War, Spectacle, and Politics in the Ancient Andes

Review by Richard J Chacon

War, Spectacle, and Politics in the Ancient Andes by Elizabeth N Arkush provides a well-organised analysis of the external/environmental and internal/psychological factors that shaped pre-contact Andean warfare. More specifically, the key argument is that Andean conflict was entwined with the internal politics of local societies and groups. Arkush is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh who has conducted archaeological investigations in Peru since 1999. In this publication, she draws from her extensive fieldwork experience to shed light on the nature of conflict, war, ritual violence, and war-related spectacle in the Andean world.

Arkush calls for her colleagues to move beyond the simplistic and false dichotomy of ‘real warfare’ vs ‘ritual warfare.’ This stems from the fact that nearly all wars are both ‘ritual’ and ‘real’ as both forms involve political, cultural, historical, religious, and performed aspects. After documenting the antiquity and severity of Andean violence, she describes various types of Andean warfare. For example, wars of exclusion did not seek to absorb defeated populations, but rather such conflicts were aimed at destroying enemies. Wars of group revenge and reputation were often over territorial conflicts, resource rights, and/or a variety of perceived offences. Such feuds tended to be limited in scope. Predatory raiding occurred when aggressors possessed numerical or military advantages over their targets, especially in terms of rapid mobility. In contrast, wars of incorporation were aimed at conquering enemies, usurping their lands, and subjecting defeated groups to tribute or taxation. Wars of elite-status rivalry served as mechanisms for elite display. Such spectacles often consisted of elaborate ritual performances and other public forms of ‘advertising’ designed to impress both commoners and other elites.

Arkush characterises wars of exclusion as wars over ‘things’ while wars of incorporation were wars over ‘people.’ This distinction results from the marginal value of labour. Where the marginal value of labour was low, warfare was exclusionary (defeated groups were killed or driven out). However, where the marginal value of labour was high, warfare was incorporative as elites strove to expand control over populations and build a larger political base. Elites engaged in wars of exclusion promoted war-related spectacles designed to convey messages of intimidation and terror. Elites engaged in wars of incorporation promoted elaborate war-related spectacles as propaganda/advertising designed to convince audiences of the legitimacy of their rule.

In sum, War, Spectacle, and Politics in the Ancient Andes is a comprehensive and well-researched publication that documents the antiquity and distribution of the various types of warfare and war-related spectacle that occurred throughout the Andes. This publication should be considered essential reading for those interested in understanding the seminal role that warfare and war-related spectacle played in the rise and maintenance of Andean social complexity. Moreover, the insights presented in this book may shed light on the nature of past and present conflict cross-culturally.

War, Spectacle, and Politics in the Ancient Andes Elizabeth N Arkush Cambridge University Press, £75 ISBN 978-1316510964