“The Middle Ages around the World” Reveals Flourishing South America

andean culture thrived in medieval times

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Many civilizations thrived during the Middle Ages. Trade and developments in transportation made it possible for those in Asia, Africa, Polynesia, Europe, and the Americas to broaden their cultures. This week on Wondrium Shorts, see a flourishing South America.

The Middle Ages were full of activity all around the world and between multiple civilizations. While many studies focus almost exclusively on Europe, Wondrium’s The Middle Ages around the World does exactly what its name says: It examines historic, cultural, economic, and political events the world over for the 1,000-year period known as the Middle Ages.

One often-overlooked area during this time is South America. From domesticating alpacas to cultivating potatoes, South American culture saw a wide array of development. In The Middle Ages around the World, Dr. Joyce E. Salisbury, Professor Emerita in History at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, reveals South America’s progress in medieval times.

Boil ’em, Mash ’em, Stick ’em in a Stew

“Unlike Mesoamerican cultures, Andean peoples built their civilizations not on maize, but on another amazing food crop—potatoes,” Dr. Salisbury said. “Potatoes can grow at altitudes of 14,000 feet, and the tubers can be left in the ground up to a year as long as the ground isn’t frozen. This provided a regular, reliable food source without a lot of labor-intensive planning.”

According to Dr. Salisbury, farmers in the Andean region even managed to learn how to freeze-dry potatoes, so they could be stored for several years at a time. They also had sweet potatoes as one of their staple crops. In fact, the presence of sweet potatoes in Polynesia has helped anthropologists prove that Polynesians traveled to South America. Not native to Polynesia, sweet potatoes must have been brought back from South America.

“Andean societies also domesticated llamas and alpacas that helped the cultures flourish in the highlands,” Dr. Salisbury said. “The animals carried goods, served as a source of meat, and provided wonderful wool that natives wove into warm and beautiful clothing. Cotton grew in the Americas, and weavers blended cotton with wool to to make warm and enduring fabrics.”

Progressive Metal

Life in higher altitudes like the Andes could be difficult. Some crops and animals thrive in different biomes. Fortunately, along with alpacas, llamas, and potatoes, Andean cultures made use of other items that helped them thrive and advance their respective civilizations: metals.

“By the Early Middle Ages, the tribes in the Andes and northern South America had learned to smelt copper, and this technology spread up to Mesoamerica by 700 CE,” Dr. Salisbury said. “They also worked gold and silver into beautiful objects—that certainly caught the attention of 15th-century Europeans who came looking for gold.”

Several cultures were able to take advantage of the resources offered up in this area. According to Dr. Salisbury, the Chimú thrived around the turn of the millennium, with their capitol city in what is now the coast of Peru. These people adapted to the Andes’ periodic drought by using walk-in wells to draw water and reservoirs to hold water for irrigation. They lasted until they were conquered by the Inca around 1470.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily