Monthly Archives: July 2008

Day of Reckoning

How many people have heard about judgment day, a day of reckoning where someone will confront you with every detail, good and bad, about your life? Kind of a balance sheet in which close tabs have been kept on your behavior?

We learned yesterday from ethnographer Frank Salomon that some communities in the Andes practice a version of judgment day each year. In Christian traditions ancient people tended to think of judgment day as a very personal event (at an individual’s death?) But in the Andes, this day is a mechanism for communities to keep track of reciprocal obligations. Community survival is based on everyone doing their fair share here, and very accurate, complex records are kept of labor and goods exchanged (for example, rows of corn planted for your brother-in-law’s fields; bags of potatoes a household contributed for a wedding…)

These records have been kept for centuries, if not millenia, on sets of knotted strings called khipus. There are elaborate rituals and community offices for managing responsibility for everyone’s labor exchanges.

There are also penalties for things such as showing up to work without the proper tools, without your bag of coca leaves to chew, or not wearing the right work clothes. One community was even said to hold its day of reckoning at the edge of a cliff, to add a sense of seriousness to the whole process.

This sheds a new light on our casual workplaces…I don’t know how most of us could measure up under this system.

Trying to post a movie

I’m going to try to post part of a video I took today of Nilda Callañawpa explaining the work of a women’s weaving collective in Chincheros.

Oh- it didn’t work.
I have been taking videos daily of interviews with artists and craftspeople, such as:
– a man who plays flute at the ruins of Pisac
– a girl who sings at the ruins of Ollantaytambo
– a young painter in the square
– a woman who explains pyroengraving of gourds
and other stuff.

If I can ever get them up to the web, you will see them. If not, you’ll have to come to the RCC language lab or take one of my Spanish classes. I’m hoping to create a better view of the Andes through these materials for my students.

The other thing I’ve been doing with this camera is filming Quechua-speaking schoolchildren responding to a set of pictures drawn by Abigail Norman. I plan to publish the data along with a study I’ve been developing of children’s language development in the Andes.

For the Night Sky Enthusiast

Hello Friends.
It may have been nine or ten days since my last entry; it feels like much longer! We left the coastal town of Huanchaco and flew up to the highlands July 10. For a large portion of the time internet access has been difficult; in addition, the institute has been super-tightly scheduled with activities, occasionally from 9 am- 9 pm with a few breaks in between. All of it so good I couldn’t miss it – unless I was laid low with the intestinal bug that moved through our group last week (Tupac Amaru’s revenge? Not the first time I have had an intestinal bug during a power outage in the Andes…)

I have to say that as much as I enjoyed our time in Lima and the North Coast, I felt a deep sense of re-connection the moment we flew into the highlands. Since my formative experiences of South America have been in the highlands, I feel much more at home here.

It’s funny to feel at home in a place to which you are physically not well adapted! I learned from our days with archeologist Michael Moseley that the cold and the lack of oxygen at these high altitudes exert a constant metabolic stress on all plant and animal life. It actually takes nearly twelve percent more calories to be active or even at rest up here. But it is harder to grow plants and livestock for the same reasons. In the 16th century it reportedly took 60 years before the first live birth was recorded to a Spanish couple in the highlands. Even today, it is usually native people who live at the highest altitudes; they have larger lungs and more blood circulating through their bodies.

We had an amazing week in the Sacred Valley which lies between the Inca capital of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Our organizers were wise to bring us there first to get used to the altitude gradually; the valley is “only” around 8000 feet above sea level as opposed to Cusco’s 11,000 (roughly parallel to the Cochabamba valley vs. La Paz.)

I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I must say it is very odd to be traveling in a tour bus with 26 North Americans, staying at fancy hotels and enjoying the sights with a constant stream of tourists from around the world, while the local people live in great poverty. Machu Picchu was built for the Inca emperor and about 1000 people to live in. On the day we visited, I think I heard that over 4000 people visited the site, which is now normal. Hundreds of thousands of tourists troop through the Sacred Valley each year and the physical and cultural erosion is really evident. People talk about “doing” the Inca trail, and that about sums it up: it is hard to go an inch without being pursued by a vendor of some sort, or to take a picture without lots of other photographers being in it.

On the other hand, what draws people here? And what did we see?
You can look at models and maps and photos of Machu Picchu, but there is nothing quite like looking out at the sky and mountains and stone gardens from within Machu Picchu. The green is a really soft green, it is the beginning of the soft rainforests that lead down to the Amazon jungle. There are mountains on all sides, and clouds and mist that interact with them.
The mountains are so steep and the ground so arid in much of the valley that the Inca mobilized people to build miles and miles of stone terracing to maximize farmlands and manage water coming blowing in from the east and melting from mountaintop glaciers.

Can you imagine walking along these terraces at another ruin (Pisac) at sunset, followed by a peasant man in a colorfully woven poncho who is playing centuries old tunes on a bamboo flute he has made himself? Never mind that the man makes his living this way (playing for tourists and selling them bamboo flutes.) I struck up a conversation with him after awhile and found out that he has made his living this way for ten years, ever since he had a family. I asked him about the strike going on in Peru and he told me that ever since the government recognized peasants’ rights to individually own the lands they have held communally for millennia, they have been holding protests and strikes. This is because they believe that the intention is for private land ownership to pave the way for corporations (for example, hotels, mining concerns) to buy the land and leave them with nothing. Unfortunately this is actually happening all over the Andes, intentionally or not.

So what is Sacred about the Sacred Valley? Maybe the meeting of mountains, which highlanders believe are the source of nearly all water in their lives, and rivers, which carry life giving water to places they can cultivate food. Food and water and life – the physical is sacred.

Let’s try to go further by exploring what Andean people see in their sky. A couple of our lecturers have referred to fabulous ethnographic/astronomical work by Gary Urton in a new book titled something like “At the Crossroads of Earth and Sky.” Apparently the Spaniards looked at the same sky here for the past 500 years and never gave enough credence to figure out what the indigenous people were talking about when they mentioned dark animal constellations within the milky way. It turns out they were looking at negative space within the milky way and seeing life-giving animals such as llamas and serpents; careful observation of the movements of these dark areas as well as the Pleiades helped them accurately predict times of major drought and flooding which occur periodically here with disastrous consequences.

But here is the amazing part for which I named this posting.
Mike Moseley pointed out to us that while Westerners and others have tended to look at large lights (sun, moon, stars) Andean astronomers looked at the biggest visible phenomenon, the Milky Way, and made it the focus of their temporal, special and social organization. The Milky Way is called “mayu” or “river” in Quechua and is thought to be intimately linked with cycles of water. It divides the visible universe in half for half of the year, and then makes a 26-30 degree flip which divides the universe in half the other way.

The Incas divided their empire into four quarters as well, with Cusco as its center. “Tawantinsuyu” or the land of four quarters, was its name. The four quarters roughly correspond to the major ecological and trading zones. Andean people developed a complex and enduring social order based on the principle of complementary duality (wet/dry, male/female, high.low, big/small, old/young.)
The Andean social order is intensely communal and reciprocal, but not at all equal. Using the dualistic system of social division for marriage and inheritance can cause a person or group to be exponentially advantaged or disadvantaged. In fact, the social order is deeply rooted in mutual dependence of highlands llama herders and valley farmers (as well as coastal fishermen and tropical people from the Amazon) None of these folks can survive alone in this tough environment, and at different times, conditions have favored different groups to flourish. For example, when there is drought in the highlands, the mountain people get three times less water than the highlanders; conversely when there is a wet period caused by el Nino currents, the highlanders do well while the coastal people get devastating floods. Sounds like the highlands would be the easier place to live, but remember what we said earlier about the lack of oxygen.

That’s all for now, folks.

Last Day on the Coast

Today is our last day on the coast of Peru. We’ve now spent a very full three days and nights in the seaside resort town of Huanchaco, featuring the longest left-breaking wave in the world. Lots of surfers here! And also, lots of giant crickets. The first night I thought, “How sweet! A cricket singing in my room!” In the morning I could see that the cricket was the size of a grass hopper. The next night there were more and more crickets. Tonight they became attack crickets. Several of us got dive-bombed by crickets at a restaurant. My suitcase had four crickets hiding in it. One of them went down my back. Hmmm, I wonder how I will sleep tonight!

We are about to head away from the coast and up to the highlands, toward the center of the Inca empire. Today I discovered the answer to the persistent question: How did the Incas create the largest empire in the Americas, with roads and administrative centers extending thousands of miles up and down the continent, in just a hundred years? The answer is, they didn’t!! What they did was consolidate an empire that already existed in many ways- established by the Chimor kings.

Today our group spent the afternoon in the ruins of a pre-Hispanic, indigenous city. You can see satellite images by entering the name Chan Chan in Google Earth; it is near Trujillo, Peru. You will see that the city was enormous. The ruins today extend for eight and a half square miles; in the heyday of the empire it extended twelve and a half square miles. Chan Chan was the biggest city in the kingdom of Chimor, which was powerful on the Peruvian coast from 1100-1470. It was a walled city, with designated areas for large gatherings (that part is bigger than a football field, all surrounded by walls with big clay designs of sea creatures on it that used to be painted.) There is also a huge area of labyrinthine cubicles (you thought your office was bad) where administrators would meet with royal subjects to collect tribute and store it for redistribution. Behind that, a huge artificial rectangular pond with reeds growing in it (we are in the desert.) And behind that, the royalty’s area for burials and rituals, as well as their living spaces. Outside this palace complex there were specialized areas for different artisans: potters, weavers, shell workers, metal workers.

Most of the gold and silver that the Spanish looted from the Incas had been looted just 50 years earlier from Chimor. The Incas had subjected the king of Chan Chan to their own administrators but had left him in place. Craftsmen and royals sons were taken off to Cusco to learn Inca ways and also to be held as a kind of hostage to discourage uprisings.

OK, at the beginning of this post I said that the Inca consolidated an empire previously established by the kings of Chimor, who had many cities and palaces like Chan Chan all the way up to Ecuador and down to Lima. But in looking back at miy notes from the beginning of this trip, I would like to say that in many ways, the Inca inherited the progress made by at least two other major civilizations prior to Chimor.

The first civilization we learned about had its ceremonial center at Chavin de Huantar in the highlands, and Chavin de Huantar is claimed to have been the “Jerusalem” of the central Andes from around 800 – 200 BC. A great book about Chavin was written by Richard Burger: Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. Among the two most important things I learned from this book: the Andean world under Chavin was a peaceful society based on reciprocal relationships among people from the coast, the highlands and the Amazon rainforest. None of these three places was survivable on its own; the coast is a desert where little can grow without irrigation and only the very rich fishing grounds make it a place in which to prosper. The highlands are not just any old highlands but are nearly as high as the Himalayas and thus a very harsh environment to live in. Irrigation and llama herding (and the weaving of wool textiles) are major contributions of the highlands. The tropics are the place where plant domestication probably first began but are also hard for humans to live in. So: the development of a system of reciprocal relationships among people living in these three areas were essential for survival in ancient times.

The second big thing I learned is that there are names in the indigenous languages for the various micro-environments of the Andes, and the name “Quechua” comes from the best environment for growing crops in the highlands: the green highland valleys.

The next major civilization to unite the central Andes after Chavin is now called Moche, named after the Moche river where a huge pair of ceremonial centers was found. It turns out that “Moche” meant the same thing in the Muchik language as “Quechua” means in the Quechua language: the best part of the valley to live in, where a river makes everything green.

So we have been learning about Chavin, Moche and today, Chimor as a preface to entering the world of the Inca empire.

What I can tell you that I didn’t know before this past ten days is:
a) these civilizations were based on local religions in which jungle animals, mountains, and water gods were venerated and given offerings of human labor as well as human sacrifice
b) the arts, particularly textiles, pottery and metalworking, flourished in these civilizations and artisans produced some of the most astonishing weavings, ceramic portraits and jewelry I have ever seen
c) some of the people in these times lived in hugely populous cities and prosperous agricultural sectors

That’s it for my history lesson. And as for my travelogue: in the past week we have been in Lima, Caral, Chiclayo, Huanchacho, Trujillo, Ferranafe, San Jose de Moro, and Sipan. You can go there too! You can also look at some of these places by satellite image on Google earth and see the ruins and digs in process. If you come here, you might want to see artisans making totora fishing boats, or see the amazing restoration of clay walls and friezes in the ruins. You can even do some of that yourself by joining a dig; the archeologists welcome volunteers. Just make sure it is a real archeologist working in harmony with local authorities, because a growing number of adventure groups are devastating the environment and opening the doors for more looters.

Finally, if you want to see a really inspiring showman (and legendary archeologist) give a talk about Moche portraits, check out (I have been told you may want to skip the first 20 minutes, but I am not sure if that refers to this particular webcast.)

Chao for now!

Detectives, Loot and Riches

Hi Friends:
In the past few days we have been hearing about some very exciting detective work done by Peruvian archeologists. I remember going to Brookline high school a couple of months ago to address a history class about how much of ancient lifeways are still practiced and reflected in the Andes today. One of the students wanted to know if there are still buried treasures to be discovered, and the answer is a very definitive yes!

US Archeologist Chris Donnan told us in a very modest way about how he fell in love with the artwork of the Moche people who inhabited and united the coast of Peru from around 100 to 700 AD. Since most of the artwork (ceramics, gold, silver and copper work and textiles) had been looted from graves for the past 500 years and was scattered in museums and collections around the world, he set about to photograph every single piece of Moche pottery he could find and started to categorize them and look for patterns. Over a period of 30 years he got very good at distinguishing the essential scenes and characters depicted on these beautiful fineline drawings on pottery, and identified a Sacrifice Ceremony which seemd to be a central theme of Moche mythology. He identified three characters and their symbolic tools that were always present in depictions of this scene on Moche pottery: a lord who drank the blood of sacrificial victims, a bird-priest who presented the victims to the lord, and a priestess. They were always wearing a set number of symbolic vestments, headdresses and holding distinctive goblets, scepters, ritual weapons, etc.

To Donnan´s very great surprise, a Peruvian archeologist contacted him in 1987 to say that he had begun excavating a grave in a heavily looted area and had found evidence of a very important and rich individual burial. (No one had thought there was anything more to be found in this area.) As they excavated, they began to find metal versions of the very same headdresses, scepter, goblets and other ritual items that were depicted in the Sacrifice scene so common in Moche pottery. In the next couple of years they went on to find graves of all of the individuals depicted in the Sacrifice Ceremony scenes!

The story was full of suspense and real grave robbers…and fabulous treasures which were finally found for the first time in a context in which they could be interpreted and put together to make sense of the scenes depicted on thousands of Moche pots, murals, and textiles.

Yesterday, as we viewed the actual contents of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán (the primary character in the Sacrifice Ceremony) we heard that the local paper and the BBC had just reported news of another important tomb excavation in Peru. You can see the report at this link:

Today we saw yet another museum with burials and information from yet another Peruvian civilization. It turns out that this country is full to the gills with thousands and thousands of tombs full of fabulous jewelry, mummies and evidence of fabulous lifeways going way back in time. One of the great accomplishments of Chris Donnan was his ability to work respectfully and productively with the grave robbers who normally would have destroyed a lot of the evidence and clues to solving mysteries about the past. Instead, Donnan and Peruvian archeologists such as Walter Alva, Luis Jaime Castillo and Carlos Elera have begun to engage local people in a new and extremely popular enterprise: rediscovering their cultural heritage, doing careful detective work and restoring the beautiful artifacts so that they can be displayed in places where everyone can see them and make sense of these riches.

Tomorrow we´ll see more.

It Happened in Paracas

Hi Friends:
It is very late at night but I´m determined to write this entry because time just keeps flying and I feel hopelessly behind in telling you about what we´re seeing! Our group of 24 archeologists, anthropologists, art historians, ecological engineers and language teachers is having the time of our lives meeting the folks who have made spectacular discoveries and advances in Peruvian archeology recently.

My clever title to this post is a reference to a children´s book called “It Happened In Pinsk” in which a Russian Jewish man named Irv Irving loses his head out of envy – he actually wakes up one day and finds he has lost his head, so his wife sews him one out of a pillow case while he goes in search of his lost head.

I thought of this book when viewing an effigy head from one of the Paracas mummy bundles made by the Nazca people many years ago, here is an image which I am too tired to try to paste in at this moment – see

A very comforting and silly looking head for a people who were involved in headhunting and decapitation as a major ritual… Actually this very large head is supposed to be the large outside display for ancestor worship of a person who has passed from the status of corpse and morphed into a giant ancestor worthy of worship. Textile expert Mary Frame has an excellent article describing the images on the weavings which wrapped the Paracas mummies – some of the finest weavings in the world, with incredible detail. Here is another image of just the outer layer of a corpse which been bundled up for the afterlife:

These beautiful weavings were created a couple of thousand years ago and preserved by the arid sands of the Paracas peninsula.

More tomorrow…

Egocentric Popsicle

Hi Friends:
We rode ten hours on a bus today to see the ruins at Caral on Peru´s North Coast. On the way, I saw an ad at a gas station for a popsicle called egocéntrico. It has a strawberry filling (go figure…)

The ruins at Caral were dated about 3000 BC and consisted of a large number of big flat-topped pyramids in a desert valley surrounded by desert mountains (no trees.) These huge structures were built presumably for big gatherings and pilgrimmages – a kind of event still practiced in some Andean communities today. A Peruvian archaeologist named Ruth Shady has been supervising the excavation and the Peruvian government is excited to bill it as America´s oldest city. One of the pyramids had a large number of ancient flutes in it made of pelican and llama bones.

I had a very distinct recollection of the soundtrack from the movie 2001 when we saw a large standing stone set ahead of one of the temples. Did I say that we were surrounded by mountains? The place was so absolutely desert, devoid even of birds, and all you could see was the pyramids which seemed to imitate the mountains, and the standing stone which our guide said could also be interpreted as a likeness of a mountain in some sense. Mountains are sacred here and are said to be spirits.

Another sacred concept in Quechua is Tinkuy which is the junction of two rivers. This joining point is said to symbolize the coming together of opposite forces and has been re-enacted in events such as symbolic battles (with real bloodletting and dying) and also gatherings for youth to come together and dance. Around the bend from the arid sacred place of Caral is a Tinkuy of two rivers and all of a sudden we could see green and hear birdsongs! I felt that even the accoustics were altered in the enormous sacred desert space – it was silent compared to the green area.

This seems like as good a moment as any to reflect on ideas about different kinds of spirituality which I have been chewing on for a few weeks. I´ll start with a vivid memory: as a 16 year old arriving in Bolivia in 1976, I sometimes couldn´t believe my eyes. The world was full of Native American women in black braids and men in sandals with funny knit caps. I had thought that ¨Indians¨ were a thing of the past – but here they were overwhelmingly present.

On the train ride from La Paz to Cochabamba, I saw a group of three or four people walking near the tracks wearing black, and one of the men had a dead bird on his head. I realized with a chill that this had something to do with a ritual sacrifice or offering and I was simply shocked. In the world I was familiar with, (Judeo-Christianity) people had practiced animal sacrifice dating back to Passover to stories about the first two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel (the farmer vs. the shepherd.) Blood sacrifice and conflicts between farmers and shepherds seemed to me a thing of the distant past. Yet here in the Bolivian highlands all I could see for miles was the occasional farmer or shepherd, now pilgrims engaged in some kind of blood sacrifice.

This was one of my first sensations of time travel. Had I arrived at a re-enactment of my spiritual culture´s distant past? Many of the first Europeans who spent time in the Andes asked themselves this same question. They equated the Andean present with a vision of their own past and assumed that the Andean natives were living at an ealier stage of a linear spiritual development. Those who cared about the natives assumed that their beliefs were a naive or childish precursor to their own beliefs and practices. One proponent of this view was the famous Catholic sympathizer and defender of indigenous people, Bartolomé de las Casas.

An enormous danger of this kind of view is the misinterpretation of what you are seeing. For example, according to Regina Harrison, Quechua-speakers throughout the Andes have a word for powerful forces and spirits which can mean either a positive or negative force: Supay. Guess how Supay was translated into Spanish? Diablo/devil/demonio/demon. The assumption of a one-way evolution led to the conclusion that these people were either at an earlier stage of development, or errant – have strayed from the path altogether.

Are there other possibilities?

I had two recent conversations that gave me food for thought. One was with my Quechua teacher Hipólito Peralta Ccama. His opinion is that the ancestral spiritual traditions passed on to him by his parents are not naive or childish (he´s the one who told me about Bartolomé de las Casas´ view) but rather, deep and well-tuned to the natural forces around him.

The other conversation was with a friend on the bus today, and anthropologist named Robin. I pointed out that Judeo-Christian-Muslim beliefs are the product of millenia of active debate and writing and intensive human contact and thought. She pointed out that Andean beliefs (and many North American native belief systems) are the product of societies in which there is not a great deal of contact between humans in a lifetime and the major selective force which one must attend to is nature. So our values and spiritual traditions have had to fine-tune to a very differet set of forces.

That´s it for today, and hopefully more enlightening than the popsicle egocéntrico.