The people who ran the Sun

By Nicholas Asheshov

The Incas, living as they did at 3,000m a.s.l., focused on the Sun’s capacity to provide more than warmth for their fertile, glacier-fed tropical valleys. They and their predecessors grasped, like the Egyptians and others, that the movements of the Sun, moon, and stars could predict rain and temperatures.

Informatica, then as now, was power. But the study and understanding of the sun and the stars gave the Andean peoples much more than a weather channel. They were able to reflect the orderliness and mathematical precision of the heavens into their own world. The unequalled exactitude of Inca stonework and their careful, magnificently engineered, imaginative landscaping of their mountain world was a statement of philosophical power on a Shakespearean scale. They would control the uncontrollable: the earthquakes, enemies, famine, and disease. Under the Inca there would be no apocalypse.

The Incas took it a logical step further. They would control the Sun itself. At Machu Picchu, Choquequirao, Pisac, and a score of other centres, they placed carefully-engineered granite blocks and windows so finely that at the solstices —June 21 and December 21— needles of light would hit exactly at such-and-such a marker.

The Incas, like politicians through the ages, spun the Sun story. It was they who were family with the Sun, sons no less of the Sun. Running the universe had become a family business. The sun’s rays would change direction on the orders of the Inca every 187.5 days.

At the winter solstice, the Inti Raymi, visitors to Ollantaytambo today can climb high up to the other, western, escarpment of the Rio Vilcanota and at 7:00 a.m. on and around June 21 can look down across the river half a kilometer away and watch a sudden sharp spotlight, then, moments later a couple of hundred yards away, another and then another, appear on an Inca throne-room the size of a tennis court.

If this is a stirring experience today it is not difficult to imagine the awe,, the grateful weeping, the roars of enthusiasm with which tens of thousands of Inca faithful would watch this mystic magic five, six and more centuries ago. They would see their Inca and his family re-born, the unchallengeable nexus of this world with the past and the future.

Accurate knowledge of how to interpret and predict stellar movement was a vital part of the management of a heavily populated agricultural society for which control of irrigation water and of the rivers was essential in both drenching monsoons and periodic drought.

The Incas upgraded the Tiahuanaco and Huari terrace systems and roads into one of the world’s safest and most productive polities, as we can see today from a million terraces in great flights of ingenious engineering of one of the planets most spectacular sculpted landscapes. The renovations included unequalled mountain hydrologic and civil construction, together with agricultural and genetic research.

The magnificent interconnected terraces in the Colca, the Urubamba, the Pisac and a score of other Andean valleys needed sophisticated agricultural techniques and engineering controlling water, heat, and experienced biological genetic experimentation. These terrace systems were so delicate that most of them are today unused because no one is sufficiently knowledgeable and well-organised to use them.

The Inca Empire, stretching thousands of miles along the Andes from Colombia to Argentina, was joined by perhaps 15,000 miles of stone all-weather roads with A, B and C grades of size for lateral valleys of better quality and deeper penetration than any land communications system anywhere in the world until the advent of the railways in the 19th century. Legal, census and production records were kept on the decimal-based khipu knotted strings.

Warehouse complexes stored food and clothing. The Andes were more cohesive, more productive than anywhere in contemporary Europe, on a par with Ming Dynasty China.

Today energy not the Sun, has become the new god. It is energy, starting just two and a half centuries ago with the invention, in England, of the steam engine, which has created a different universe. Before 1750 no one moved faster than a horse, a running man, or a sail-driven galleon. Wood fires became coal, electricity, petroleum and nuclear.

A Bank of England economist calculated the other day that if we look at the 50,000 years of the existence of modern homo sapiens and call it 24 hours, 99% of the progress will have taken place in the last 20 seconds. It’s a nice notion though it might be seen to give short shrift to the Acropolis, to Leonardo and Bach. But it makes the point that few among the seven billion of us can understand the world today and for sure no one can control it. It is built to change. Intrinsically unstable. It must, faster and faster, keep on the move.

By contrast, anyone can see, at Machu Picchu and at Sacsayhuaman that the people who built these achievements did indeed understand their universe. They had done it themselves, stone by careful stone. It was built never to change, to last forever. Maybe it will. FIN

First published in Spanish in Caretas in March, 2015

Don’t believe all you hear about lost cities. But then again, why not?

By Nicholas Asheshov

Sra. Nelly, who helps out on busy weekends, told me the other day when she heard me talking about a valley below Machu Picchu: “My cousin Alfredo knows where there’s this really big ruin. It’s on his own place, above Sta. Teresa.”

Nick's adventure as captured by Peruvian artist Carlos Christian Castellanos Casanova

I should have a double Scotch for every time someone has told me where to find buried treasure and secret ruins.

Nelly went on, looking round to see that no one else was listening. “It’s got these three lines of great walls, near the top of a hill. There’s a waterfall…”.

With lost cities and buried treasure there’s some common characteristics to the stories. One is that they are always second-hand.

The most consistently unreliable stories come from priests and protestant missionaries, invariably imprecise and gullible; perhaps it goes with the territory. The most famous in our area was a Padre Polentini, active for decades in the Lares Valley over a cold bare pass from Calca. According to everyone you meet in this attractive but little-visited area, Padre Polentini spent all his time -this would be the ’70s and ’80s– looking for lost cities and of course he built up, the same stories say, a hoard of gold and silver objects which one of the Cuzco archbishops sent off to the Vatican.

To add substance to the foggy world of lost cities and buried treasure, there’s a private museum in Lima crammed full of spectacular gold and silver objects that are all grave-robbed. It is much better than the tourist-trap Gold Museum, which is full of fakes.

A late-breaking version of the secret hoard syndrome is the story, first published in Caretas’ Country Notes in March this year, that Machu Picchu itself was looted in the 1880s by a German, August R. Berns, and all the huacos were sent off to the Berlin Museum.

The discoverer of this gem of lost city-ology, Paolo Greer, is much smarter and more persistent than the professional archaeologists and historians. One of Paolo’s specialties is locating old gold and silver mines, some of which are in production again over on the eastern slopes of the Carabaya between Cuzco and Puno. Today this is one of Peru’s toughest no-go regions, controlled by drug gangs and illegal gold panners.

Paolo has also been working on what he calls “Portuguese” silver mines to the East of Machu Picchu. He tried to get up there a few months ago but got turned back by impassable cliffs.

Others, led by Gary Ziegler, of Colorado, and Vince Lee, a couple of months ago held a symposium hosted by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of The Explorers Club. I’ve been out many times with Gary in the Vilcabamba beyond Machu Picchu and he thoughtfully combines GPS technology with ensuring that one of the mules is assigned to carry three crates of Stolychnaya with a few bottles of Martini for the women.

Technology doesn’t seem to have made the slightest difference to the rate of discovery of lost cities in the Andes.

The Instituto Geografico 100:000 maps, produced arm-in-arm with the Pentagon, are still dodgy, because they don’t do much footwork to back up the clever satellites.

However, things are a lot easier in the field today with the ferocious accuracy and handy cheapness of GPS machines the size of a telephone. This means that you can draw your own maps, as detailed or as sketchy as you like with spot-on accuracy.

But clear thinking is much more important than technology.

A few years ago a priest down in the Apurimac told me about a treasure-trove of dollars, quantities of camping equipment, a massive cache of canned food, a light bulldozer and shotguns up in the northern Vilcabamba. He added: “There’s a dozen late-model parachutes.”

I instantly realized he was talking about my own National Geographic expedition in 1963 Perú by Parachute – NGS 1964 (link to pdf of article) where, true, I’d had to abandon a couple of torn ‘chutes, a broken 16-bore shotgun and a pile of empty Coke bottles. I explained it all to the priest.

He didn’t believe a word of it.

Now I must get on with organizing a trip before the rains start to check on Sra. Nelly’s cousin Alfredo’s lost city above Sta. Teresa. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Sept. 12, 2008

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


Bingham didn’t dig up the Yale huacos –he just bought them

By Nicholas Asheshov

Here in Urubamba Hiram Bingham’s reputation has taken a knock in the run-up to the centennial of the discovery in 1911 of Machu Picchu.

The revisionists are saying that Bingham was not just a persistent explorer but also, frankly, a humbug.

Bingham’s economical use of the truth has been compounded by the poorly-advised refusal of Yale University and its Peabody Museum of Natural History to return, as promised, what Bingham’s Yale expeditions dug up in the Vilcabamba 1912-15.

The Peruvian government is taking Yale to court but they’re not pushing it.

Here’s why. None of the good pieces in the Yale Machu Picchu collection were actually dug up by Yale archaeologists.

Instead they were bought by Bingham from Cusco collectors and huaqueros and smuggled out of Peru. Under U.S. law Yale is the legal owner. If Yale people had dug them up, it would be Peru that had the legitimate claim.

The out-whiffling from Peru of the Yale Machu Picchu huacos is much as Luis Valcarcel, an iconic Peruvian archaeologist, maintained noisily nearly a century ago when he and his Cusco Historical Institute took Bingham to court as a grave-robber. Bingham fled, never to return.

The first of at least two major consignments of Inca pottery bought by Bingham and today the pride of the Yale collection consisted of 366 primo pieces purchased by him from Tomas. A. Alvistur who, Paolo Greer, the archivist extraordinaire and systems whiz, tells me was a son-in-law of Carmen Vargas, owner then of the Huadquiña hacienda, just below Machu Picchu.

“Both the Vargas family and Alvistur had well-known collections in Cuzco,” Greer says.

Alvistur had asked Bingham for $2,200 though on top of that, Alvistur warned Bingham in a letter, he would have to add “a great sum to allow the collection to leave, for, as you know, the exportation of ancient objects is prohibited.”

Most of the 5,000-odd items that Yale dug up at Machu Picchu consisted of broken potsherds and bones. One, Richard Burger, of Yale, told me, turned out to be a piece of tough 1915 camp bread mistakenly labelled and coded by a zealous student.

Bingham had quickly realised that others had beaten him to it: Machu Picchu was well-known in Cuzco and had already been sacked. But it didn’t suit either him or Yale to say so. Greer tells me that Bingham visited in 1913 the Berlin Ethnologic Museum to study the collection sold to it in 1882 by Jose Mariano Macedo who, along with Ricardo Palma and other Lima luminaries of the day was a partner of the German adventurer August R. Berns.

Bingham forced Alvistur to lower the price on his 366 best pieces: “I realize that the material is worth more than this, and I wish I could pay more, but this is as much as I can possibly offer you.”

Alvistur himself put his collection through customs and onto a ship for Panama. Bingham later thanked the shipping agent for helping to make “Yale an efficient place in which to learn about Peru ancient and modern”.

My source for all this is Christopher Heaney, who I met in the Instituto Bartolome de las Casas in Cuzco a few years ago. Heaney, who consulted with Greer, did a fine job of putting the Bingham smuggling evidence together and published it in The New Republic, D.C., in October, 2006.

Heaney adds that while waiting in Lima in August 1915 for a steamer to Panama, Bingham paid for another “interesting lot of Peruvian antiquities … provided the owner would ship them out of the country.” The owner had them consigned to a fictitious character, “J.P. Simmons, New York.”

Heaney says that Bingham invested $25,000 in purchases, plus costs, of huacos which all went to Yale-Peabody. Bingham, famously, had married money.

If Yale had had any sense it would long ago have returned to Peru the boring bits of academic bones and pottery that its people actually found.

But it’s hard for Lima politicos to acknowledge that all the good stuff is protected by a statute of limitations.

Heaney quotes Richard Burger, the Peabody’s curator of anthropology and co-curator of Yale’s Machu Picchu exhibition, as saying that Peru’s bilateral agreement with the United States on antiquities “recognizes the impossibility of disentangling these historical cases and only applies to antiquities that entered the [United States] after 1981.” He also noted, “Private collections were widely bought, sold, and exported early in the 20th century, and museums in Europe and the USA are full of them.”

Heaney quotes a 1953 commentary on the looting of Machu Picchu. “…but where can we admire or study the treasures of this indigenous city? The answer is obvious: in the museums of North America.”

The comment, preceded by quiet thoughts to the effect that no one is to blame, comes from the Diaries of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of Aug 1, 2009