The volume under review contains twelve essays, all previously published between 1958 and 1973. They cover a range of subjects from the exchange of cloth or the role of herds and herders in the Inca state, to the traffic in mollusks or the position of the servant class. If such topics seem obscure or esoteric to historians unfamiliar with J. V. Murra’s work, I should make clear forthwith that anything he takes up is important and should not be ignored by those interested in Andean society. Since 1955, when his often-quoted, but still unpublished, doctoral dissertation was filed, Professor Murra has dominated the study of the ethnohistory of Peru while creating a school of colleagues and followers.
Murra has insisted on shifting the focus of inquiry away from European concerns and perceptions to those of the Andean region itself. This involved at first a close re-reading of those few remarkable sixteenth-century writers who endeavored to understand the recently conquered society on its terms (Matienzo; Polo de Ondegardo, e.g.) and then the patient and painstaking examination of a handful of early visitas which have only recently come to light. There is nothing methodologically dazzling in all this; only informed and sensitive reading, subtle interpretation, brilliant inference.
What emerges from Murra’s work is a series of hypotheses about the political and economic organization of the Andean world. Perhaps the most striking has been his model of “verticality” or the idea that Andean inhabitants thought of their world as vertical; each community sought to gain control of several ecological zones at various elevations to achieve its ideal of self-sufficiency. Further corollaries of this system are the absence (or weakness) of trade across community boundaries and an internal economy based on reciprocity and redistribution. Several of Murra’s perceptive queries—the function of cloth, the nature of labor demands, the origin of the yana—are examined in the light of the verticality model. It is original and fascinating work.
Over the past twenty years, Murra has questioned the standard assumptions of Andean history while creating new frameworks for analysis. One can only thank the Institute of Peruvian Studies for gathering in one place the present essays and hope that the projects outlined in the introduction will soon appear.