Mochica bottle (1-800AD)
Museo de Arte Precolombino, Cusco
Peru has more ancient civilisations than really seems decent for any country. It makes Western Europe look like the plump kid at the school races, barely off the starting blocks. The Incas were the last and the shortest-lived, yet they remain the best known. What about the Nazca, leaving incredible designs in the desert that defeat modern attempts at analysis and interpretation? And the Moche, with tombs only recently discovered but that rival Tutankhamen’s in terms of the information they convey about the people of the time? And the Chimú, with their vast adobe city and multiple palaces at Chan Chan? Yet even these headlines barely scratch the archaeological surface of this Egypt of the Americas; they only cover those civilisations whose sites I managed to explore. I saw nothing of others that also left their mark here, the first millennium BC Chavín and Sechín, the Paracas who produced some of the finest pre-Colombian textiles in the Americas, the Tiahuanaco of Bolivia who spread into south-eastern Peru in the first millennium AD, and the central Highland Huari. Even more incredibly, none of these civilisations left any form of written record. Everything we know has been gleaned from the relics of their
textiles, ceramics, architecture and tombs.
At the Chauchilla Cemeteries half an hour south of Nazca, we struggled with our reactions. Here the careless efforts of huaqueros, grave-robbers, have left bones, material and pottery shards littered across the desert, but archaeologists belatedly got to work on others of the hundred-plus tombs here, and the results of their work is now carefully set out in a small museum, and in and around various of the opened graves. The humidity-free atmosphere of this tough environment means that the mummified corpses, their shrouds, clothing and accoutrements are in astonishingly good condition. But that doesn’t lessen their horrifying impact: bodies curled up and sitting upright in the foetal position, bound up in clothes like some curious washing basket; babies whose heads have been smashed, either pre- or post-mortem, little bundles off to one side; skulls lined up, eyelessly staring up at us; the heads of the vanquished roped to hang off the victor’s belt, a third eye created in the centre of their foreheads from which rope still emerges. It seemed a brutal end for a people who had created the enigmatic Nazca Lines between 400 BC and 600 AD.
The previous afternoon,
the key Moche god on the Huaca de la Luna
the more courageous (or foolhardy) of us had gone up in a twelve-seater Cessna to take a look at the Lines from the air, the only way of appreciating them properly. But the safety record of these flights leaves a lot to be desired, and Dragoman prohibit their staff from having anything to do with them. I stuck my neck out and researched the less-dubious of the airlines, and booked places for nine of us to go up. To their credit, the oddly-named Alas Peruanas (not the most confidence-inducing name for an airline, we considered) and its subcontractor, Aerodiana, appeared perfectly professional, collecting and dropping us off at our campsite promptly, and organising our tickets, seats and security procedure in line with proper processes. Maybe the Nazca operators are finally cleaning up their act.
The flight is well choreographed. Sitting one either side of the aisle, everyone gets a chance to look at every Line on the route flown, with the pilot dipping a wing for a second flypast of each. At times, I found that I could see the relevant Line more clearly out of the other side of the plane than I could my own. The Lines
can be surprisingly hard to see. Here the desert is not an otherwise empty canvas. Outside the small cultivated area immediately surrounding the modern-day town of Nazca, the desert is instantly barren of all signs of vegetation but criss-crossed with the remains of an ancient river system, the paved modern highway and countless other tracks. Finding the relevant giant-sized squiggle can be a little tricky. A couple of times, I pointed my camera in the right direction, and hoped, not having been able to see the Line with my naked eye.
Theories abound as to the meaning, function and origin of these gigantic petroglyphs, particularly when they can only be appreciated from the air. Did the Nazca have some form of hot-air ballooning expertise, as seems to be borne out by pieces of ancient local pottery and textiles showing balloonists, and local legends of flying men? Were the Lines running tracks? An extraterrestrial landing strip? An astronomical calendar? Representative of a shaman’s hallucinations? Part of a religious offering to the gods for fertility and/or water in this harsh environment? The latter seems to be the dominant interpretation at present, aided by many of the Lines being dated to a
scientifically-established time of prolonged drought in the area. Whatever the answer, they are beautiful and fascinating and reassuringly enigmatic in this day and age when we arrogantly think we know it all.
North of Lima, we encountered the Nazca’s contemporaries, the Moche or Mochina. Outside Trujillo, we visited some of the remains of their ancient citadel with its twin pyramids, the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna. (“Huaca” means an adobe mound that is used as the centre for a cult or sacred power.) The Huaca del Sol is said to have been, before the Spanish ravaged it, the then-largest man-made structure in the western hemisphere at 45 m high. Now only the Huaca de la Luna is open to visitors, although, from its upper levels, you can see across to the Huaca del Sol and over the outline ruins of the rest of the city which are still being excavated. In its heyday, the seven-level Huaca de la Luna itself must have been a magnificent sight. Not only would it have dwarfed all other human construction at the time, but the colours with which the geometric patterns and motifs of gods and animals on its friezes
and murals were painted would have been extraordinarily dramatic in the otherwise monochrome dusty beige of the desert. It was the discovery of 8,000m2
of this still-brilliant paintwork in the 1990s that have made this site so remarkable.
Sipán is a truly remarkable site, and again has only recently been discovered. A Peruvian team led by Dr Walter Alva discovered the first of several layers of graves in 1987, and, miraculously, many of them had survived the best efforts of grave-robbers who, in one instance, came within only a foot or two of hitting the jackpot. The graves that are on show in Lambayeque’s Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipán are of two king-like figures and a high-ranking priest. The way that the dead were buried, in full and glorious regalia and with accompanying bodies and artefacts, has revealed an immense amount to archaeologists about the way that the Moche lived. We were whisked round the museum, which imaginatively recreates the various levels of the tombs in the order in which they were discovered, by our lively and dedicated guide, yet it still took nearly two hours, and we emerged overwhelmed by the work that has been done
on these graves in such a relatively short space of time.
At Chan Chan, we had a strange glimpse of the world’s largest adobe city, a collection of nine vast palaces, complete with ceremonial areas, administrative buildings and cemeteries, each constructed on behalf of subsequent Chimú kings. For me, I found it disconcerting the extent to which Ciudadela de Nik-An, the one palace that is open to the public, seems to be being rebuilt, rather than simply restored (though where does one draw the line?). In the area of the administrative offices, signs labelled “REPLICÁS” litter the fishing net-designed walls and the cleaned up murals. I found myself sceptical about what I was looking at. How much of this was “real” and how much recreated? But even the reconstruction can’t take away from the sheer acreage of this site, 20 km2
, preserved so well, once again, thanks to the stark arid environment of Peru’s Pacific coast. The last Chimú king has no resting place in Chan Chan. He was executed by the Incas in Cusco in 1450.
And so, finally, we come to Peru’s most famous civilisation, though one that, astonishingly for its impact geographically, socially and politically,
was dominant for less than a century. Its massive expansion in the mid-fourteenth century, spreading the empire from Colombia to Chile, was due to the “Inca Alexander”, Pachakuteq Inka Yupanki, a figure who, in Cusco at least, is now considered an icon of Peruvian identity, reminding me of the revival of Chinggis Khaan in Mongolia.
We had first encountered the Incas in Bolivia. On Lake Titicaca’s Isla del Sol, we walked the length of the birthplace of the Inca civilisation. Delightfully, in our arrogant we-must-know-everything age, we seem to have no better idea of the Incas’ origins than the Inca myth that Manco Cápac and his sister Mama Ocllo, children of the sun, emerged from Lake Titicaca to establish a civilisation in the Cusco Valley. On a practical level, the trek across Isla del Sol was a good rehearsal for the following week’s Machu Picchu treks, giving us a chance to stretch our legs for 4-5 hours at 3,800m asl, but this was a rehearsal in glorious surroundings. I had to keep pinching myself that I really was looking down at Lake Titicaca, a name as evocative for me as “Mongolia”, “Patagonia” and “Timbuktoo”. The water was a gorgeous
dark blue, and the colours around us crystal-clear. Walking along paths used by the Inca gave us a haunting connection with the old civilisation. Our guides showed us the puma-head rock that gives the lake its name, and which was so important to the Inca culture, representative of the earth, with the condor and the snake representing the sky and the underworld, respectively.
At Sacsayhuamán, we struggled to imagine the enormity of this Inca site in its heyday, since it has been widely pillaged for building materials by people in nearby Cusco ever since the arrival of the Spanish. Historically, its importance is as the site of the last major resistance by the Inca against the incoming Europeans in 1536. Contemporary Spaniards described it as a fort, but recent investigations suggest that it was more likely to have been of religious import, being in the shape of the head of the puma, the body of which was the rest of Cusco down in the valley below. For us, it gave us the first chance to inspect Inca stonemasonry, with individual stones so fabulously crafted that they sit together with their neighbours in perfect alignment, often in three dimensions, without
the use of any form of cement. And these aren’t small rocks either; it is estimated that the largest, one of the foundations, weighs in the region of 300 tons. What also impressed me was the Incas’ knowledge of seismic-resistant architecture. The walls lean into the hillsides; doorways and niches are trapezoidal; thin vertical segments act as shock-absorbers for their larger neighbours.
Further down the Sacred Valley, we encountered Inca farming techniques, with the huge stepped fields and irrigation systems that, at Pisaq, are still in use today. Dominating the ridge above the modern-day town are the ruins of the Inca citadel, complete with a temple to the sun, multiple storehouses, and cliff-hole tombs. The bus dropped us at the entrance to the ruins, and we then tackled the steep stepped-descent into town. For some, sadly, it was to be the end of their Machu Picchu trekking ambitions, revealing that underlying gastric problems and/or chest infections would not stand up to the rigours of the four-day trek. For the rest of us, Pisaq had whetted our appetite for the mountains of the Sacred Valley…
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