Quinoa, Potatoes, and Llamas Fueled Emergent Social Complexity in the Lake Titicaca Basin of the Andes

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Anthropology, Archaeology



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PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)



Food production systems are critical components in the emergence of complex socioecological systems. In the Andes, societal complexity has often been related to the increasing production and consumption of maize by elites, but the importance of highland cultivated crops, such as potatoes, one of the most cultivated crops in the world, and quinoa, presently recognized as a “superfood,” remains largely underappreciated. Using stable isotopes including compound-specific amino acids, we reconstruct the diets of people living in southern Lake Titicaca, where the Tiwanaku state emerged. Over time, locally produced potatoes, quinoa, and llamas, by means of increasingly intensive practices, facilitated long-term food security, which sustained population growth, contributed to increasing sociopolitical complexity, and facilitated resiliency through episodes of significant climatic variation.


The Lake Titicaca basin was one of the major centers for cultural development in the ancient world. This lacustrine environment is unique in the high, dry Andean altiplano, and its aquatic and terrestrial resources are thought to have contributed to the florescence of complex societies in this region. Nevertheless, it remains unclear to what extent local aquatic resources, particularly fish, and the introduced crop, maize, which can be grown in regions along the lakeshores, contributed to facilitating sustained food production and population growth, which underpinned increasing social political complexity starting in the Formative Period (1400 BCE to 500 CE) and culminating with the Tiwanaku state (500 to 1100 CE). Here, we present direct dietary evidence from stable isotope analysis of human skeletal remains spanning over two millennia, together with faunal and floral reference materials, to reconstruct foodways and ecological interactions in southern Lake Titicaca over time. Bulk stable isotope analysis, coupled with compound-specific amino acid stable isotope analysis, allows better discrimination between resources consumed across aquatic and terrestrial environments. Together, this evidence demonstrates that human diets predominantly relied on C3 plants, particularly quinoa and tubers, along with terrestrial animals, notably domestic camelids. Surprisingly, fish were not a significant source of animal protein, but a slight increase in C4 plant consumption verifies the increasing importance of maize in the Middle Horizon. These results underscore the primary role of local terrestrial food resources in securing a nutritious diet that allowed for sustained population growth, even in the face of documented climate and political change across these periods.


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