Agricultural Intensification and Formative Period Society

Maria Bruno

I am interested in the indigenous agricultural systems of the Lake Titicaca Basin of the Andes, past and present. For the indigenous peoples of the Andes, farming is not only the primary means of subsistence, but also provides the context for most social, political, and ritual interactions. Studies of agriculture, therefore, provide an important avenue for exploring historical processes shaping Andean cultures.

For my dissertation, I am investigating the process of agricultural intensification during the Formative Period (1500 B.C. - A.D. 500) on the Taraco Peninsula, Bolivia and its role in the development of early complex societies in this region. I will accomplish this through a year-long ethnobotanical study of Aymara agricultural production on the Taraco Peninsula followed by paleoethnobotanical analysis of macrobotanical remains recovered from several Formative Period sites excavated by the Taraco Archaeological Project (TAP).

In the Lake Titicaca Basin, farming began in the Formative Period. This period also represented the first time that people began living in settled villages and maintaining more elaborate social and political relationships.  Ritual life also became more formal, as people constructed public ceremonial structures where community celebrations took place. Although archaeologists have learned a great deal about Formative Period settlement patterns, exchange networks, ceramic production, and ritual practices, we know little about how the agricultural systems developed and how they articulated with these other phenomena. Previous studies of pre-historic farming in the lake basin focused primarily on landscape modifications, particularly raised fields. Given the central role of farming in modern Andean life, I believe a study encompassing all aspects of Formative Period agriculture is essential to understanding the processes that gave rise to early complex society in the Lake Titicaca Basin.

Archaeological plant remains are indicative of both ecological and cultural processes. They can be recovered from specific archaeological contexts and can be precisely dated. Modern plant collections, however, are needed to identify the plant taxa in the archaeological samples. If comparative collections are made using ethnobotanical methods, the paleoethnobotanist will have corollary data on the human activities that create patterns in plant assemblages, which greatly aid in the interpretation of archaeological plant remains.

An ethnobotanical investigation of present-day Aymara agricultural production on the peninsula coupled with a paleoethnobotancial analysis of plant remains from Formative period sites from the peninsula will permit me to address three important questions: 1) what intensification strategies, from plant manipulation to landscape modification, were employed by Formative period farmers and how did they change through time? 2) how did local climatic change affect the trajectory of agricultural production during the Formative period? and 3) what were the social and political components of agricultural intensification throughout the Formative period? In addressing these questions, I will be able to document the course of Formative period agricultural intensification on the Taraco Peninsula and determine whether or not agricultural intensification played a causal role in the rise of the regions first multi-community political entity, the Taraco Peninsula Polity c. 250 B.C.

This research is made possible by grants from IIE Fulbright, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and National Science Foundation. The ethnobotanical research is being conducted in collaboration with and permission from the Herbario Nacional de Bolivia, the Direccion General de Biodiversidad, and the Aymara communities of San Jose, Santa Rosa, Coa Collu, and Chiripa.

All photographs taken by Maria C. Bruno. Do not use without permission.
The best way to contact me is by e-mail at
For more information about my projects, visit:
Taraco Archaeological Project--