Quebrada de Humahuaca

Quebrada de Humahuaca follows the line of a major cultural route, the Camino Inca, along the spectacular valley of the Rio Grande, from its source in the cold High Andean desert plateau to its confluence with the Rio Leone some 150 km to the south. The valley shows substantial evidence of its use as a major trade route over the past 10,000 years. Scattered along the valley are extensive remains of successive settlements whose inhabitants created and used these linear routes. They include prehistoric hunter/gatherer and early farming communities (9000 BC to AD 400), large structured agricultural societies (AD 400-900), flourishing pre-Hispanic towns and villages (900-1430/80), the Incan empire (1430/80-1535), Spanish towns, villages and churches (153/93-1810), and Republican struggles for independence (1810-20th century). Of particular note are the extensive remains of stone-walled agricultural terrace fields at Coctaca, thought to have originated around 1,500 years ago and still in use today; these are associated with a string of fortified towns known as pucaras . The field system and the pucaras together make a dramatic impact on the landscape and one that is unrivalled in South America. The valley also displays several churches and chapels and a vibrant vernacular architectural tradition.

The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a long narrow valley carved out by the Rio Grande. It is flanked by high mountain ranges and stretches from the cold high desert plateau of the High Andean lands, to the wide warm humid Jujuy valley to the south-east. The valley has provided a crucial natural route for the transfer of people and ideas from the time of hunters and gatherers to the present day. Through its subvalleys it linked the numerous tracks from the forest areas with the main arterial route, funnelling the resources of the uplands towards the plains. The key aspects of the site are the network of routes through the valley. These encompass remains of ancient tracks, revetted roads, a railway, and finally tarmac-surfaced roads.

The 26 rock-art sites in the valley so far known show evidence of the use of caves and shelters from the time of the hunter-gatherers right down to the arrival of the Spanish. In some caves, early petroglyphs and pictographs of geometric and zoomorphic shapes, people and animals, are found alongside representations of the Spanish on horseback confronting warriors on foot.

As a whole, the valley reflects the way its strategic position has engendered settlement and agriculture and trade. The pre-Hispanic and pre-Incan settlements display a complex territorial organizational strategy designed to locate settlements advantageously along the valley and allow the development of intensive agriculture through sophisticated irrigation technologies.

Historical context

The history of the valley begins with evidence of hunter-gatherer societies living in caves and cave shelters around 10,000 BCE. There probably took part in seasonal migrations.

Deteriorating climate between the 6th and 3rd millennium BCE, which heralded drought conditions, seems to have deterred further settlement until an increase in rainfall after 2500 BC, encouraged new groups of people to re-colonise some of the earlier caves.

These new settlers combined hunting with agriculture and this restricted their mobility. After about 100 AD villages emerged, and linked to these, traffic between them and with different ecological areas. Caravans of llamas began to transport goods such as obsidian, turquoise, ceramics and the hallucinogenic drug cebil from the eastern forests.

After around 700 AD an increase in population, linked to the improvement agricultural techniques, led to the development of large settlements near the river. Surpluses were traded with neighbouring areas and perhaps much further afield. These settlements certainly reflected the rising power of the Tiwanaku State around Lake Titicaca and there is evidence of trade between the two.

After 1000 AD, and perhaps prompted by the collapse of the Tiwanaku state, there was yet another period of social change that heralded the final flowering of the local Quebrada culture. The low settlements were abandoned and towns built on higher rocky outcrops. Known as pucaras (fortresses), they were characterised by densely grouped housing for growing populations. The separate pucaras may have been the seats of the heads of different ethnic groups within the valley.

An increase in population, and a huge increase in trade, led to the cultivation of vast areas along the valley and on the lower slopes of the mountains. Caravan traffic grew in volume and also in extent with the valley becoming linked to the forests, to the Jujuy valley, to the south of Bolivia and to the neighbouring parts of Chile.

Between 1430 and 1480, the expansion of the Incan Empire curtailed any further local development. Almost certainly the Incan conquerors arrived along the very trade routes they sought to control. The Incans were interested in exploiting minerals and in setting up large agricultural enterprises to export the products of both to their heartlands. New settlements were established to facilitate this trade and the transport system improved through the construction of a complex system of new engineered roads that linked Quebrada with the formidable transport system that crossed the Incan Empire from Ecuador down to Chile and Argentina – along a space of some 5,000 miles.

In the 16th century the valley gradually succumbed to new conquerors, the Spanish. As with the Incas, the Spanish wished to control the strategic trade routes and harvest the resources of the valley. Trade increased along the existing road network with silver, cattle and cotton being exported and European goods imported.

A huge demographic change took place as many of the inhabitants fell victim to new diseases and immigrants from Spain begun to settle in the valley in new settlements. Trade increased and by the 18th century a line of staging posts was established along the main route through the valley and further afield, as part of the link between Buenos Aires and the High Peruvian area.

For 14 years from 1810, Quebrada played a crucial role in transferring troops and armaments to and from High Peru in the fight for Independence which was achieved in 1816, and subsequently in the ‘civil wars’ and border clashes between the new states. In peaceful times in the 19th century, trade increased, particularly after the opening of the salt-peter mines in the trans-Andean desert. The character of that trade changing markedly with the arrival of the railway along the valley in 1900.

Finally, in the 20th century, the main valley route became part of the Pan-American north-south road and thus the valley continues to play an important role in linking the Atlantic with the Pacific.

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion (ii): The Quebrada de Humahuaca valley has been used over the past 10,000 years as a crucial passage for the transport of people and ideas from the high Andean lands to the plains.

Criteria (iv) and (v): The Quebrada de Humahuaca valley reflects the way its strategic position has engendered settlement, agriculture and trade. Its distinctive pre-Hispanic and pre-Incan settlements, as a group with their associated field systems, form a dramatic addition to the landscape and one that can certainly be called outstanding.