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it. Behind this mostly barren plain towers the world's second-highest mountain range, the Andes, reaching an average of over 3,000 meters elevation. Its glacial heights are also uninhabitable, but intermontane valleys and basins are well suited to human occupation, and these became the home of the Inca rulers. Beyond the mountain valleys, on the eastern face of the Andes, are found subtropical cloud forests gently sloping into the Amazon jungle.
The Andean region was quite unlike the other regions where clusters of crops were domesticated. Here were no vast, unending plains of uniformly fertile, well-watered land as in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. Instead, there was an almost total lack of flat, fertile, well-watered soil. Andean peoples grew their crops on millions of tiny plots scattered over a length of thousands of kilometers and perched one above another up mountainsides rising thousands of meters.
This complicated ecological mosaic created countless microclimates—including some of the driest and wettest, coldest and hottest, and lowest and highest found anywhere in the world. Perhaps no other contiguous region has such a broad range of environments as in the ancient Inca Empire. And the region is so fragmented that rainfall, frost, sunlight, and soil type can vary over distances as short as a few meters. For instance, a valley floor may have thick soils, abundant sunshine in the daytime, and severe frost at night, whereas immediately adjacent slopes may be thin soiled, shaded, and frost free.
To protect themselves against crop failure, ancient Andean farmers utilized all the microenvironments they could. Conditions causing poor harvests in one could produce bumper crops at another. Farmers deliberately maintained fields at different elevations, and this vertically diversified farming fostered the development of a cornucopia of crop varieties, each with slightly different tolerances to soil type, moisture, temperature, insolation, and other factors.
The resulting diversity of crops served as a form of farm insurance, but the differing growth cycles of different elevations also permitted work to be staggered and therefore more area to be cultivated.
Western South America's dramatic stage—coast, valleys, highlands, and cloud forest—formed the setting for the evolution of Andean civilization, which emerged some 4,500 years ago. On the semiarid