The vertical archipelago is a term coined by sociologist and anthropologist John Victor Murra under the influence of economist Karl Polanyi to describe the native Andeanagricultural economic model of accessing and distributing resources. Aside from certain cultures, particularly in the arid northwest coast of Peru and northern Andes, pre-colonial Andean civilizations did not have strong traditions of market-based trade. Like Mesoamerican pochteca traders, there was a trading class known as mindaláes in these northern coastal and highland societies. A system of barter known as trueque is also known to have existed in these coastal societies as a means of exchanging goods and food stuffs between farmers and fisherman. A simple currency, known to archaeologists as axe-monies, were also present in the area (as well as western Mesoamerica). By contrast, most highland Andean societies, such as the Quechua and Aymara, were organized into moietal lineage groups, such as ayllus in the Quechua case. These lineages internally shared labor through a system called minga. This minga labor system itself rested upon the concept of ayni, or reciprocity, and did not use any form of money as in the case of the coastal Andean traders. Fundamentally, it is a concept of "ecological complementarity" mediated through cultural institutions. Some scholars, while accepting the structure and basic nature of the vertical archipelago, have suggested that inter-ethnic trade and barter may have been more important than the model suggests, despite the lack of evidence in the archaeological and ethnohistoric record.
Absent the use of trade to access resources, economic transactions were essentially intra-lineage obligations of labor. These lineages required a base level of self-sufficiency to achieve autarky. In the Andes, a long mountain range with a great variety of ecozones and resources, the need to access the proper lands for specific crops or animals meant lineages created miniature colonies or sent seasonal migration (such as transhumance) in different ecoregions. As the Andes are a relatively young mountain range, there is an especially great variation in rainfall and temperature, which has great importance for agriculture. This is all the more important as only about 2% of the land in the Andes is arable.
Headed from the arid, western coast to the humid, eastern slopes bordering the Amazon basin, there are four basic ecozones which highland Andean communities exploit:
The quechua zone refers to relatively warm, relatively low valleys falling between 2,300 and 3,200 m (7,500 and 10,500 ft). This area shares its name with the Quechua people and languages and was especially sought after for growing maize.
The suni zone rises from 3,200 to 4,000 m (10,500 to 13,100 ft) and is suitable for the production of native tubers and grains such as quinoa, kaniwa, and kiwicha. Given the innumerable valleys and micro-climates of the Andes, over the millennia Andean farmers developed over 1,000 varieties of potatoes, as well as other tuber species, such as mashua, ulluco, oca, and achira.
The puna zone is composed of high, cold grasslands, suitable largely for pasture by camelids, the domesticated llama and alpaca, as well as the wild vicuña and guanaco. The former were used as not only as pack animals, but also for their meat and wool. Vicuñas and guanacos, though undomesticated, were used for their fine and much-prized wool. Little agriculture is performed in the puna, though in the Bolivian altiplano intensive agriculture was possible through the use of waru waruraised bed agriculture, which used specialized irrigation techniques to prevent frost from destroying crops.
The montaña zone is humid and forested. Populations here were not as large as in other ecozones, as the plants grown in montaña areas were generally speaking not food crops, but rather tobacco and coca. Just as the puna is used to collect resources from wild animals as well as domestic ones, brightly colored feathers were collected from wild birds in the montaña, such as macaws.