Over the past 20 years, archaeologists have become increasingly aware of the complex nuances of culture contact and the difficulties in distinguishing between a broad range of interregional interactions based solely on the archaeological record. This situation is particularly relevant to the Middle Horizon (AD 600 - 1000) period of Peru, since writing only appeared in the Andes after the Spanish Conquest in 1532 AD.
Wari emerged as an urban centre in the highland valley of Ayaucho at the beginning of the Middle Horizon. Craft specialists soon developed an artistic style that influenced ceramic, textile, metallurgical, and architectural traditions across Peru. No one denies the significant stylistic influence of the Wari, but there is considerable debate on the interactions that peripheral areas had with the Wari urban centre. This debate is fueled in part by a dearth of studies of those areas that were clearly impacted by the spread of Wari ideas and material culture, but do not appear to have fallen under direct Wari control.
In 2004, Justin Jennings began a four year project in one of the areas influenced, but perhaps not controlled, by Wari—the Cotahuasi Valley of Peru. This work has been conducted in collaboration with Willy Yépez Álvarez, the Peruvian director of the project, bioarchaeologist Corina Kellner, paleobotanist Emily Dean, and an international team of students and professional archaeologists. With the valley edges rising in places over 3,500 metres from the valley floor, Cotahuasi is one of the deepest canyons in the world. It is one of the richer natural resource areas in Peru, and boasts large deposits of obsidian, copper, silver, gold, ochre, and rock salt.
Like many regions of Peru, the evidence for Wari influence on the Cotahuasi Valley is unmistakable, but evidence for Wari control is ambiguous. The ceramic and textile traditions in the valley were radically transformed by Wari influence. At the same time, population significantly increased, and there was an increase in agricultural production. Middle Horizon sherds found on many of the terraces suggest that much of the region’s terracing dates to this period. There is also evidence for the increased exploitation of the valley’s natural resources, and data from both ceramic assemblages found at cemeteries and architectural forms at habitation sites suggest the development of social stratification by at least the Middle Horizon.
Collota was an important village and funerary centre during the Middle Horizon, and contains both architecture and ceramics that exhibit strong Wari influence. It appears to have been critical to the dissemination of Wari culture in the Cotahuasi Valley, and is also the only site that was abandoned after the Wari state collapsed around 1000 AD (the site was reoccupied 500 years later). The excavations at Collota were designed to uncover data on ceramic assemblages, diet, mortuary remains, and architecture to use as indicators of interregional relationships.
The 2005 and 2006 field seasons revealed a complex occupation sequence at Collota that includes material from the Late Horizon, or Inca (AD 1470 - 1532), and Early Colonial (AD 1530 - 1570) periods. The 3-hectare site contains a Middle Horizon and Late Horizon domestic sector, a Middle Horizon cemetery, and a Late Horizon and early Colonial domestic sector. While the later material provides interesting opportunities to explore different periods of state expansion into the valley, the Middle Horizon period remains the main focus of the project.
Results of the excavations in the Middle Horizon layers question previous interpretations of the site as an administrative centre. For example, the seven tombs excavated from the period all contain ceramics, which are often poor imitations of Wari styles and/or blend local elements with Wari iconography. House forms also follow local tradition, and cuisine choices are neither exotic nor elite.
In the Late Horizon and Early Colonial sectors, the project is uncovering a sequence that speaks to the ritual abandonment of the site in the face of Spanish pressure. The unfolding interpretations of the site are based on the ongoing analysis of the excavated material.