic advance nodes (Mackendrick 1965; Murty 1978; Parker 1998, 2002). Considering that territorial expansion often entailed subjugation by force, frontier regions were the setting of multifaceted socioeconomic processes. As discussed, some of these processes included marked military control and violence, surplus extraction of valuable local resources, village abandonment, depopulation, and rebellion. Depending on more favorable conditions, frontier regions could also become a venue of strategic economic development through thriving exchange networks and indigenous elite alliances, along with emulation and ethnogenesis.
Therefore, the variation in the magnitude and direction of these processes contributed to the formation of different kinds of imperial frontiers. On the one hand, approaches to explaining the nature of imperial frontiers have often viewed them as preclusive lines. Associated notions encompass constructs like hardened perimeters, barricades, and borderlines (Elton 1996; Lattimore 1940, 1962; Luttwak 1976; Parker 1998; Whittaker 1994). On the other hand, other scholars prefer to see ancient imperial frontiers as broader zones of interaction. Concepts like borderlands explain the fluid nature of frontiers as broad spaces of social interaction and as formed by overlapping boundaries and socioeconomic zones (Elton 1996; Lattimore 1940, 1988; Parker 1998; Whittaker 1994).
In reality, closed and open frontiers represent only two extremes of a broader continuum of possibilities. On one extreme is the closed, static, and preclusive linear frontier. On the other extreme is the open, fluid, and encompassing frontier zone (Anderson 1996; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002). Depending on the dominant socioeconomic processes, or degrees of frontier permeability, other intermediate variations are possible (Anderson 1996; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002).
The Preclusive, or Hardened, Frontier
The preclusive, or hardened, frontier often acted as a defensive barrier. Hence, the construction of a defensive perimeter was designed to prevent any form of interaction between inner and outer populations. Because the imperial frontier was deliberately closed, there was an absence of a transitional zone; as a result, the borders sharply demarcated internal and external spaces (Anderson 1996; Hudson 1985; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002). As a barrier, the frontier also served to separate two political organizations and cultural traditions. In times of heightened conflict or sustained (p.12) warfare, closed frontiers acquired particular importance. Crossing such a barrier might imply the passage to dangerous, forbidden lands.
Closed military perimeters often materialized in the construction of hardened defensive barriers along long stretches of land. Because any form of social interaction was prevented, these spaces were clearly delimited by the presence of separate and different types of cultural material assemblages, residential settlements, and public architecture on each side of the frontier. Arguably, examples include certain frontier segments along the Great Wall of China in the Dynastic era or imperial Rome. Yet the maintenance of completely closed frontiers for extended periods of time rarely existed in antiquity. More likely, this kind of frontier reflected more the vision and policies of the rulers than the actual situation experienced by the frontier communities.
The Restrictive Imperial Frontier
Restrictive imperial frontiers often acted as strategic military barriers and socioeconomic filters, where control was achieved by a careful balance between coercion and diplomacy. Selectively located at important nodes of communication, transportation, and trade, these militarized perimeter segments served as effective filters to control trade and the transit of people across borders (Anderson 1996; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002). Frequently, these frontiers took the form of military sections on the weakest flanks or in areas of economic importance. This defensive strategy might have been supplemented by advanced military outposts and mobile troops beyond the fortified segments. Therefore, restrictive frontiers were likely to be established along important economic and ecological interfaces and in valuable exchange network areas that ancient empires intended to control. Archaeologically, these defensive shields were manifested in the construction of strings of fortresses built and manned by the state forces in vulnerable passes, in economically valuable zones, or at important road intersections. Because this strategy entailed the use of force to control frontier surplus extraction and trade, social relations with native transborder groups were not a dominant feature. Rather, their participation was limited.
Frontiers could also take the form of graded and porous margins, particularly in cases of hegemonic control (Anderson 1996; D’Altroy 1992; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002). In this situation, the frontier was more likely to display less emphasis on imperial military control. Instead of focusing on defense only, frontier installations also served to promote economic exchange and the selective integration of native populations. Because economic relations were more fluid, frontier facilities were often located in valuable areas linked by roads and economic corridors. Consequently, porous frontiers were the setting for relatively fluid social relations, mutual acculturation, selective patron-client relations, and economic interdependence (Eadie 1977:57; Elton 1996; Parker 1998; Whittaker 1994).
Since relations between the empire and the local population were rooted in socioeconomic interaction, military control was vested primarily in local populations. They became valuable allies and supernumerary members of the state’s defensive network (Eadie 1977:58). As a result, imperial forts and garrisons were often limited in number and acted chiefly as visible deterrents in strategic zones. Considering that installations were built and manned with local garrisons, this materialized in the blending of imperial and local features in the architecture and associated material culture. This inexpensive strategy was pursued when the frontier zone was not characterized by heavy economic extraction or administrative investment, the external population consisted of highly fragmented “nuisance” groups rather than powerful or threatening opponents, and ecological factors prevented the easy transplantation of core economic patterns.
The Open Frontier Zone
The open imperial frontier model is located at the other end of the spectrum (Anderson 1996; Martinez 1994; Parker 2002). It was characterized by fluid economic relations, wide acculturation and social integration, and even ethnogenesis. In this context, the frontier was not only maintained open, but, due to the marked levels of socioeconomic interaction, borderlanders progressively merged culturally. As a result, the frontier groups shared similar cultural values and traditions. Spatially, this kind of frontier took the form of a broad zone of interaction with minimum imperial facilities.
(p.14) Because the imperial presence was restricted, border populations were important intermediaries and imperial representatives, becoming central to the functioning of frontier exchange networks. As middlemen, they had a key role in managing the few imperial facilities and promoting the annexation of outer groups into the imperial economy through kinship, marriage, and trade relations. Depending on the levels of integration, ecological conditions, or social complexity, this culturally porous frontier might have been densely or lightly populated.
Although conceptually arranged along a continuum, these frontier archetypes did not necessarily entail successive stages of development. Ancient empires might have encouraged preclusive frontiers to later develop into broad and open frontier zones. On the contrary, some empires might have delineated open frontier zones, which due to increased interregional conflict, later evolved into more closed perimeters. Therefore, whether territorial or hegemonic in orientation, the political economy of the core did not necessarily echo the dynamics of the more distant frontiers. It is also likely that in antiquity there were additional variations not recorded along the frontier continuum—particularly if one considers the multifaceted historically contingent conditions leading to the development of ancient empires. Thus, the ideal types discussed here should be considered abstractions of a complex reality, although, admittedly, useful heuristical models to contrast with archaeological data.