Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ignore The Inca

Peru has, undeniably, the richest history of any country in the New World. Everyone has heard of the Incas, of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, and they are (quite rightly) very popular destinations for visitors to Europe. And although the Incan heritage is interesting, I don't find it that special. Many of their technologies had already been developed by previous Andean cultures and the Inca did little more than refine them a little. The reason for its lasting impression in the popular consciousness is that it was the final, large, South American civilisation and the one that the newly-arrived Europeans had to contend with. But it had only been in existence as a larger empire for a mere hundred years and was conquered by a mere 168 conquistadors. Not really all that impressive, especially considering its global contemporaries:  the Ming dynasty was building the city walls of Nanjing and reinforcing the Great Wall north of Beijing; the Sistine Chapel was being painted in Rome; the Ottoman empire was at its zenith; the Duomo of Florence had been completed; and Granada's Alhambra palace was already old. For all Cusco's fancy stonework (and it is remarkable) and Machu Picchu's mystique, the Inca's had already fallen way behind the civilisation race. It wasn't always so.

The obligatory photo of Machu Picchu taken when I was last in Peru, back in 2004 (and I still had a crappy little 35mm film camera).

The Incas were a mountain people, but the first sedentary civilisations in Peru, and indeed all of the Americas, were to be found on the coast. A fact that may be hard to imagine when driving along the interminable sandy wastes of the Peruvian littoral. The land is barren and dry, thanks to the cold Humboldt current that swirls up from the Antarctic and keep the rain away. Instead winters are filled with interminable grey skies called garua, that keep out the sun yet barely provide any rain. Just greyness and depression. One would think that this is the least propitious environment for starting any endeavour, let alone founding a civilisation. That is until you come to a river valley, channelling the meltwater from the Andes, and the desert bursts with fertility. That, coupled with the exceptionally rich ocean waters (again, thanks to the Humboldt Current) made the Peruvian coast particularly attractive to early humans.

A couple of monumental pyramids at the ceremonial centre of Caral. Not looking too bad for 4600 years old.

In 1949, about 200km north of Lima near the village of Caral, archaeologists found some ancient structural remains, but no ceramics and so the site was thought to be of little interest. It wasn't until 1994 that archaeologists had a look at the ruins again, carbon-dating reed fibres used in the foundations of the buildings. It turns out they were up to 4600 years old, making them contemporaneous with the pyramids of Egypt, Moenjo-daro, Minoan culture and ancient Chinese. That is very old, and it completely rewrote the book on American civilisations. Interestingly, for such an old site, there is plenty to see, with stepped pyramids, ritual plazas and domestic buildings surprisingly well-preserved. Caral pushed back the date for the oldest culture in the Americas by a millennium and a half, dethroning Chavin, in the mountains near Huaraz, as the cradle of civilisation in the western hemisphere.

Or, if you carry on up the coast to Trujillo, a pretty colonial town in its own right, you get swamped by archaeology. For 600 years from about 100 AD the Moche culture ruled from a city just outside what is now Trujillo. Because much of the construction was from adobe not much is left, except for two giant pyramids, the Huacas de Sol y de Luna. Excavations are still ongoing (as they are in most Peruvian archaeological sites - you'll never be unemployed in Peru if you're an archaeologist, although you probabaly won't be paid much) but it is clearly possible to see different construction periods as the pyramids were gradually expanded over time by simply adding another layer (the Huaca de la Luna was almost 300m long and 30m high when the Moche culture finally collapsed and was made of five concentric layers). And one entire side of the pyramid has been uncovered to show coloured friezes that cover every surface, with particular emphasis given over to their penchant for human sacrifices and cutting off heads.

The breathtaking outer wall of the Huaca de la Luna near Trujillo showing multiple levels of painted friezes depicting the Moche cosmology as well as rituals of human sacrifice.

Then on the other side of town are the remains of Chan Chan, which was the capital of the Chimor culture that took over after the fall of the Moche and was, in turn, conquered by the Incas. The ruins cover an area of around 20km2 and was at one point the largest adobe city in the world, and the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. In fact all along the coast you can see, with no need for training or anyone to point them out, dozens of obviously ancient structures, lying beneath the enveloping sand. Unfortunately for Peru they are obvious to every untrained eye, and so they have all been looted by tomb robbers (known locally as huaqueros) who are solely looking for treasure and care little for cultural heritage or increasing our understanding of the past. [I even met one who showed me his personal collection of ceramics that would easily grace any international museum, but instead they were gathering dust in his dingy flat, whilst he himself remained quite unapologetic.] Luckily one or two tombs slip through the rapacious net of the huaqueros, with electrifying consequences. One such example is from the huaca in the village of Sipan. It turns out that it was the burial site for the local Moche ruler and his entourage. And the sheer volume of grave goods that was unearthed - necklaces, head-dresses, sceptres, jars, narigueras, and all sorts of other goodies - was enough to fill two museums to bursting. It makes you realise then just how much knowledge and beauty has been lost to human depredation and greed.

A gilded bronze mask with feline features found in one of the tombs in Sipan. This is one of the lesser specimens and didn't make it into the main Lord of Sipan museum, showing the wealth of artifacts that are available when the archaeologists get there before the robbers.

Each one of these sites is on a par with Machu Picchu, and yet they are barely known outside of Peru (and there are numerous, equally spectacular, sites that I just did not have the time to visit) where all the emphasis is Incan. So, if you're planning to visit Peru, I dare you to skip the Incas altogether!

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