Looking for lost explorers

By Nicholas Asheshov

In 1925 Col. Percy Fawcett, an English artillery officer, disappeared while searching for a lost civilization in the Amazon and people have, in turn, been looking for him ever since.

One early hope in the years immediately following Fawcett’s disappearance was that he had found the lost city and that he and his son Jack, who had accompanied him, were living it up as honoured guests of the inhabitants: they were, after all, English.

One of those who went to look for him was Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, creator of 007 James Bond. Fleming’s book about his expedition, “Brazilian Adventure” (1933) was a best-seller.

Fawcett went into the Mato Grosso and the Xingu only a few years after Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, had published ‘The Lost World”, the best-seller where dinosaurs, warring Indians, vicious man-like apes and intrepid English explorers were stirred into the heart of the Amazon.

Hiram Bingham, also, had just discovered Machu Picchu and his photographs had stunned the world.

Col. Fawcett and the whacko world of lost cities is the subject of a new book out just this month in New York, “The Lost City of Z. A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann, a journalist on The New Yorker.

‘The Lost City of Z’ was the description that Col. Fawcett gave to the object of his obsession. The reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere speak well of the new book but in fact others know much more about Fawcett and the Amazon. These are led by a couple of friends of mine; John Hemming, author of the classic “La Conquista de los Incas” and, out just last year, “Tree of Rivers; The Story of the Amazon”. Hemming is also the leading international authority on the wild tribes in the forest.

The other is William Lowther who has spent many years on the Fawcett story. Both Hemming and Lowther tell me that Fawcett was “nasty.” Lowther recalls how Fawcett simply left one of his English team members on the Peru-Bolivia frontier to die alone in the jungle after being badly bitten by a poisonous insect. The man by a miracle lived to tell the story.

This had happened in 1906 when Fawcett, who was born in 1867, had been hired to survey the Bolivia-Peru frontier which still stands as he defined it. Lowther tells me that “Fawcett was tough and energetic. He worked so fast that the Bolivians paid him a bonus.” They went on to hire him to do their frontier with Brazil, too.

It was during this time that Fawcett collected stories of lost cities and lost tribes. As a surveyor, he was also drawing up maps and from my own experience maps quickly acquire their own reality.

Fawcett fought through World War 1 on the Western Front in the Royal Artillery and Lowther tells me that he was almost promoted to General. By one of those coincidences Hemming’s father, a mathematician, was one of Fawcett’s junior officers and accused Fawcett later of basing his targeting on an Ouija board. “Untrue!” Lowther says.

But these were the great days of Spiritualism and cranky, high-handed Colonel Fawcett believed that you could indeed have contact with the other world. On top of that, like most English people in those days, he was a racist who thought poorly of the forest Indians.

He believed that a lost civilization in the Amazon was still peopled by a superior race of which his son Jack was also a member. So all he and Jack had to do, was to get to the right area and the inhabitants would spot Jack as one of their own and welcome him, and of course his father, in!

They were certainly killed by Indians. Some of their belongings were to turn up in the market some time later at a town in the area.

From my account it may seem as though Fawcett was a basket case who dragged his son to a certain death.

Maybe. But Hemming, a great scholar, Secretary for many years of the Royal Geographical Society, has told me how in 1961 he carried out the arrow-filled and battered body of his friend Richard Mason, both recently graduated from Oxford.

Nine years later, in 1970, I myself spent months searching for Robert Nichols, a friend, a Peruvian Times reporter who had disappeared while looking for Paititi in the Pantiacolla hills of the Alto Madre de Dios.

A year later we found that Nichols, relaxed and amiable but as tough and experienced as Col. Fawcett, had been stoned to death by renegade Machiguengas.

As a footnote, the leader of the main ground search party, Elvin Berg, who avoided getting attacked by the Machiguengas by reading the signs correctly, was himself caught a dozen years later in a remote corner of the Apurimac by a gang of Shining Path thugs who strung him up and burned him to death. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of March 13, 2009

 

It’s The Serranos That Count

By Nicholas Asheshov

I’m expecting that the census the other day will show an upsurge in the rural population. We out here in the campo may even be getting back to the population levels of the Inca Empire.

There’s been only a modest increase over the past couple of decades. But anyone traveling round the southern sierra and in the montaña east of Cusco will see bigger villages, more roads and above all more school-children.

Every valley in the massive Cuzco core of The Empire is heavily-populated. The forest is being cut back aggressively.

By contrast all over rural England and elsewhere in Europe they have been shutting primary schools. But here in Urubamba and in the great hinterland beyond the Valley, primary schooling is a big focus. For nearly two decades the government has been opening primary schools and kindergartens for three-to-fives, even crèches called here wawa wasi.

A while back I was in Occabamba, one of Cuzco’s hidden, exciting cacao-coca-coffee valleys. Spectacled bear, deer and eagles are close by but you also see truckloads of school kids going to and fro at around eight any weekday morning and after one in the afternoon. Five of every 10 people is under 16.

Richard Webb, with his Cuanto? organization, the only people in town for numbers, tells me that the figures show that only 7.6 million Peruvians are classified as “rural.” But he suspects that often “tiny little hamlets are included as urban, meaning that the rural population is in reality higher. Whatever, around three out of every 10 Peruvians live out in the country.

The amazing thing is that the rural population of Peru is still lower than it was under the Incas even though the total population of Peru is three times greater. Of course everyone in Inca times lived en el campo apart from a few tens of thousands in Cusco, Chan Chan, Huanuco Viejo and Pachacamac.

The low point over the past six or seven thousand years came in 1620, with only 600,000. These would all fit today into Miraflores and San Isidro with room left over.

The Conquest produced one of the great population disasters of history. It was worse even than the Black Death of the 14th century where half of Europe was wiped out.

In Peru, out of every 20 people, only one survived.

Vital censuses were carried out by Viceroy Toledo in 1570, in Huanuco and in Yucay, just up the road from Urubamba. These were followed up in 1603 and 1620.

On the basis of the 1570 head-counts, carried out less than 40 years after the Spaniards had arrived in Cajamarca and just as Tupac Amaru was being executed in the Plaza de Armas de Cusco, Toledo estimated that the population of pre-Conquest Peru at eight and a half million.

This was a pretty good shot. according to the best work done on Inca population, David Noble Cook’s “Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru 1520-1620”.

Cook looked, for instance, at how many people would live off a hectare of tilled land –seven, according to a 1960s study– and came up with 6.5mn people living on the Coast in 1520, which was when Atahualpa and Huascar were getting ready to destroy each other, a decade before Pizarro landed in Tumbes.

Using statistical regressions based on Darfur-like disasters he calculated how many people had died from disease and warfare, and came up with a total population for Inca Peru of 9.4mn; the 0.4 there is William Devevan’s calculation of the population of the montaña. There’s a good case, he also says, for numbers of around 14mn.

So within less than a century the population had dropped by around 95% to 600,000, almost all of whom were sierra Indians. The native population of the Coast had dropped to zero. No one was left.

Ever since, Peru has been massively underpopulated, the classic land without people, and people without land. By the early 20th century, 100 years ago, the population of Peru had inched up to just over three million, according to my 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. By 1940 Peru had just over seven million. In 1961 it was 10.4mn, more or less as it had been before the Conquest.

The sierra saved a small genetic something of Inca and pre-Inca Peru. The sturdy Quechua tradition, with its Quispes, Mamanis, Usquamaitas, Corimañas, Orqohuarancas and Yupanquis is all that remains of the Incas, the Lords of Sipan, the Dukes of Chavin, the Earls of Huari and the Kings of Tiahuanuco.

Much more interesting than counting how many people spend their lives in unproductive cities would be some DNA studies of the ancient families of my neighbours here in the Sierra to tie them to the glories of seven millennia of one of the great success stories of civilization. We can be sure, in any case, that the per capita GDP of the Inca Empire was substantially higher than it’s ever likely to be under today’s slash-and-burn efforts. ENDS

Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 28 2007

Bishop Savoy, King Solomon and the Incas

By Nicholas Asheshov

You can walk through the middle of a lost city without seeing a thing.

Or you can find a couple of stones on top of each other and, mein Gott! I’ve found Atlantis!

I’ve done both but we can be sure that Gene Savoy, the great lost city explorer who has just died at 80, never made mistakes like that. Unlike most explorers Savoy, who was not confused by having a degree from Cambridge ni mucho menos, knew what he was doing. He discovered more lost cities than the rest put together.

He was often accused of being a huaquero and on a couple of occasions I had to rescue him from some comisaria and rush him into the diplomatic immunity of the Phoenix Club, where he would be safe at least from wives and girl-friends.

But actually he hadn’t the slightest interest in the bits and pieces of traditional Peruvian archeology.

Savoy believed that the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Essenes and Egyptians had set up great societies in the Amazon which had expanded into the Andes and had then spread up to Mexico. This was his Feathered Serpent thesis.

Here’s the focus. It came in an invitation he sent me to a black-tie do in Reno in 1998 to launch his Project X –the Search for the Secrets of Immortality.” Gene, the Head Bishop of a church he himself had founded, had just survived the break-up of his 73-foot made-in-Peru Mochica Dragon-prowed catamaran sailboat Feathered Serpent III in a typhoon south-west of Hawaii. This had put an end to a projected seven-year round-the-world Grand Ophir Expedition.

For nearly half a century Savoy, the Project X blurb said, “has dedicated his life to the search for the secrets of immortality”.

Indeed, I remember Gene in the ‘sixties, between his successful Lost City trips into the jungle, chatting in the Haiti Café in Miraflores about south-east Asian monks and holy men living for more than 120 years thanks to yoga-like sexual contortions.

He had airbrushed this for publication. “As a result of our research and exploration, we have been able to recover the rudiments of a lost science practiced in ancient times…, techniques for prolonging human life and extending human intelligence…”

The Grand Ophir Sea expedition is “an odyssey in search of clues to a true understanding of the ancients and their global society”.

It is “retracing King Solomon’s actual visit to ancient Peru”.

There it is.

King Solomon’s mines were not in Arabia or in East Africa, but here in the Andes, maybe just up the road from Urubamba or, more likely in the north round Gran Pajaten or Gran Velaya, two of his great discoveries. Ophir, referred to in the Book of Kings as a source of immense wealth, was Peru.

A few years ago Savoy told me that he had located what he called a “glyph” etched into a tomb of one of his Andean lost cities which, he later wrote “not only looked like a ship but research revealed that the same symbol in early Semitic hieroglyphics means ‘ship’.”

The same symbol in another text “found in Israel” means “Gold of Ophir belonging to Beth Horon, 30 shekels”. It also appears in Egypt, we learn, meaning “ships bound for Punt, a place scholars believe was Ophir, the land of gold.”

Gene knew perfectly well that this kind of thing was not academically kosher but he didn’t care. “Archaeologists spend their lives with their heads in a hole in the ground. You can’t expect too much from them.”

He’s right. Archaeologists in Peru have provided a miserably boring and unproductive set of stories on what the ruins and remains show was clearly a fabulous set of multi civilizations.

It was not much more than a couple of generations ago that many of the sites, starting with Machu Picchu, were fictitious Lost Cities. It was Savoy who located Espiritupampa as the last refuge of the Incas, whacking the academics on the head. They said no, it was just a legend, or that it was Machu Picchu.

Sipan, with its eye-popping gold- and silver-ware, only came to light 15 years ago and Carral a decade ago, both of them sitting not in dense jungle but out in the desert. The Nazca Lines were discovered only in 1940, and most visitors think that they’re flying saucer airports.

Whatever, the archaeologists can’t tell you what they were and none of them have had an ounce of Savoy’s flamboyant physical and intellectual courage. Salud, Gene!

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Sept 16, 2007

 

The Incas and global warming – Opportunity knocks, again, in the Andes

By Nicholas Asheshov

The last time global warming came to the Andes it produced the Inca Empire.

A team of English and U.S. scientists has analysed pollen, seeds and isotopes in core samples taken from the deep mud of a small lake not far from Machu Picchu and their report says that “the success of the Inca was underpinned by a period of warming that lasted more than four centuries”.

The four centuries coincided directly with the rise of this startling, hyper-productive culture that at its zenith was bigger than the Ming Dynasty China and the Ottoman Empire – the two most powerful contemporaries of the Inca.

“This period of increased temperatures,” the scientists say, “allowed the Inca and their predecessors to expand, from AD 1150 onwards, their agricultural zones by moving up the mountains to build a massive system of terraces fed frequently by glacial water, as well as planting trees to reduce erosion and increase soil fertility.

“They re-created the landscape and produced the huge surpluses of maize, potatoes, quinua and other crops that freed a rapidly growing population to build roads, scores of palaces like Machu Picchu and in particular the development of a large standing army.”

No World Bank, no NGOs.

The new study is called “Putting the Rise of the Inca within a Climatic and Land Management Context” and was prepared by Alex Chepstow-Lusty, an English paleo-biologist working for the French Institute of Andean Studies, in Lima. Alex led a team that includes Brian Bauer, of the University of Illinois, one of today’s top Inca-ologists. The study is being published in Climate of the Past, an online academic journal.

Alex spends a lot of time in Cuzco and he told me the other day that the report “raises the question of whether today’s global warming may be for the Andes another opportunity”.

The core samples from the sediment of the little lake, Marcacocha, in the Patakancha valley above Ollantaytambo, show that there was a major cold drought in the southern Andes beginning in 880 AD lasting for a devastating century-plus through into 1000AD. This cold snap finished off both the Wari and the Tiahuanaco cultures which had between them dominated the southern Andes for more than a millennium.

It was at this same time that the Classic Maya disappeared in Yucatan. It was also a time, on the other side of the Pacific when major migrations from East Asia took place into Polynesia, an indication of a major Niño event; a Niño sees western Pacific currents switch to flow from West to East.

Core samples from glaciers and from the mud beneath lakes in the Andes, the Amazon and elsewhere have built up a history of the world’s climate and the message is crystal clear. It is that changes have taken place in the past, during the six or seven thousand years of our agriculture-based civilizations, that are just as big as the ones we are facing from today’s CO2 warming.

The message may be, too, that climate change is especially forceful in the Andes. Here we are, sandwiched thinly between the world’s biggest ocean and the world’s biggest jungle. The peaks are so high that they have had until just a few years ago deep ice on or near the Equator.

The valleys and surrounding hills have formed the roof of the human world for at least three millennia, according to Alex Chepstow-Lusty’s core samples. Nowhere else do millions of people live at or even near 4,000ms above sea level where it is cold, but getting warmer.

Today’s warming is also following on a colder spell that started, the core samples say, not long after the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.

For instance, the pollen in the cores says that there was maize being grown under the Incas around the lake at 3,300m above sea level. Until recently the upper level for maize around the Urubamba valley was 3,000-3,100ms. In the past few years the maize level has moved up and today there is maize being grown again above Marcacocha.

Alex’s records show that hundreds of terraces were being built around the lake between 1100 and 1150 AD -“lots of mud followed by the heavy pollen of maize”.

Enrique Mayer, at Yale, tells me that “the question of the expansion of maize together with the Inca state is now a proven archeological fact, notably in the Mantaro Valley (Tim Earle).

“The question of why terraces are not worked now as intensively as they could has been worked on (Bill Devevan) in the Colca Valley where the terraces are actually in franco retroceso.

“Also, you have John Treacy’s book on Coporaque which is probably the most technically accessible to the argument that terraces are, like flower pots, expensive to maintain.”

There is also, of course, the work of John Earls on the terracing at Moray.

Today there are thousands upon thousands of fine flights of Inca terraces all over the upper ends of the valleys of Central and Southern Peru but few of them are used on a regular basis.

Efforts have been made, among them by Ann Kendall, the English archaeologist, to resuscitate the old irrigation channels and the use of the terraces in the valleys above Machu Picchu. But most have been re-abandoned.

In the same vein the great forests of polylepis, the world’s highest tree, which capture and conserve moisture, have mostly been cut down for firewood.

As they say, you only have to look in the mirror to see where the problem is. FIN

Published June 25 in Caretas Magazine

Why Easter is so late this year

By Nicholas Asheshov

Every afternoon this week, including Monday – which in Cuzco was the Day of Our Lord of Earthquakes – thunder has battered the steep sides of the Urubamba Valley.  This is very unusual.  Normally thunderstorms announce only the beginning of the rains in October and November.  Normally the rains end in Urubamba like clockwork between March 23 and the 28th.

Not this year and I consulted Kim Malville, professor of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado and a leading authority on ancient Andean astronomy, which I’ve always thought of as the Weather Channel for the Incas, Moches and the rest.  I wanted to know why Easter is so late this year and what effect this is having on our weather.

Here Kim, with whom I have traipsed into the rugged Vilcabamba looking for ancient solstice and other star markers, tells us how the Church which sadly, as we know, replaced the Incas, decides each year when Easter is to be, something I’d never understood.

Read carefully.

“Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox – well, almost.  The Church has messed things up a bit by making it the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, which is the ecclesiastical full moon, which may be two days off the real full moon because when they established tables of the full moon 1,700 years ago, in A.D. 325, they made a few accounting errors, which the Church cannot correct: you’ll have to check with your local Cardinal why not.

“But the Church fathers did not mess it up for 2011. There was a full moon on March 19, the day before the vernal equinox, so we have had to wait a full lunar month for the next full moon which was at the beginning of the week, on Monday April 18, and then another six days for Sunday April 24,” which, Kim adds, is his birthday.

April 24 is a very rare Easter Sunday.  I checked on the internet and it hits the 25th of the month about once a century: the last one was 1943 and the next one is in 2038.

Though Easter is so mobile, I’d always thought that the equinox, like the solstices, were fixed for the 20th or 21st of March and September.  The equinox is when the sun passes over the equator.  The solstice is when it reaches its furthest point north or south, 23.5 degrees: Antofagasta, for instance, is 23.4 degrees south, Lima is 12 degrees south and Cuzco 13 degrees.

However, Kim tells me that the equinox is itself “a pretty abstract concept” as it is the day the sun crosses the celestial equator,” which no one can actually see.

“On an island in the Pacific on the equator, with an utterly flat horizon, the sun will rise due east on the day of equinox. Elsewhere, either because of an elevated horizon such as at Urubamba or even Lima, or because of refraction, it will not rise due east.”

Kim adds that, “With so many llamas, condors, cats and dogs in the way it should make no difference to you.”

More to the point, the late Easter has no effect on the length of the rainy season.

“Your rains have nothing to do with the Church, the Paschal moon, surfing competitions at Punta Rocas, or anything astronomical.

“Because the Earth moves around the sun in an ellipse and travels faster when it is closest to the sun, the number of days between the two solstices and the equinox is not the same. The half day count between December and June solstice lands some 3-5 days after spring equinox (and before fall equinox), so that ancient people counting the days would celebrate equinox at a different date than on our wall calendar.”

Myself, I shall stick, as advised by Voltaire, to gardening.

Published April 22, 2011 by

Machu Picchu, Maize and the Advantage of Backwardness

By Nicholas Asheshov

– Special for the Machu Picchu Centennial –

Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire were the creation of an import from Central America, maize, and a dramatic climate shift that turned the Andean highlands from inhospitable wet-and-cold to pleasant, as it is today, dry-and-warm.

For more than half a millenium before this shift the high Andes had been miserable.  With the new dry-and-warm, starting around 1000 AD, a backwoods tribe, the Incas, put together the new climate and technology breakthroughs and by 1500AD had produced the world’s most go-ahead empire, heavily populated and larger, richer, healthier and better organized than Ming Dynasty China and the Ottoman Empire, its nearest contemporaries.

The Incas, like a score of tribes all over the tropical Andes, had moved up over the previous millenia from hunters-and-gathers to llama-herders and, latterly, agriculturalists, farmers of potatoes and quinoa, the top names among a world-class agricultural flora that was famously described in the National Academy of Science’s The Lost Crops of the Incas (1989).

Then came maize.  New studies, the latest just published in London by Alex Chepstow-Lusty, the Cambridge archeobotanopalaentologist,  show that high-altitude, large-kernel maize suddenly became widely established around 2,700 years ago – 700BC.

Alex’s work is based on core samples he took from Marcacocha, a pond at 3,350ms asl just 30 miles upstream from Machu Picchu itself.

They provide a high resolution (40-100-year) environmental and agricultural history of the heart of the Inca region over the past 4,200 years, encapsulated within 6.3 meters of well-dated, highly organic sediments.

In these core samples the maize opal phytoliths first appear in 700BC, early on in an earlier warm-and-dry cycle.

The samples record, in general terms, a 500-year cycle of warm-and-dry alternating with another half-millenium of cold-and-wet, though the past 500 years haven’t been as bad as earlier events.

Analysis of maize opal phytoliths from four archaeological sites in the Copacabana Peninsula, Lake Titicaca, have also come up with a date for the appearance of commercial maize of 2,750 years ago.  Even though Lake Titicaca has always provided a special solar-heated mini-climate, at 4,000ms asl this is an astounding height for a species that started its career in muggy Yucatan 7,000 years ago.

Maize, together with new weeding techniques, irrigation, fertilizing and genetic selection, was to transform the Andes into a center for a succession of productive civilizations, starting with Tiahuanaco around Titicaca itself.   The Andes were, as the Cambridge archaeologist David Beresford-Jones puts it, “one of humanity’s rare independent hearths of agriculture.”

“Maize was the last piece in the puzzle of the Andean agricultural package, which allowed an expansionist agricultural intensity threshold to be crossed,” says Alex’s latest study, just published in Antiquity, London.

Recent stable isotope analysis of the bones, taken to Yale by Hiram Bingham a century ago, show that the main item in the diet of the inhabitants of Machu Picchu was not the potatoes and high-protein quinoa native to the Andes, but maize.

The Incas got their kick-start to fame with the global warming that was also underway in Europe.  It was this climate change that allowed Western Europe to emerge from the cold-and-nasty Dark Ages.

At the same time as the Middle Ages in Europe were blossoming into the Renaissance, the Incas were developing a sensational re-construction of the natural verticality of the Andean landscape.  They created thousands of well-drained flights of level stone terraces, unequalled anywhere, covering whole valleys.  Turbulent river-courses were channeled and walled.

Not only did the population explode, but the Incas knew how to marshal this key resource.  They would put thousands of workmen onto the job just like a modern engineering concern.

The Inca understanding of stone, of construction and of hydrology is described by Kenneth R. Wright, a prominent engineer from Denver, in his first-class Machu Picchu: A Civil Engineering Marvel (2000).

Few of the Inca terraces are in use today.  The complicated irrigation flows and long source-channels have fallen into disuse.   What they did was to make the best, in the dry-and-warm cycle, of the snow-melt, rivers, streams and lakes, ensuring that agricultural production remained high even during long droughts.  Now that we ourselves are into a new global warming it’s certainly time to see how the use of these super-terraces might be resuscitated.

The empire was pulled together by thousands of miles of all-weather stone roads and a warehouse network with two or three years worth of strategic reserve food and clothing. These were immediately ransacked, of course, by the Spaniards when they took over in the 1530s.

Bureaucrats, another feature of empires, were prominent.  Gary Urton at Harvard has shown that the khipu, knotted, colour-coded cords, was a complex mathematical and legal record system that was certainly as competent as the double-entry book-keeping that was being introduced in Europe at that time.  Much easier to transport and store, too.

Quinoa, a chenopod not a true grain, is much richer in protein than all true grains, so the pre-maize potato+quinoa Andean diet sounds rather healthy.

But cereals, starting with wheat, barley, oats in the Middle East and, in the Far East, rice, have invariably provided the high-volume calories that empires need to support cities and armies.  No cereal, no empire.

Graham Thiele, of the International Potato Center in Lima, tells me:  “Potatoes are bulky and perishable.   So maize has a huge advantage.  It was the transportablility of maize, even more than the productivity, that made it a key part of the Inca scheme.”

Maize, he adds, is easy to store, while potatoes go bad and get ruined quickly by bugs and blight.

I have to say that this new emphasis in the historical record on high-altitude maize comes as a surprise to me, even though I live in the heart of Urubamba, 2,840masl, one of the great maize valleys of the Andes.  I have always thought that potatoes were the true Andean basic, with hundreds of varieties backed by a cultural tradition akin to that of rice in China.  By the way, the International Potato Center tells me that China is today –surprise— the world’s top grower of potatoes and camote (sweet potatoes).

When the last big-cycle global warming began around 1,000AD, the established regimes in the southern Andes, Tiahuanaco and Wari, were unable to adapt and the Incas moved in.

Fashionable economists and political scientists today have started to call this “the advantage of backwardness.”  This intends to explain, for instance, why China, India and Brazil, basket-cases three decades ago, are suddenly leaping forward into the top ten.

A favorite instance are the Romans around 300BC who, regarded as crude barbarians by the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians, quickly took them over and created the world’s best-loved empire.

In the Peruvian Andes the Inca country cousins out in the Cuzco boondocks reacted quickly to the drought while the entrenched Wari sat, watched, and disappeared.  Their impressively sad capital, Pikillacta, an hour south of Cuzco, is next door to the parish church at Andahuaylillas, the ‘Sistine Chapel of the Andes.’ Gordon McEwan’s masterly Pikillacta: The Wari Empire in Cuzco (2005) is the sourcebook.

Today the Incas would have won the Nobel prize for agriculture, architecture and another couple for conservation.   They planted high-altitude polylepis forests to encourage and capture rain in the high cordillera.  We have cut most of these down for firewood.

Like the Romans the Incas brought in talent.  The stonemasons of Tiahuanaco, metallurgists and goldsmiths from the Coast and agriculturalists from the North.

Sadly for the Incas, there was to be no advantage when the Spaniards arrived, to their backwardness in warfare.  It took less than five quick years for a handful of Spanish warriors to destroy the monumental achievement of five centuries of a civilization that was built, as Machu Picchu shows, to last forever.

NOTES:

Richard Webb, former President of the Central Reserve Bank, comments that the concept of the Advantage of Backwardness was created by Alexander Gerschenkron, a Vienna-educated Russian who was in charge of economic history at Harvard and influenced a generation of economists there, including Webb.  “His examples were Germany, France and Russia, which all benefited from lagging after England during the 19th century.”

Hugh Thomson, the film-maker and author of The White Rock and of Red Cochineal, both on travel and the pre-history of Peru, comments:

“I am not sure that the transition from Wari to Inca was quite as seamless as you make it sound (‘the Inca country cousins out in the Cuzco boondocks reacted quickly to the drought while the entrenched Wari sat, watched, and disappeared) – the model I’ve usually heard is Wari decline around 1000 A.D. , for climatic reasons, slow emergence of Incas from around 1300 AD, ‘full-on’, to use an archaeological term, expansionist Inca period from after 1400 on, although I know that this early Inca period is constantly being re-evaluated by Bauer and others.”

David Beresford-Jones, the Cambridge archaeologist and author of the just-published Lost Woodlands of Ancient Nasca‘ (Oxford University Press), comments:

“Excellent… The point about maize, for which Alex’s work (among others) provides real data, builds upon an argument that the Andean linguist Paul Heggarty and I make in a 2010 article in Current Anthropology, ‘Agriculture and language expansions: limitations, refinements and an Andean exception?’

“But I am not so sure about the detail of how you portray Wari. For I’d say that all of the elements of statecraft that we think of as Inca: roads, khipu recording systems, and intensification of maize agriculture through terracing and irrigation, in fact had their roots in the Wari Middle Horizon. Indeed, Paul and I would argue that we should add to that list another element still popularly associated with the Inca Empire: the Quechua language family.

“This is developed in another article of ours making that case, ‘What role for language prehistory in redefining archaeological culture? A case-study on new Horizons in the Andes’ recently published in Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability and Transmission, edited by Roberts, B and Vander Linden, M., pp. 355-386. New York: Springer.

Gary Ziegler, the archaeologist and explorer comments:  ”The transition from Wari decline to Inca expansion remains one of the great enigmas in Inca study.

“The fall of the Inca was historically determined by the arrival of epidemic disease (likely Bartonellosis from Ecuador and the resulting war of succession following the death of Huayna Capac, not European military superior capability. I suspect Topa Inca would have made quick work of Pizarro’s handful of raiders had they arrived a few decades earlier.

“It is interesting that maize apparently did not get to North American until around 800 AD. This probably allowed the development of the advanced Mississippi and Anasazi polities.”

Vince Lee, the architect and Vilcabamba explorer, commenting on Nick Asheshov’s piece and on the Wari/Inca connection, refers here to the Wari tombs found recently by INC archaeologists at Espiritu Pampa.  Espiritu Pampa, identified by Gene Savoy in 1964 as the true last refuge of the Incas, is down in the jungle beyond Machu Picchu.  The discovery of the Wari tombs has set off speculation of a close connection between the Wari and the Inca, but Vince Lee doubts it.  He says:

“The Wari tomb is not in the midst of the Inca ruins, but several hundred meters away.  So it does not look like the Incas found or simply reoccupied an earlier Wari site.  As you may know, there are several hundred years separating the decline of the Wari from the rise of the Incas.  When I first went there in 1982, Espíritu Pampa was covered by thick rain forest and looked exactly as it did to both Hiram Bingham in 1911 and Gene Savoy in 1964.  The growth was so thick that even finding the ruins took quite a bit of work in 1982.  I mention this to suggest that a Wari site abandoned there for several hundred years would have virtually disappeared long before the arrival of the Incas.

“I note that lots of speculation is turning up that attempts to somehow connect the Wari and Inca cultures via this find, but I’ll be surprised if future work confirms this.

This article, without the end comments, was published in Caretas magazine the week of June 27, 2011 in Spanish.