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The Dispersed City

Posted On December 20, 2017 | 10:13 am | by baileyt | Permalink
Gabriela Cervantes surveys the Sican capital in northern Peru

Gabriela Cervantes, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. On October 23, she delivered her research report, “The Sican Capital: Urban Organization in Pre-Columbian Peru,” which discussed her work surveying an important city of the Sican culture which inhabited Peru’s North Coast from 750 to 1375.

Q&A with Gabriela Cervantes

How did you come to work with this site?

I started working with Dr. Izumi Shimada in 2006; he began the Sican Archaeological Project back in 1978. By the time I joined the project I was really thinking of grad school and potential topics. I’d always been interested in everyday life and the domestic experience, so I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my grad studies. I was debating on areas and topics and I realized this site fit quite nicely into what I wanted to do; I’d already been working there four years, I knew a lot of people working there, so everything was really set up. I started applying for grants, and I was lucky enough to get one, and I embarked on my fieldwork. I started with a very ambitious plan, hoping to survey thirty square kilometers, but then things seemed to be working fine, so we kept on working until, eventually, we’d done everything, 50 square kilometers.


You talked about how this site is a kind of transitional stage between Pampa Grande, which exemplifies single-household rule in a compact area, and Chan Chan, which typifies multiple-household rule in a compact area. What’s the importance of this transitional, dispersed settlement phase? Why does it come about?

That’s something I didn’t expand on in my talk. Why move into a dispersed area? Authors who’ve studied dispersed cities point to a couple of reasons, one of which is risk management. Basically, when you have a really compact city, provisioning that city takes a lot of time, effort, and coordination, because the city’s inhabitants aren’t agriculturalists. They don’t provide for themselves. There needs to be a hinterland providing for them, a system of transportation, and so on.

Pampa Grande has a special history, too, because it was on the North Coast, a very dry area, and was experiencing a series of ecological phenomena. They depended a lot on agricultural systems and large canals and irrigation systems. There was a high density of people concentrated in a city, which signals centralized power and control. I’m not being a geographical determinist here, but during a long-term dry season a large city will suffer, and so a lot of people seem to just leave the city. One way to do that is just to spread out, and start their own agricultural plots as a risk management strategy.

Another reason could be agricultural intensification. One of the characteristics of dispersed cities is that they invest a lot of time and effort in agricultural systems. It’s more productive for families to be next to their fields so they can work them full-time, instead of living in the city and walking several kilometers to their fields and back. During Sican times, there was a lot of agricultural intensification going on; major hydraulic engineering projects were undertaken, canals were being created, and even though the state was probably involved in their creation, individual people and families would also take advantage of them.


You mentioned perhaps someday surveying the space between this site and another, Tucume? What might you expect to find there?

I suspect we’ll find a dispersed pattern there as well. Both sites are Sican, but the city I surveyed is Middle Sican, and Tucume is Late Sican. The only difference between the sites is that in Sican the major mounds are separated from each other, and in Tucume they’re all together, one next to another. Those are only the pyramids, though. The people, I suspect, are still living spread out. The cores of these sites might have changed in terms of the political sphere, but at the everyday level people’s lives didn’t really see that much change.