Frank Salomon ’s study of the region of Quito is a carefully structured comparison of Inca and Quiteño social organization, using historical documents to unravel the patterns of local society before the Inca conquest. Despite the use of historical sources, however, Salomon’s use of his materials is reminiscent of the reconstruction of social organization from physical remains that is to me the most fascinating aspect of good archeology.
Salomon did not do his research in middens and fields but in archives; his sources are not sherds and other physical remains, but Spanish visitas: the investigations into local patterns of tribute and access to goods carried out before assigning colonial tax levies on the native population. He carefully tracks the origins of the goods mentioned in the documents, and their social/spatial distribution in local society. He then posits the pattern of social organization that he feels best explains that distribution, and compares the pattern he presents with the accepted picture of the social organization of the Inca state. The procedure is akin to the careful comparison of pottery sequences from different areas in reconstructing the expansion or contraction of the social patterns associated with physical remains. This study is almost a manual for those who want to do such a comparison. It is not a book for the casual reader, who could easily miss the importance of the details that have been carefully amassed and meticulously presented here.
Salomon builds a picture of the Quito region as a social entity distinct from the Inca state, although in process of absorption into it. He challenges the tendency of some scholars to apply the “archipelago” model of centralized access to distinct microclimatic zones posited by John Murra some decades ago to any area where there is evidence of access to goods from distant regions. Salomon argues, with ample evidence, for a pre-Inca pattern of trade between communities rather than central control of distinct ecological niches achieved via long-distance colonists. He presents the “archipelago” pattern as a mechanism of state control utilized by the Incas, rather than an element of Andean culture independent of the state.
Before the centralizing efforts of the Inca state, Salomon argues, the characteristic pattern of the region of Quito, at least, was one of complex trade relations, often articulated through long-distance traders or mindalaes. These traders, who occupied a privileged position by virtue of the goods they provided, also seem to have acted as sources of intelligence to chiefly patrons seeking to expand their authority over other areas in the time-honored pattern that made traders often justly regarded with suspicion in many parts of the world.
All of this makes for a considerably more complex picture of the Andean world than has been available to date. By linking the “archipelago” model with the centralizing state, the problem of assuring the lines of access to distant resource areas is removed, for the state provides the required protection. Salomon’s hypothesis also makes it easier to comprehend the very different patterns of exchange in the Andes and in Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest, for both were characterized by a pattern of “microclimates” in which access to resources could be achieved through trade as well as state control—and probably was.