Environmental Adaptation of Ancient Incan Cities

The ancient Incan civilization first began developing settlements in coastal and highland regions of the Andes mountain range in Peru between 3000-1800 BC. The empire started and was centered in the capital city of Cuzco. Despite a lack of many modern advances such as the wheel, powerful draft animals, currency, or even an advanced written language, the Incas developed very advanced technologies and systems to adapt to their environments. An elaborate road system connected the distant mountain cities, and the aqueduct system in place greatly impressed the Spanish upon discovery. The advanced highway and hydraulic systems provided the framework for a successful empire.

Remains of a defensive wall at Cuzco. The capital was rebuilt upon the arrival of the Spanish.

The network of roads connecting the empire stretched across nearly 25,000 miles. The sophisticated roads were were constructed with very limited resources, and rope suspension bridges were built to impressively cross ravines.The impressive aqueduct system of the Incan empire functioned to irrigate agricultural terraces and bring fresh drinking water into the cities. The aqueducts, often build on the sides of mountains, collected water from the mountains for distribution elsewhere. The same aqueducts are still used extensively today. The stepped agricultural terraces created more space to grow crops than was available in the valleys. Additionally, the large surrounding mountains blocked sunlight from the valleys; the terraces insured more direct sunlight for more of the day. The terraces also allowed for better control of water for irrigation. The systems of irrigation protected against flooding and allowed the Incas to reliably produce long term food supplies at an extremely efficient rate. People around the world continue to visit the beautiful terraces at Machu Picchu. This site was built as a retreat for the Incan emperor. Tourists can see how the aqueducts transport water because the system is still functional today.

The Incan terrace agriculture system seen at popular tourist destination, Machu Picchu

The agricultural innovations of the Inca serve as a model for successful adaptation of cities to their environments and conditions. The Incas utilized their mountainous surrounding to maximize the efficiency of their agriculture and irrigation systems. These advances boosted agriculture not only for the Incan civilization, but the Sacred Valley of the Incas continues to be Peru’s most productive region. While complete sustainability may be nearly impossible to achieve, the Incas of Peru successfully adapted to their conditions in a lasting way that improved the success of their cities for generations to come. The study of their innovation and adaptation can be applicable to modern cities and for developing systems of sustainability in our modern society.



The Incas: History of the Andean Empire

The Incan Aqueducts- Irrigation Systems

The Inca Agricultural Terraces

The Inca Road System


Cuzco Fortress

Machu Picchu Terraces

For Additional Reading:

National Geographic Investigates: Ancient Inca, Archaeology Unlocks the Secret’s of Inca’s Past

Moray: First Agricultural Experiment Station?

San People: The Original Hunter-Gatherers

According to American anthropologist Elman Service’s four-fold classification, a hunter-gatherer group is the base level of societal organization. These bands travel in groups usually less than 100 members and often have kinship ties. The first population of humans in Southern Africa, and likely the world, was the hunter-gatherer San people. The San people, also known as ‘Bushmen’, populated South Africa long before the Bantu nations or Europeans arrived. A detailed analysis of African DNA found the San to be directly descended from the original human ancestors that populated Africa, and eventually spread to populate the rest of the world. The San DNA was found to be the most genetically diverse; indicating that they are likely the oldest continuous population of humans in Africa and thus on Earth. Descendants of these incredible San people continue to live in Southern Africa today, and keep the traditions of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle alive. The study of the San people has offered archaeologists the best model for studying hunter-gatherer lifestyles during the Stone Age. With numerous generations throughout the period, there is much to be studied. San rock art offers valuable insight into beliefs and cultural practices of the time; there have been approximately 20,000 to 30,000 sites of this rock art identified. The oldest of such rock paintings, found in Namibia, has been radiocarbon-dated to 26,000 years old.

The beautiful Namibian rock art of the San people is considered to be one of the longest-enduring art forms. Today, the modern San continue to create this art, just as their ancestors did.

The history of the San lifestyle is well preserved through a rich oral history and the continued study of artifacts and sites of the ancient San people. Cultural practices of the San people including ostrich eggshell beads, shell ornaments, bow and arrow design, and rock art were followed by most other hunter-gatherer groups in South Africa. The unique “click” language of the San people spread and evolved to form other dialects in Africa. The lifestyle of the San people was threatened when the Khoekhoe people migrated into South Africa about 2,000 years ago. This group of herders brought sheep herding culture and a different social organization than that of traditional hunter-gatherers. While a symbiotic relationship between the groups appears to have been established, the subtle conversion of individuals to herding culture weakened the social cohesion of the group.The subsequent immigration of Bantu speaking agro-pastoralists and European colonial agro-pastoralists brought even more challenges.

The modern San people continue to hunt using the traditional practices of their ancestors. The land they hunt on is one of the last places outside of national parks where there are enough wild animals for them to hunt.

A Kalahari San community still exists today in the Siyanda District of South Africa. Some members of the community still wear traditional leather clothing and older members of the community retain some traditional knowledge and skills. The future of the San people is uncertain; the community must decide whether to succumb to external pressures to pursue agricultural or economic development, perhaps at the cost of some of their intellectual and cultural heritage.







Namibian Rock Art

Bushmen Initiation Hunt article

Additional Content:

Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey Documentary

Kalahari San People Today