City of Potosí



The city of Potosí is located in southern Bolivia at the base of the Cerro Rico mountains. At just above 4,000 meters above sea level, Potosí is the most elevated town in South America (Johannes 2001). The significance of this town lies within the Cerro Rico mountain, which used to be home to the largest deposit of silver in the world. Most notably, Spain’s currency and global economic power was a result of the mining of Cerro Rico (Johannes 2001). In 1572, Potosí was visited by a Spaniard named Francisco de Toledo who decided that Spain would take control of the city. In the process many of the native people were forced to work in the silver mines under a system called the mita (mandatory labor) (UNESCO 2014). Cerro Rico (translates to “Rich Mountain”)  produced massive amounts of silver which as a direct result allowed the Spanish economy to grow exponentially. At its peak, Potosí had 22 dams that powered 140 mills on the mountain which was revolutionary for its time. The city also contains a unique mixture of villas for the conquerors and huts for the natives. According to Patrick Greenfield, this may have been due to how quickly the Spanish moved into the city. Instead of setting up distinct districts, they simply moved into the city. (Greenfield 2016). This mixture of style can still be seen to this day. By the end of the 17th century, production slowed due to decreased demand and dwindling silver supply.The population had gone form 160,000 at its peak to 60,000 people (Greenfield 2016). Although all the silver has since run out, UNESCO deemed the city of Potosi a World Heritage site in 1987 for its significant impact on the global economy. (UNESCO 2014).  However, this world heritage site is in danger of losing valuable cultural heritage.  Continued over mining of the mountain for zinc and tin are threatening the stability of Cerro Rico (UNESCO 2014). In order to combat this, UNESCO placed the city of Potosí on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger in 2014 (UNESCO 2014).


Cerro Rico ( “rich mountain”)

“The first city of capitalism, for it supplied the primary ingredient of capitalism – money.”-Jack Weatherford

Endangering Factors

Archaeologists offer a unique perspective on endangering factors of a site. Along with explaining the cause of the factors, archeologists may be able to provide a solution. This is the concept of applied archeology (Foster 2016: 1). The effects of human interactions on the environment can be measured in various ways. For example, a study conducted by Dr. Foster, examined the impact of military base training (Fort Benning) and its surrounding environment (Foster 2016: 3). In order to see if the environment had been impacted, historical data was collected. This included applying modern archeological methods such as satellite images, and soil analysis. The data was then used to make a chronosequence of effects the base had on the environment. As a result, regulations were developed to prevent overuse of natural resources on the base (Foster 2016: 5).The collapse of Cerro Rico correlates to similar endangering factors as Fort Benning. Along with other factors, the ultimate cause is consequences of human interaction with the environment. Therefore, the extent of the impact may be discovered through archaeological research.

Mining Dependent Economy

The roots to the factors influencing the collapse of Cerro Rico can be found in the past. Archaeologists can offer valuable insight on the cause of this problem. The modern economy of Potosí is heavily based on mining. It is estimated that 15,000 people still work in these mines today.(Gerbehaye 2016). This is the result of the Mita, that was enforced by the Spanish who conquered the land. The effects of the Mita, enforced by the Spanish in the 1600’s, are still felt today.  The Mita required over 200 indigenous communities to send one seventh of their male population to work in the Potosí silver mines (Dell 2008: 1). Generation after generation of indigenous people were forcibly sent to the mines to work.This policy was enforced by the Spanish for 240 years until all the silver was depleted in Cerro Rico (Dell 20018: 5).Since these men were in the mines working, they were not learning other skills. Mining was the only trade most of the men in Potosí practiced. Furthermore, this would explain the halt in economic progression in Potosí. The Spanish no longer has a use for Potosí when the silver was depleted. Not only did the Spanish leave Potosí without any silver, they also left them without any other skills other than mining. Since mining was the only skill these people knew, they continued to mine Cerro Rico for tin and zinc. This uncontrolled mining still occurs today, and has caused Cerro Rico to be at high risk for collapse. Due to the poor state of Potosí’s economy, the local people do not want the mining to stop (Greenfield 2016). Without an archaeologists insight, this point may not be understood. Mining was made apart of the people of Potosí’s national identity.  Keeping this knowledge in mind is important when devising a solution for the problem.

Insufficient Protective Legislation

The Bolivian government  has been ineffective at controlling the mining in of the Cerro Rico. Once again, archaeologists may be able to offer an explanation. According to Andrea Marston of University of California Berkley, today the mines of Cerro Rico are operated by mining cooperatives. These are groups of people who basically buy a certain part of the mountain and mine its contents for pure profit (Marston 2013). Since the mining of the mountain is done through the private sector, it makes it increasing difficult to regulate. The lack of mining regulations  and funds of cooperatives leads to lack of safety for the miners. To extract these minerals, abandoned mine shafts are exploited using similar methods to those of the 1700’s. Accidents and cave in’s are common, causing the nickname “The Man- Eating Mountain” to be given by the miners (Johannes 2001). If the miners do not die in the mines, then they die of lung diseases caused by breathing in the the toxins in the mines (Johannes 2001).Many of the miners believe in a spirt that protects them in the mines called the Tío. This strong tie may be a reason the miners resist legislation.The only way to truly understand is significance is through archeological research. (Neumen 2014).


El Tio statue surrounded by offerings to protect the miners

Potosí in the News Timeline

January 2011–  A 65 ft deep sink hole appeared on peak of the Cerro Rico

  • Caused by empty tunnels creating instability in the mountain
  • Mining now prohibited in these areas
  • Many concerns about miner safety because of outdated technology in the mine

June 2014 – The city of Potosí is inscribed to the list of world heritage sites in danger

July 2014- Mass grave found by miners in Cerro Rico mountain

  • Remains of 100’s of indigenous people who were enslaved to work in the mines in the 16th century
  • May have been purposely buried there, or result of a mining collapse  hundreds of years ago
  • Bring attention to increased concern about diminished mine security

April 2015-  Government makes efforts to fill sink holes

  • 30,000 tons of dirt was dumped on the mountain in an effort to keep its shape
  • Light concrete has also been implemented to fill the holes

July 2015-  Miners in the city go on strike

  • Mineral prices drop, thereby hurting the local mining dependent economy
  • People of Potosí want government to invest in more industry so they do not have to rely on dangerous mining
  • Do not wish to close mines, but demand better working conditions and more opportunities
  • Protests do not result in change

August 2016- Violent mining protest break out in Bolivia, resulting in the death of Deputy Interior Minister

  • Violent protests of miners against the government blocked roads for weeks
  • Protesting about new legislation that would unionize other industries but not mining
  • Rodolfo Illanes was kidnapped and killed by the miners when attempted negotiations
  • As a result, protests disbanded, government is searching for the cooperates

Miners block road in strike

Insight into Global Issue: 

Archaeology takes the guess work out of solutions possible solutions. Archaeologists have the unique ability to study a civilization from its creation to possibly its end. Therefore, by examining how other cultures dealt with conflict,  archaeologists can suggest the successful methods. They also can show to consequences of refusal to change from past examples. Although many variables are involved in the collapse of a society, over consumption of resources is a common factor.

Throughout history there are various examples that connect unwillingness of a society to change, and over use of natural resources. For example, the Polynesians who inhabited the Easter Islands developed a society. As the population grew, more and more trees were cut down to meet demands. Rapid deforestation occurred, however, the society did not change its ways. As a result, in 1772 when the europeans came there was nothing left. Examples such as this justify modern policies that make an effort to prevent deforestation (Jansesen 2004: 1). The longer societies exist, increases the societies resistance to change. In order for a society to succeed, they must be able to adapt in order to preserve resources.  The collapse of Mesopotamian societies can be partially attributed to this fact. As theses societies became more complex, there irrigation and agriculture practices became more advanced and expansive. However, the excessive irrigation systems, led to saline groundwater and erosion. Since the society had spent a considerable amount of time creating and using this method they were unwilling to change (Jansesen 2004: 1). These examples can be used to help find a solution for Potosí, or serve as a look into the future if nothing is done. Since Potosí has been so reliant on the mining industry for so long, the people are not as willing to change. Taking this factor into consideration, the implementation of a new industry to replace the mining industry could save Cerro Rico from collapse. There are already efforts underway to bring tourism into Potosí. The lessons from past civilizations may the only hope Potosí has left (Greenfield 20016).





Achtenburg, Emily

2014 What’s Behind Bolivia’s Mining Wars? Electronic document accessed November 28, 2016

Agencia EFE

2015 Bolivia Works to Fill Mountain Mined for Over 5 Centuries. Electronic document accessed November 29, 2016

Cabitza, Mattia

Bolivia’s Exhausted Cerro Rico Risks Collapse. Electronic document  accessed November 30,2016

Dell, Melissa

2008 The Mining Mita. Electronic document accessed November 30,2016

Foster, Dr. Thomas

2016 Viewing the Future in the Past. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina. Electronic Book  accessed December 4, 2016

Gerbehaye, Cédric

2016 Rock Bottom. Electronic document

Greenfield, Patrick

2016 How Silver Turned Potosí into the First City of Capitalism. Electronic document accessed December 1, 2016

Neuman, William

2014 For Miner, Increasing Risk on a Mountain at the Heart of Bolivia’s Identity. Electronic document  accessed November 20, 2016


2015 Police Battle Protesting Potosí Miners in Bolivian Capital. Electronic document accessed November 27, 2016


2014 World Heritage in Danger. Electronic document,  accessed November 29, 2016          

2 thoughts on City of Potosí

  1. Interesting that it’s a heritage site because of mining, and is now being threatened by mining. I guess we’re lucky that they didn’t turn to mountaintop removal strip mining before it became a heritage site, because that’s what they start to do in Appalachia when tunnel mining gets too slow/risky.

  2. its an interesting debate to think if mining should stop, it deals with the question of who the past belongs to and who has the right to say how it should be preserved. one could say that the people are preserving their heritage by mining. Also, the descendants of the site want mining to continue even if it would endanger their heritage, while the other side wants mining to stop as it could destroy the site. so who should get to chose?

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