Peruvian gristmills teach lessons about the impact of technology

Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:29am

 Archaeologist Odolín Rodríguez, exploring a mill outside of the city of Pomabamba


Archaeologist Odolín Rodríguez, exploring a mill outside of the city of Pomabamba (Ancash Department) Photo by Martha Bell




Martha Bell, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography, spent September 2010 through December 2011 in Lima, Peru about two blocks away from the Pacific Ocean, and from there trekking into the highlands of the Department of Ancash (Huaylas and Conchucos regions) to look for gristmills. Her dissertation is on the social and environmental impacts of the introduction of Spanish water-powered milling technology to Peru during the early colonial period.


What is a gristmill?

“My project focuses on analysis of the role of technology in nature-society relations, but it also looks at related issues, like colonial water governance and regulation of grain markets.  The research included hours in the archives of the city of Lima, visits to historical sites and archaeological excavations within the city, and survey of gristmills still in use in the Peruvian highlands,” Bell explains.


This kind of research is important for two reasons, Bell notes. First, by investigating the social and environmental impacts of Spanish colonialism in this specific, and previously unexamined context, broader lessons emerge about the widespread effects of the introduction of new technologies.


Second, while the horizontal water-wheel mill was used in Europe since at least the seventh century, the Andean highlands are one of the few remaining places where this machine is still operated on a regular basis (other areas include some parts of Spain and the Himalayas), Bell explains. “ I feel that it is important to continue to record living knowledge about this mill.”


Bell’s research required long days sorting through municipal archives and long days trekking into the highlands of Ancash to conduct fieldwork.


“My typical research day involved a morning commute to Lima's Municipal Archive on the newly installed Metropolitano bus system. The archive is housed in City Hall, on the Plaza de Armas in the historic city center. (Photo 1). There I spent my days reading the records of city council meetings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and learning about the ways the municipal government regulated milling, grain markets and water rights in the colonial city,” Bell describes.


“The field survey of gristmills in the highlands of Ancash involved a lot of walking and meant for more exciting, and definitely more strenuous, research days,” Bell notes.  “With my team of assistants—Gabriel Ramón (photographer), Odolín Rodríguez (archaeologist, Quechua translator), and Giner Aranda (Quechua translator)—I visited more than 50 water-powered gristmills, many of which are still in use,” Bell says. “The mills we visited were mostly located on the banks of mountain rivers and streams, at elevations ranging from 6,500-13,000 feet above sea level.  (Photos 3, 4, 5). We took GPS readings at all of the mills, so as I process the data, we'll start to get an understanding of the spatial organization of milling in Ancash.”

 Peru map

Bell also talked with millers and mill clients, and learned how wheat becomes flour. (Photo 2). “While the mills currently in use in Ancash primarily grind wheat,” Bell notes, “they are also used for a variety of grains, including: barley, corn, peas, and the Andean grains quinoa and kiwicha.  Many people mix the grains together in small batches before milling, and then use the mixed flour to prepare a hot breakfast cereal like oatmeal or cream of wheat.  In general, the mills provide an important local service to neighbors and residents of nearby towns, and the flour milled is used mainly in households and local bakeries.  Mill users praise the higher quality of stone-ground flour from water-powered mills over flour from electricity-powered cylinder mills, which are also common in the area.  The mills also provide income for their owners, and in some cases are being developed for tourism.


“The best part about my fieldwork was getting to see the gristmills in use.  This technology has existed in Peru and elsewhere, basically unchanged for hundreds of years.  It was incredibly satisfying to visit the highland mills, and then return to the big city and find archaeological remains of the same kinds of structures fortuitously preserved amidst modern development.  Better still, was to see that water-powered gristmills are part of everyday life for many rural people (at least in Ancash).  It was a special experience to sit inside a mill house listening to the miller and his clients joke in Quechua over the background noise of the rush of water and the rhythmic clacking of the millstones.”



Captions for additional photos viewable in the frame on the upper left.

Photos by Martha Bell

1. Municipal Archive of Lima (Archivo Historico de la Municipalidad de Lima), where most of the records about municipal governance in colonial Lima are held.

2. A gristmill in Paucas (Huari Province, Ancash Department), with E. Aranda, a carpenter with knowledge of mill construction and maintenance (and son and grandson of millers).

3. Exterior of a gristmill in Huayllan (Pomabamba Province, Ancash Department).  The rectangular opening on the lower level houses the waterwheel; when in use, water drains out of this opening.

4. Cristian Alegre, in his mill in the city of Caraz (Ancash Department), adding grain to the hopper that feeds the millstones. 

5. "Twin" mill, outside the city of Pomabamba (Ancash Department).  This mill houses two sets of waterwheels and millstones.