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The Andean mountains were long considered colossal physical barriers, their altitude and rugged landscape being seen as serious obstacles to human development. Nevertheless, Andean civilizations creatively converted these apparently adverse topographical and climatic conditions into advantages that ultimately permitted the development of large populations and prosperous local and regional economies. A fundamental contribution of Andean studies has been to analyze and explain both political and environmental-management systems in a region marked by geographical and ecological extremes. Key strategies deployed by Andean civilizations and peoples were the occupation and use of different altitudinal ecological zones and varying microclimates. Two scholars independently developed a conceptual framework to understand these Andean systems: Ramiro Condarco Morales, from Bolivia, and John V. Murra, who was born in the Ukraine but taught in the United States. The following passage by Murra explains how adaptation to the heights and the cold, along with the mastery of crop cycles, allowed Andean populations in the highlands to flourish. It also reflects his concept of the “vertical archipelago,” a spatial strategy of highland groups to access dispersed lands at lower elevations in other ethnic territories.

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