Geology and Geography that Shaped Ancient Andean Cultures

Along the western edge of South America, from the humid tropics of the Caribbean on the north to the ice fields of Patagonia on the south, the Andes Mountains extend for more than 4,000 miles. This region contains some of the harshest and most diverse environments on Earth. In the Andes, torrential rains and heavy snowfalls are interspersed with multi-year droughts. Andean volcanoes periodically erupt sizzling hot ash and rock that engulf the surrounding region, and huge and often deadly earthquakes slice through the landscape. Unstable soils and ice fields cause devastating landslides and avalanches. Low oxygen availability at high elevations make rest as well as manual labor more strenuous and energy-demanding. Nevertheless, complex ancient civilizations developed and thrived in the Andes. These culminated in the achievements of the Inca Empire, the largest, grandest, and last of the ancient civilizations of the Americas.

The Inca Empire was built on the broad cultural and infrastructure features developed by their ancestors. These ancient Andeans built monumental stone structures that can still be seen today. They developed highly effective farming methods to provide enough food to support large populations, and their artisans created luxury items of finely crafted textiles and exquisite gold and silver ornamental objects. In mountainous environments nowhere else on Earth have the achievements of the ancient Andeans been matched.

The natural environment and the processes that are shaping the dramatic Andes Mountains, and the ancient Andean cultures that flourished in this environment, are the focus of my book. Geology creates the landscape, influences the climate, focuses human settlement patterns, determines agricultural and mineral production, impacts the natural history of plants and animals, and controls natural hazards such as volcanoes and earthquakes. Cultures are shaped by their natural environment.

My book addresses topics ranging from the inner workings of the Earth and plate tectonics to the great earthquakes and fiery volcanoes that are building the Andes. It covers the earliest people who explored South America, obsidian and gold mining, farming methods, hallucinogenic drugs, iconic stone structures and the construction knowledge required to build Machu Picchu, along with many other topics. It is a fast ride through more than 200 million years of geologic history, and 20,000 years of human history.

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