The Porous Military Frontier

In this section, I return to the discussion of the competing frontier models addressed in chapter 1. To recapitulate, this frontier region exemplifies a case in which the intermittent advances of extremely belligerent and bellicose tribal organizations prompted a defensive posture. In the frontier margin, Cuzcotuyo became part of a string of defensive installations that included defensive walls and surveillance posts, all positioned in high peaks and strategic nodes. By contrast, the inner center of Oroncota continued as a small provincial center that delegated protection to outlying support facilities. Neither center developed into a focus for broad socioeconomic processes like specialized craft production, or encouraged the investment of large-scale agricultural projects for surplus export. Instead, in each region the farming production was directed to finance the local state activities. Similarly, we found strong evidence of the near absence of prestige goods based on imperial valuables. This suggests that the Inka frontier tactics entailed the establishment of economically self-sufficient nodes. This was particularly important in times of heightened turmoil. Nevertheless, evidence for feasting and public celebrations in both installations indicates that the state representatives maintained a careful balance between military action and diplomacy.

Some of these features are consistent with a militarized frontier. However, it is hard to argue in favor of a hardened defensive perimeter acting as a protective shield and aimed at preventing any form of interaction. These frontier installations were not densely packed and did not neatly demarcate inner and outer spaces. Neither did they separate Inka from non-Inka populations. In fact, large state colonies were absent in either region. Instead, we found local cultural assemblages in public and domestic spaces across the sites, features indicative of more complex forms of engagement with the natives. Conceivably, the Inka state did not intend to create an impenetrable string of forts. Instead, strategic nodes of defense at key locations were established.

The Southeastern Inka frontier did not conform to an open and cultural frontier that encouraged fluid processes of social interaction either. None of the Inka installations promoted open trade or became the foci of broad economic development. Even though the frontier zone was formed by a gradient of ethnic groups sharing similar cultural values and traditions, upon their arrival, the Inka prompted increased interethnic competition and conflict for their own benefit. While fiercely combating outside invaders, the Inka astutely co-opted the groups dwelling nearby as supernumerary military forces and strategic allies.

I have argued elsewhere that the Southeastern Inka frontier took the form of a soft military front (Alconini 2005, 2008a). Here, this interpretation is further refined in light of the frontier models, considering its porous military nature. As discussed in chapter 1, restrictive and porous frontiers had defensive installations in valuable areas and strategic communication intersections in the weakest flanks. Thus, both served as effective filters and nodes of defense, control, and surveillance. However, they differed in the ways in which the state representatives interacted with the indigenous populations and the role designated to these groups in the frontier activities. Whereas in restrictive frontiers the garrisons were mainly built and manned by state military forces, porous borders encouraged the participation of the indigenous inhabitants as resident soldiers, supernumerary armies, traders, and even state representatives.

In this context, the evidence collected highlights the importance of native populations in the range of tasks conducted in the imperial facilities. Whereas the Cuzcotuyo fortification was staffed by soldiers of indigenous origins, in Oroncota the Yamparas were valuable allies. At Cuzcotuyo, it is likely that these native groups did not reside permanently in the stronghold, but, rather, somewhere else. They might have moved to the Inka installations on a temporary basis, perhaps as part of their mit’a labor service, and whenever needed. Despite this situation, the dominance of cultural material associated with these groups in the residences, in the plaza celebratory events, and in the military barrack stresses their importance as valued allies and warriors.

These indigenous frontier groups might have also played a pivotal role as economic intermediaries and cultural brokers in the wide exchange corridors that traversed the frontier. In Khosko Toro, the fortification was established along a major communication corridor, intended to monitor and control the resources and populations moving across it. However, this stronghold was not the final destination for the consumption of these valuables. One of the destinations might have been Samaipata, a main Inka center of the frontier with lavish architecture and access to valuable state goods. There, an important state frontier colony was established under the leadership of two brothers related to the Inka ruler. In this context, the Cuzcotuyo stronghold provided security, shelter, and defense to those individuals and groups moving across this corridor.

Another important aspect to stress is that more than an obligation, or simply a mit’a-type service to the state, these indigenous groups played a central role in the regional frontier politics. In Cuzcotuyo, they defended the frontier because it was also their concern. In doing so, they also acquired a higher status, particularly in the absence of permanent state colonies. Yet their degree of cultural integration varied. Whereas some populations incorporated Inka features in their own ceramic repertoire like some Yampara segments, others, like the warriors sheltered at Cuzcotuyo, did not necessarily consume or use Inka goods to advertise their affiliation to the state. Therefore, as much as the state sought to impose control in such contested spaces, its success resided in the fact that the frontier native communities accepted and appropriated the imperial agenda to fit their own interests. In this context, and considering the absence of permanent privileged elite colonies from the core, Inka state institutions and practices like the mit’a labor service or the hospitality celebrations were crucial in annexing outer groups and in ensuring the reproduction of the new social order. Yet these institutions and practices were adapted to the local circumstances. Altogether, these features are certainly more consistent with a porous military frontier.

To summarize, six features characterized this porous frontier segment. First, the defense installation segments were located at strategic passes dictated by topography, rather than forming impenetrable fortified cordons. Second, instead of blocking any form of interaction, they served as strategic filters and as distant warning points. Third, these defensive strings were formed by relatively small outposts, mainly occupied in times of heightened crisis. Fourth, these facilities were staffed by indigenous soldiers from transborder populations, backed up by ancillary state armies. Fifth, these installations also served for diplomatic celebrations to promote interaction and the political annexation of transborder groups. Sixth, the role of indigenous allies was central in the frontier activities as the state representatives.

This kind of frontier was effective in facilitating the expansion of the empire in the southeastern tropical region thanks to local collaboration, despite the increasing Guarani-Chiriguano advances. The evidence also shows how the Inka state and its regional representatives cunningly used political diplomacy as an effective strategy of political incorporation. Whereas outer Guarani factions were harshly repelled from the fortified strongholds, there were also strategic efforts to incorporate some factions residing close by. In this context, indigenous populations had a significant role as invaluable frontier warriors, cultural brokers, and state representatives. In the absence of permanent state colonies, they appropriated the imperial agenda for their own ends and, in doing so, reshaped existing Inka institutions and practices.

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