Doctoral Dissertation Research: Andean Gristmills: Relations Among Technology, Environment, and Society in Colonial Peru

Project: Research project

Project Details


The introduction of Spanish agro-pastoral practices to Colonial Peru (1532-1831) initiated processes of landscape transformation involving interconnected environmental, social and technological elements. Food production was an important component of Spanish colonialism, and as such, many European plants, animals, tools and technologies were introduced to the new territories. Legal, economic and social institutions for regulating and administrating access to land, water and other natural resources were also transferred from the Old World and adapted to the New. Put simply, social and environmental changes were progressing hand-in-hand.

Doctoral student Martha Bell, under the supervision of Professor Karl Zimmerer in the Department of Geography at the Pennsylvania State University, is investigating these social and environmental changes by focusing on the role of Spanish agricultural tools and technologies in the transformations of the Peruvian landscape. In particular, this project explores the development and use of the horizontal water-wheel gristmill by determining how the introduction of gristmills led to new interactions between people and the environment. Specific questions addressed in this study include what new land use practices were facilitated by the introduction of gristmills and how were existing land use practices and environments altered? How did the use of these technologies influence socio-spatial patterns of access to food and water resources in a complex colonial society? How did institutions and governance structures regulating resource access develop? This study uses a multiple methods approach that includes the study of archival records, the mapping and spatial analysis of mills still on the landscape, and interviews with Peruvian millers who use horizontal water-wheel gristmills. This technology-based approach analyzes material culture to understand nature-society relations.

Beyond its intellectual merit, there are three broader impacts of this proposed research. First, this project will record valuable cultural and technical knowledge of horizontal water-wheel gristmills. The rural Andes are one of the few places where this ancient technology is still used, and this research project will help to preserve living knowledge of this mill. Second, the horizontal water-wheel gristmill is the direct technological ancestor of the turbine. There has been interest in converting old mills into hydroelectric generators at a micro-scale, to provide a small amount of electricity to remote rural places. This project can inform the potential social and environmental impacts of such hydroelectric development, in the Andes and elsewhere. Third, this research will further understandings of the relationships between technology, environment and society, something that can only grow in importance in our current world. In conclusion, this project will advance our knowledge of the consequences of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas by examining the relationships between technology, environment and society that emerged in Peru during this tumultuous period.

Effective start/end date9/1/102/28/13


  • National Science Foundation: $11,493.00


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