Monday, November 29, 2021

Wankarani Wagons

Inspired by conversations with Rob Schmidt.


Three thousand years ago, hunter-gatherer societies settled into agriculture in the highlands of central South America. While the Chiripa culture dwelled nearer Lake Titicaca, the largest lake on the continent and one of the highest major bodies of water in the world, the Wankarani peoples settled nearer to Lake Poopo, a saline lake to the southeast. They were mound-builders, erecting houses atop mounds and burying their dead beneath the family homes. A heavily agricultural community, they raised llamas and alpacas while farming quinoa and potatoes.

The legend goes that man had lost an arm in his youth when it was crushed by a stampeding llama. Though he survived to adulthood and excelled working with animals, he found difficulty in contributing to the harvest being able to carry only a portion of what others could even with woven baskets. Upon seeing a child pull along a clay toy that had been made with wheels on a wooden axle, the man decided to make his own wagon. Clay proved too heavy and delicate to be effective, so he used wooden wheels cut from the trunks of trees. His two-wheeled cart was a marvel, and neighbors soon duplicated it for their own benefit.

Agriculture improved among the Wankarani, and soon four-wheeled versions of the wagon were appearing throughout the region often pulled by llamas. The Tiwanaku people on the other side of Lake Titicaca became the dominate culture, growing with their effective use of mound-gardens surrounded by shallow canals that allowed for abundant harvests. As the Tiwanaku’s influence expanded, the Wankarani felt threated. They were not a warlike people, as shown in the archeological digs with few weapons and no village walls outside of llama enclosures, so they began to drift eastward out of the Antiplano that held the highland lakes.

Once across the hot Gran Chaco highlands dividing the middle of the continent, the Wankarani found the wide plains of the Pampas perfectly suited to their herding lifestyles. Through centuries of breeding, they grew up enormous llamas capable of pulling heavy wagons and lithe alpacas towing high two-wheeled carts for speedy passenger travel. As their population expanded and grew, turmoil increased with local natives. The Wankarani created a defensive confederation, linking their villages with leveled roads and amassing a force of llama-drawn chariots for battle. Dominating the region and creating a surplus of food through plow agriculture, the Wankarani established cities and trade networks for metals and luxury goods.

The overland trade routes connected up the slopes to the Incan Empire, which became a supply line for metals. The Wankarani flourished in a rival civilization along the Parana River, building bridges and roadways rivaling Incan engineering. Wars broke out as the Inca attempted to expand, but the Wankarani chariots proved able to beat back any Incan infantry force. The two would ultimately become allies against the waves of onslaught by European expansionists.

The Wankarani first made contact with Europeans may have been Amerigo Vespucci, but it was Juan Diaz de Solis who came ashore at the Rio de la Plata on the eastern end of the Wankarani lands to establish relations. The Wankarani were eager to find another supply of metal, but they became wary of the Spaniards greedily seeking gold and silver. Word traveled up to Cusco about the gold-hungry visitors in strange dress, prompting the emperor Huayna Capac to arrest and execute most of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition upon its arrival in 1526. Plagues from the disease exchange devastated native peoples; nevertheless, fresh troops shared between the Inca and Wankarani enabled them to maintain independence while their populations recovered. Wankarani later built relations with the English and Dutch to supply firearms and became the first native peoples to manufacture their own gunpowder.

Following the colonial era, South America continued as a continent split into fourths with Portuguese Brazil, Spanish Colombia, Andean Inca, and the Wankarani Confederation. Horses were imported in small numbers, but llamas continued to be the major beasts of burden for transport until both creatures gave way to steam and internal combustion engines. Seen as its own corner of the world, South Americans trade freely with each other but offer only a few global markets for exporting luxury fleeces.



In reality, the Wankarani culture was eclipsed by the growing Tiwanaku culture from the northwest as it expanded its influence from the Lake Titicaca region. The Tiwanaku would eventually decline, likely due to climatic change, and the power center of the area shifted to the Inca in the Andes. The Inca would be conquered by the Spanish Empire, but numerous archaeological sites and descendants carry on the culture of the area, such as llama herding. While there are numerous examples of ancient wheels in the Western Hemisphere, such as wheeled toys in Mesoamerica, wheeled vehicles were not seen, arguably because they lacked large domesticated animals such as horses and oxen.

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