John V. Murra: 90, Professor Who Recast Image of Incas, Dies

Historians in the News

John V. Murra, a professor of anthropology who culled voluminous Spanish colonial archives for research that reshaped the image of the Incas and their vast South American empire, died on Oct. 16 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 90.

The death was confirmed by Blaine Friedlander, a spokesman for Cornell University, where Professor Murra taught from 1968 until his retirement in 1982.

“Before he came along, the image of the Incas was one of barbaric splendor,” said Frank Salomon, the John V. Murra professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But Professor Murra’s work “forged a radically new image” of that empire, Professor Salomon said — one based on an intricate and often ceremonial exchange of produce as gifts among tribal kinfolk. They hiked from the edges of the rain forest to meet those living at the heights of the Andes, ensuring each other’s survival by trading key lowland crops like maize and potatoes for scarce mountain goods like llama and alpaca wool. That economic system was named “the vertical archipelago” by Professor Murra.

“His ‘vertical archipelago’ model has been verified through research that archaeologists have since done in the Andean zone,” said Heather Lechtman, a professor of archaeology and ancient technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While some experts debate aspects of the theory, Professor Lechtman said, “This is certainly the accepted model for the central Andes.”

The Inca empire existed from about 1400 to 1535 in an area that now includes Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and parts of Colombia, Argentina and Chile. What largely held it together, until the Spanish invasion in 1532, was its unusual economic system. The social system was documented by Professor Murra with his search through colonial archives and court documents in which the words of Incas were recorded.
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