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

Cooking is the difference between us and the chimps

By Nicholas Ashesho

At the University of Exeter, England, they have discovered that athletes who drink half a litre of beetroot juice a day increase their oxygen capacity by 18%. This would certainly help us up here in Urubamba, at 2,840 metres above sea level. But so far the main result I’ve noticed is that my urine has turned pink.

Beets, a cool-climate crop, are grown locally here and I make the juice from an extractor and throw in a few carrots and apples which soften the taste. But, staying with us the other day, a Japanese friend, Sensei Kanai, a doctor and martial arts teacher, got unusually upset when he saw the extractor being used at breakfast.

“No extractor, only liquadora,” Sensei ordered Sra. Ana, our housekeeper. He insisted that we should shove the fruit and veg into the liquadora and the result is indeed excellent, an all-inclusive Smoothie.

But I’m sticking with the extractor, too, since coming across “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” by Richard Wrangham, Professor of Anthropobiology at Harvard.

Prof Wrangham’s proposal is that the difference between chimpanzees, on which he is a leading authority, and humans, is that our ancestors, a million years ago, learned how to cook, that thanks to this our minds and bodies did a Darwin. It is this that has given us our biological edge over everyone else.

Here it is: cooked or prepared food is better for you than an all-in all-raw diet. This, he says, is why we are bigger than chimps and a lot smarter than everyone.

For instance, in order to get the oxygen benefit of a half-litre glass of beetroot juice I would have to gnaw my weary way through three kilos of raw beets.

In the same way I would have to eat twice as much raw fish or raw meat to get the same benefit as from half the amount of grilled, baked or fried.

For instance, Prof Wrangham says, our digestive systems can make use of 50% of the protein in a raw egg but of fully 90% of the protein in a cooked egg.

“Cooking increases the proportion of nutrients that the digestive system can digest.” Put another way; “Cooking makes the food we eat more nutritiously efficient.”

Raw-is-better is, Prof Wrangham says, simply not so. Our stomachs and mouths have become smaller and more efficient, thanks to cooking, and our brains bigger.

“Humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows adapted to eating grass, or fleas to sucking blood,”

The catch is that those of us with middle-age spread have over-evolved.

One solution is to go back to a chimpanzee diet. Prof Wtangham says: “People who switch to a raw diet report feeling constant hunger and lose large amounts of weight.”

You don’t have to be a chimpanzee to know how that one works but Prof Wrangham repeats: “Raw foodism is against our biology”.

Up here in Urubamba, then, in the middle of a forest down by the river I have adopted a half-chimp, half-sapiens existence though I have the advantage, unlike most chimps, of having a qualified nutritionist, Andrea Suito to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I do the beetroot concentrate but only every other day, and the fruit Smoothie every day. Peru has a better selection of fresh fruit than anywhere in the world so I have a big plateful. I don’t have to leap through the trees to find it: Sra. Ana, of course, just trots off to the market.

During the morning I’ll have raw Quaker Oats with dried and fresh fruit and skimmed milk.

I get through the morning by cheating and drinking several cups of thick black coffee. I’m trying, with no success so far, to evolve to green tea.

Lunch is a huge raw salad and either some grilled trout from the Pumahuanca hatchery or a piece of supermarket chicken. During the afternoon I’ll have a milk shake of banana or, when I can find it, lucuma. Supper is a crema de tomate, green vegetables, onion or ajo with another bit of fish or perhaps jamon de pavo. I’ve completely given up sugar, even honey.

I’ve lost 10 kilos and perhaps the key to it is that I’m down to a glass, two on Saturdays, of red wine. Alcohol in any form puts on weight but clearly the French have evolved more than the rest of us: it was they who discovered that red wine is good for you, the finest marketing coup of the past million years. Prof Wrangham undoubtedly approves. FIN



Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 23 2009

Get Ready, Everything’s going to change

By Nicholas Asheshov

How greenhouse warming is going to hit Peru’s deserts, the mountains, the jungle and even Lima is becoming a hot topic.

Here’s the first thing you need to know: No one has a clue what’s going to happen here nor when.

But, Tom Schelling tells me, the second is that make no mistake, “It’s serious” and that everyone has to get together to prepare for it. For a start, “the environmentalists might want to stop talking about future generations and start talking about the poor today.”

Tom is the one-man think tank who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2005 and he and Alice, his wife, were staying with us on their way to and from Machu Picchu.

He has also been taking part this week in a conference on climate change run by Richard Webb’s cutting-edge Instituto del Peru at the Universidad San Martin de Porres.

Preparing for the conference, Richard tried to make a list of the different predictions from computers and scientists about what’s going to happen in Peru. But he drew a blank. There have been two or three recent studies, one on the Mantaro valley and another on the Coast and Sierra from Ecuador down to Bolivia, measuring temperature change.

“But it amounts to very little, and little seems to have been discovered about how Peru´s geography will produce either more or less warming than the world average in each region, or how warming will translate into rainfall.”

Pablo Lagos, Peru’s Numero Uno El Niño scientist, at the Instituto Geofisico del Peru, tells me that they have put electronic buoys out into the sea off the North Coast “but the fishermen steal them”.

Here’s a scare story from the past. The most productive epoch of the Moche culture was brought to a vicious end between 536 and 594 by a devastating sequence of 30 years of rain followed by 30 years of drought.

If it happened once it can happen again.

The precision of the dates comes from core samples taken from Andean glaciers.

These same core samples say, too, that today’s mess is speeding up.

Prof. Lonnie Thompson, a leading glaciologist, of Ohio State University, has told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the Qori Kalis glacier, the main compenent of the Quelccaya icecap in the Cordillera Oriental beyond Lake Titicaca, will have disappeared by 2012. Quelccaya is really high, at an average 5,470 ms a.s.l., and is the biggest glacier in the tropics.

Thompson has been drilling into Quelccaya since the 1960s and the cores date back to the time of Christ. But the disappearance of the ice has speeded up exponentially in the past few years.

“Tropical glaciers are the canaries in the coalmine for our global climate system [they combine] temperature, precipitation, cloudiness, humidity and radiation,” Thompson says.

Tom Schelling is quiet and good-humoured but from Harvard, Yale, the White House and elsewhere his steely mind has been slicing left, right and centre through the verbiage of the public issues great and small of the past half-century, wars, nuclear arms, abortion, drugs, China, Game Theory, race and a score more.

He is professor of foreign affairs, national security, nuclear strategy and arms control at the University of Maryland. His The Strategy of Conflict pioneered the study of bargaining and strategic behaviour and has been one of the most influential books of the past half-century.

He warns today of insect-born disease, food shortages and among others, a rise in the sea level of maybe six metres. Don’t think just beach house.

Tom doesn’t like Bush any more than the rest of us but he too is, famously, against the Kyoto Agreement (1990) because, he says, it’s unenforceable, therefore meaningless. “I told Al Gore he was lucky to lose the election (in 2000) because he would never have got it past the Congress.”

He says that until the United States gets together on a serious plan nothing much is going to happen. “We can’t help or push the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians and the Brazilians if we’re not leading things ourselves.”

He talks of rocketing sulphur into the stratosphere to help block the sun from over-heating the planet. “They don’t want us to know about this because they don’t want us to stop cutting emissions.”

When Tom, who was born in 1921, and Alice returned from Machu Picchu, I asked him how he’d enjoyed himself:

“It was one of the most wonderful days of my life.”


See you in Uhujapacha

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last week we buried Ken Duncan in the cemetery at Huayllabamba, a riverside town in the Urubamba Valley and, as is often the case, it would have been more fun if Ken himself had been able to enjoy it too.

It turned out to be a rousing send-off. It included a trumpet-and-euphonium thump-thump band; a few hits of Scotch and the never-fails drama of a wailing widow determined to lay her hands on the money.

Ken, 64, an irascible, clever Scot had lived on his farm nearby for most of the past 15 years. It was he who introduced to Peru the awaymanto, a wild Andean fruit, as a commercial crop. He even sold some made-in-Cuzco jam, he would tell us, to Harrods and claimed to have met Mohammed Al-Fayad, Dodi’s father.

He spent the last month of his life in the clinic in Cuzco and had hired a couple of off-duty policemen to stand at the door to shoo off the wife, a communera from the highlands of Huancavelica who he hated.

No matter. She and her mum were there, tearful and in black, within minutes of his death and they quickly shelled out borrowed banknotes to acquire Ken’s body from the hospital.

“In the old days,” Roger Valencia tells me, “people in the Andes believed that when you died you moved along to Uhujapacha, which was a repeat version of the world they had just left.

“The only difference was that it was timeless. ”

Roger, friendly and polished, is Cuzco’s top guide: if you are a princess or a film star visiting Cuzco and Machu Picchu, you get Roger.

“If you were the Inca here, you were an Inca in Uhujapacha. If you were a soldier you should be buried with your equipment, a farmer or a ceramicist, the same. If you were a llama, you were a llama next time around. Not much social mobility.

“Also, it was important to take along presents.” All of which explains why ancient Peruvian graves have always been a rich source of treasure trove.

No longer. Not long ago I was window-shopping for a nice cemetery and the one up the road at Maras has a glorious view over the Cordillera. But the locals advised against it. They told me that these days people will quickly steal even your modest marble headstone.

Today people in the Andes are just like the rest of us and think, right or wrong, that we can’t take it with us so Ken was buried simply in a grave alongside his campesino neighbours.

After the funeral service in the town’s quiet colonial church, all organized by Carmen, the widow, we accompanied the casket and the band, playing noisily through narrow streets to the cemetery. At every corner the procession would stop, as is traditional, for a prayer or some wailing chants.

We crowded into the modest cemetery on the edge of town. A god-daughter and a couple of neighbours made short grave-side speeches.

Carmen, a thin 40-something who until Ken’s death had been prohibited by judicial order from getting within 1,500 yards of him, now stood flanked by her mum and lawyers within 1.5 yards of him, wailing as she shoveled her piece of earth onto the coffin.

Moments later things livened up again in the street outside with several crates of beer and wine. There must have been a hundred people, mostly from around Ken’s farm a few miles away.

As the afternoon faded into dusk even over the great mountains rising out of the valley, Carmen told everyone that she was serving supper down in the parish rooms. And the band, paid for by one of Ken’s god-sons, played on.

I remember a few years ago in San Lorenzo de Quinti, in Huarochiri, a traditional area in the highlands deep behind Lima, members of a family up from the city spent the afternoon telling ancestors the latest news.

It was good-humoured and convivial with frequent toasts in aguardiente.

“Y la Sandra, que te recuerdas tuvo problemas en tercero, termino muy bien su secundaria y esta de novia con un chico del barrio y esta trabajando como secretaria en la municipalidad.”

“El Jorge esta pensando entrar en la Policia Nacional… tía Juana no podía venir por estar delicada parece ser de los riñones y el esposo no encuentra trabajo….”

I certainly hope that when I’m getting bored in timeless Uhujapacha people will come and keep me, too, up to date.


Published in Spanish by Caretas magazine the week of October 27 2008

New train companies to compete on the Machu Picchu line

One new company, possibly two, will be competing with Peru Rail later this year, providing more railroad services on the highly-prized line to the pre-hispanic citadel of Machu Picchu, Peru’s key tourist attraction.

The first company to be granted the license is Inca Rail, formed by the Peruvian company Grupo Crosland and Turistren of Colombia as the operator. According to Juan Alberto Forsyth of Crosland, the company expects to begin the service in October with one triple-car train for 150 passengers and will add two more triple trains by the end of the year.

The second company expecting to be given the green light is Andean Railways Corp, which met the Ministry of Transportation requirements last week and is now waiting for the approval of Ferrocarril Transandino, which operates and maintains the railway line.

ARC’s main operating shareholder is Iowa Pacific Holdings, Chicago, a conglomerate of railway companies operating in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Illinois.

Nicholas Asheshov, one of the British investors, with Christopher Roper, both with long-standing connections in Peru, told Peruvian Times that Iowa Pacific’s focus is on freight but they have a long-established tourist/passenger company in Colorado and another that specializes in old trains which run all over the US and Canada. Andean Railways aims to corner 20% of the 500,000 tourists that visit Machu Picchu every year.

Both companies plan to offer first-class railcars as well as economy class.

A third company, Wyoming Railway, has been granted a preliminary license but has yet to present its proposals to the Ministry of Transport.

For the past nine years, since the national railway system was privatized, the sole service to Machu Picchu has been provided by Peru Rail, operated by Orient Express Hotels Ltd and owned equally by the famous travel company and Peruval Corp, with interests in tourism, real estate and infrastructure.

However, an antitrust ruling last year by Indecopi, the national copyright and fair competition institute, opened the door to competitors.

Ferrocarril Transandino, as operator of the railway line, has been critical of the Ministry of Transport’s decision to “lower the barriers” to companies it does not consider on a par with Peru Rail.

Raúl Galdo, director of Legal and Regulatory Services at Orient Express, which shares equal ownership of Ferrocarril Transandino with Peruval, told El Comercio, “We’re surprised at the Ministry of Transportation’s flexibility to modify the technical and financial requirements in order to grant operating licenses to companies that otherwise would not have been accepted.”

“Inca Rail, for example,” Galdo said, “has Turistren of Colombia as its operator, a company that operates a 30-mile line on the weekends between Bogota and Zipaquirá. In the case of Wyoming Railway, its operator is Maryland and Delaware Railroad, a company that operates a 120-mile route twice a year for a chicken fair. And in the case of Andean, its operator is Iowa Pacific Holdings, which runs a tourist route between May and October since 2005. We want these companies to enter the route?”

Ferrocarril Transandino has been operating the railway line since 1999, when it won the bid for a 30-year concession to operate, expand and maintain not only the 124 km narrow gauge line to Machu Picchu, but also the standard gauge 800 km line from Matarani and Mollendo on the coast to Arequipa, Puno and Cusco.

Within the next week, it will be posting a bid for timetables. Inca Rail has shown an interest in three daily schedules, while Andean Railways is aiming to request four.

Inca Rail will be running its service between Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu and has acquired land in Ollantaytambo for its yard. It is investing $4 million, which has included the purchase of the narrow gauge cars in Portugal, for outfitting in Peru. Crosland’s earlier experience in the railway business has been to supply locomotives to Enafer, the Peruvian railway system prior to privatization, and to the former state mining company Centromin as well as to its main client, Southern Copper Corporation. Forsyth stressed, however, that this only involved supply and after-market support, which is why the company brought in Turistren as a partner.

Published April 29, 2008 by

OP-ED – The 2011 Election: Facing a leap back to the bad old days

By Nicholas Asheshov

Special to the Peruvian Times

With the short end of a week before voting on Sunday, April 10,  the first round of Peru’s presidential elections has lurched into a curtain-raiser to a bitter run-off featuring a stark choice between business-as-usual+plus and Chavez-style grab-it statism.

The polls say that Ollanta Humala, representing the specter of a depressing dive into Venezuelan-style shambles is way out ahead against a trio led by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a pragmatic free-marketeer promising a pueblo-friendly lift-off for an already-humming economy.

Under Humala, a far-left rabidly anti-Chilean, airports, ports and telecom, energy, probably banks, newspapers and TV would be nationalized, according to his written manifesto.  LAN, the dominant force in local aviation, would certainly be hobbled if not sent packing.  The same fate might await some of the big foreign investments in energy, mining and retailing.  The half-forgotten sound of international agreements and contracts, not to mention constitutions, being torn up, is back on the air.

Brazilian companies, led by big construction and energy like Odebrecht, Vale do Rio Doce and Petrobras would, on the other hand, be favored.  Humala, like all Peruvians, likes Lula but, more to the point, his PDB party is providing electioneers and finance for the Humala campaign.   Brazilian companies are already trying to pepper the Andes with huge hydro-electric schemes with the power pylons heading for Sao Paulo.

Venezuela and Cuba are the models, “with appropriate local adjustments,” Humala says.

The media in Lima produce and discuss endlessly, as well they might, a flood of polls that after a ho-hum start at the turn of the year, today put Humala, a former army comandante and mutineer to boot, at close to 30 percent with Kuczynski, PPK, a former Wall St banker, and two others, Keiko Fujimori and Alejandro Toledo, bunched together at between 18 percent  and 20 percent.

The elections will see 14 million over-18s of a 30-million population vote for which of two candidates get into the final run-off in early June.  They are also voting on Sunday for a 120-seat Congress, whose membership will be roughly in line with the percentages obtained by the five leading candidates.

Both the Congress and the President are elected for a five-year 2011-16 term starting July 28, Independence Day.  Voting is obligatory.

With Humala, the only left-winger, a sure thing to get into the run-off, Sunday’s race is for the single remaining slot to run against him in June.

Luis Castañeda A fifth contender, Luis Castañeda, a colorless, murky former Lima mayor, is down from 30 percent support in January to below 11 percent.  So the focus is on Toledo, Keiko and PPK.  The hope of, one supposes, two-thirds of the electorate is that one of these will in June pull together the non-left votes to beat Humala into, they hope, oblivion.

The four contenders have emerged after more than three months of campaigning as clear-cut TV characters.

Humala Ollanta Humala, an army mutineer accused of human rights violations, was described on TV by Hugo Chavez in Caracas this past week as “a good lad, a good soldier.”   Caracas has provided much of Humala’s campaign funds according to well-established paper trails through, for instance, NGOs fronted by his wife, Nadine.  He has, naturally, got the Lima and provincial middle class frightened, terrified in fact, that Peru — which has been emerging over the past couple of decades into a coming-along economy with poverty rates finally ticking down — will slough back into the lost decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

Keiko Fujimori The polls say, as they have for the past three months, that Keiko, a self-confident 35-year-old daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori, currently doing life in a Lima jail for human rights violations, has a solid 20 percent of the vote.

She, in effect, is the one that Toledo or PPK must beat on Sunday.  She is also going to be the easiest to beat for Humala, as even though she would be joined, reluctantly by PPK and Toledo, she is not yet a convincing presidential figure.

Alejandro Toledo, 65, president 2001-6, only a few weeks ago looked a shoo-in to the final round with close on 30 percent in the polls.   He bills himself as a toughie Andean Indian ex-shoe-shine boy with a Stanford PhD.  Sounds ideal, but his record in office was as a vacillating, hard-drinking womanizer with approval ratings of 8 percent, marking him at the time the least popular elected leader in Latin America. Today he is still lively but a pompous bore on the TV, and this has hauled him back down despite a campaign that is well-financed by a foggy consortium.

Joining these leaders during the past few weeks is Kuczynski, PPK, an Oxford-educated Wall St banker and former Central Bank executive, finance and prime minister, one of whose daughters is a fashion-plate Park Ave socialite and former New York Times staffer.

Kuczynski, 72, is an accomplished flautist with a grand piano in his Lima town house and another at his mountainside country estate on which for relaxation he plays Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas.

Pedro Pablo KuczynskiKuczynski in 2001-2 sorted out the high inflation, low-income mess as the first finance minister in Toledo’s otherwise vacuous government, and has financed his own campaign – he sold a south-Lima beach house and cashed in some stock.  But until a month ago it was looking, at three or four percent in the polls, like just a quixotic swan-song.  Columnists were thanking him for, at least, pepping up a desultory melee.  At that time, too, Humala was also a back-of-the-pack also-ran at 10-12 percent.

But in February they both took off.   PPK drove a “PPKamion” and distributed PPKuy dolls — cute fluffy guinea pigs — to attract a wider audience for his well-thought-out program and hands-on experience to get Peru’s lagging education, health, jobs, pensions and infrastructure adjusted upwards to a pushy 7-8 percent growth economy.

Suddenly PPK shot up to 10 percent, then 14 percent.  Now he’s up in the 17-18 percent league with one poll putting him second behind Humala.

Humala, starting as a cloudy has-been, has more than doubled his early-days polling.  But unlike PPK he is no dark horse.  In 2006, he came within a few points of becoming president of Peru, wearing a red T-shirt and openly fawning on Chavez, then as now the only important re-creation of Latin America’s bad old 1970s and 1980s of muddled stagflation and bully-boy caudillos.

For this election Humala has put on a coat and tie.  He refuses to answer questions about his published Chavez-like program. the familiar, dreaded  paraphernalia of up-the-workers cant.   His brother Ulysses has created a stir by going public with a description of him as a little-Hitler dictator.

Another brother, Antauro, a cashiered army major, has been in jail the last six years  for leading a paramilitary gang in an attack, which Antauro says Ollanta planned, on a provincial police station that killed four unarmed policemen.

In the 1990s, Ollanta led an army mutiny against Fujimori in the mountains of the far south.

His rabid anti-Chilean position connects with a thick top-to-bottom atavistic seam in Peru’s often-moody psyche. This appeals especially to Peru’s grouse-patch millions, and not just out in the sticks:  Humala is as strong in Lima as PPK.

A wider xenophobia, typical of elections everywhere, has slimed its way selectively through the campaign.   Now that he might win, Kuczynski has been attacked ferociously by Toledo and Humala for having a U.S. passport, acquired in 1999 — Kuczynski’s wife Nancy is from Wisconsin — with, therefore, clear conflict-of-interest issues.   PPK replied, variously, that Toledo might have thought of this when he made PPK his Premier in 2005 and that he was relinquishing his U.S. passport anyway.  In a TV debate on Sunday, Toledo, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., and whose acid-tongued wife, Eliane, is a Belgian Zionist, referred to PPK as “Mister Kuczynski” as if they’d never spent hundreds of high-powered hours together running the country.

PPK was born in Lima in 1938, his parents refugees from Hitler.  His mother was a cousin of Jean-Luc Godard, the French cineaste and his father Max was a Berlin-born medic who founded a hospital for lepers in Iquitos and, in effect, eradicated leprosy from Peru.  He was also active in the high country of Cusco and Puno as a doctor. PPK has photos of Dr Max and himself as a kid in the backwoods of Peru in the 1940s.  Max even spent the best part of a year in a Lima jail as a political prisoner under the dictator General Odria, in 1948.  Max sent Pedro Pablo to Rosall, a tough boarding school in northern England, from where he won a scholarship at the age of 17 to Exeter College, Oxford   A few days ago PPK, campaigning in San Cosme, a desperate Lima slum, ran into an old man, a former leper rescued more than half a century ago by Max.  It was, as can be imagined, an emotional moment.

PPK, never a shrinking violet, has developed a relaxed-but-quicksilver, folksy-but-serious TV and campaign-stump style. To his followers he is way and ahead the best potential president that Peru could want.  He fits in today, too, to a current that has seen Ricardo Martinelli in Panama and Sebastian Piñera in Chile, both tip-top business figures, leading lick-things-into-shape governments.

But Humala, too, represents a well-established presence:  Chavez in Caracas, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador, Ortega in Nicaragua, even the Kirchners in Argentina.

ENDS, as usual, we know not where.

Published April 5, 2011, by the Peruvian Times

Nick Asheshov is a Director of The Machu Picchu Train Co., Urubamba.
A veteran journalist, noted explorer and entrepreneur, he was editor of the Peruvian Times from 1969 to 1990.
This report was prepared specially for the Peruvian Times.

Op-Ed: Observations on the Election Results

“The coming years will for sure compound this as the voting tsunami lines the pockets of a few, but salts the wells of families all over Peru.”

By Nicholas Asheshov

Here are some immediate technical observations on the knife-edge victory of Ollanta Humala.

  • Keiko Fujimori’s people fatally misjudged the final two or three weeks of an inordinately long campaign. The polls show well enough that if the election had been in mid-May, Keiko would have been first past the post. Keiko’s kitchen cabinet, led by Jaime Yoshiyama, a first-class minister in her fathers first administration (1990-92), were so self-confident that they refused to broaden out and form a coalition. They thought they could go it alone.As President Garcia told associates: “They’re close, much too close,” — son muy cerrados. Once Keiko had got into the second slot of a two-person contest, she should immediately have formed a governing coalition pulling together the all-over the-shop center-right, led by PPK. In the first-round campaign Keiko had said repeatedly that she would form alliances once into Round Two. She did not do so, and lost the election because of it.
  • No question but that the heavy-metal support of Mario Vargas Llosa and other big names, including Toledo, persuaded the hundreds of thousands of doubters that Ollanta Humala is, after all a decent middle-of-the-road fellow who just wants a better deal for the poor.Over the past two or three weeks the TV and leading newspapers have published accusations and prima facie evidence that Humala should be investigated for witness-tampering on his own human-rights violations, gross breaches of the electoral finance regulations, foreign financing (Venezuela) of his campaign, tax-dodging, and a handful of other breaches of the law – according to the media.Whether or not these are reasonable cases, or just last-minute electoral campaigning by the anti-Humala people, we will now never know. Whatever, these doubts, as presented in the media, made little or no difference. What seemed often like a broadside campaign against Humala had either no impact, or not enough to make a difference.
  • The polls, led by CPI, Datum, Ipsos-Apoyo, seem to have done their best. But in an electorate that includes stone-age Indians and families on the Forbes list, the polls in fact could only reflect what people were thinking and could not predict accurately beyond a few days. In the middle of last week, for instance, both Datum and Apoyo had Keiko just ahead, but by Saturday Apoyo was sending its expensive banking clients clear and accurate predictions of a clear Humala victory. But this was after the markets had closed for the week.
  • The most disconcerting part of this scrappy match continues to be the complete dis-articulation of the center-right, as represented by PPK, Toledo and Castañeda. In November PPK went privately to Toledo to try to forge a deal under which PPK and Toledo would together contest the election. Toledo would hear none of it, and that was that. Toledo, a low-achiever president, proved to be a hopeless campaigner, despite heavy financing and his once-30% imploded on voting day to 15%-odd.PPK was clearly, of all the candidates, the one most capable of running a country in the 21st century. He was unable, however, to raise the cash needed for a hard-run campaign against a well-financed field. Both Keiko and Humala had plenty of cash but PPK, known personally of course to every banker and leading businessman in the country, had to finance his effort out of his own pocket.The kind of money involved might have been $3 million, perhaps $5 million. More than a hundred times that was wiped off the value of quoted shares in five minutes on Monday, and much more in other values. The coming years will for sure compound this as, the voting tsunami lines the pockets of a few, but salts the wells of families all over Peru.

Today’s Economic backdrop:

Prices on the Lima stock market collapsed at the open Monday in response to the preliminary results of the voting on Sunday and, following down-the-limit procedures, was closed for a couple of hours.  When it reopened the indexes were down around 12%.   Peru-related shares on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE instantly reflected the negative view of the business community by sinking strongly and by midday Banco de Credito/Credicorp, BAP, shares were down 14% to 87, while the Peru Investment Fund, EPU was down 12% at 38.50.
Earlier this year BAP had been at 120 and EPU at 50, so both have lost around one-quarter of their value so far this year.
Peru stocks continued to fall in afternoon trading on the NYSE.   BAP was nearly 20% down on the day at 82.   This meant a loss to shareholders just on Monday of well over $2,000 million, two billion, dollars.

EPU, the Peruvian investment fund, at 37.50, had lost a face value of around $500mn for the day.

Total face-value looses on publicly-traded shares were in excess of $6,000 million, six billion dollars.

Published June 6, 2011 by  

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

Paul McCartney, the Maharishi and Me

Nicholas Asheshov, Editor of the Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, recalls how in the Swinging London of the 1960s Sir Paul McCartney, who plays in Lima on Monday 9, helped him to his first break. —-

I first met Paul McCartney in a Kensington drawing-room in 1967 when he was already world-famous. I was on Fleet St, a reporter trying to make my name in the man-bites-dog jungles of the world’s most ferocious newspapers, each of them great empires selling millions of copies.

Mine was the Daily Sketch, a bumptious right-wing tabloid owned by Lord Rothermere with headlines like “The Duke and Mandy -Palace Denial,” probably a story floated by the Sketch itself. This was the tough end of Fleet St and we were paid much better than the schoolmasters on The Times.

Paul had not been famous for long and I had not been on Fleet St for long. I was 26 and he was 24.

Over there by the window was, yes, Mick, 23, also becoming famous, and Marianne Faithfull, his lovely fair-haired pre-Bianca girlfriend, daughter of a European baroness and a British spy. Marianne was already, at 20, a top-of-the-pops star.

This was all a complete shock. I had gone along with a photographer to meet some obscure Hindu yogi. It was a sleepy London Sunday summer afternoon. Newspaper people call it the silly season because nothing happens.

As we went in the photographer whispered, smiling, “John. Paul. George. Ringo.” He said the names slowly, as if he were pulling rabbits out of a hat.

I was stunned. He pushed me forward.

The drawing-room had thick carpets, tall Georgian windows with heavy-draped curtains, and there was a hushed, respectful atmosphere unusual, I imagine, among super-stars.  There were other showbiz people only some of whom I recognized, though of course the photogapher knew them all.

But the main point for me was not precisely that here were these world-famous fellow-youngsters but that they had been in hiding for months and I was the only journalist in the place. No one else had bothered to come to meet some old out-of-town holy man.

I will modify that only to enhance it. I had taken along with me Jane Gaskell, who shared a desk and a phone with me on the Sketch. Jane had become famous just a few years earlier as a 16-year-old best-selling author of soft-porn cavegirls-and-dinosaurs novels. She had long blond hair, long legs and very short skirts that were a feature of the cavernous newsroom overlooking the Thames, which half a century earlier had been a shipping warehouse. Jane was soon to go on to Hollywood and New York and was part of the new Swinging London.

This was a world where England’s tough young team had just beaten Germany at Wembley for the World Cup and where Christine Keeler, 20, had seduced the British Defence minister and, next evening, the Soviet military attaché, at Lord Astor’s house. Harold MacMillan’s government had tottered. Even the French were impressed.

After two world wars, hunger, and grey socialism it was suddenly OK to be young.

Myself, I knew more about the Amazon and Africa than about London. And here, suddenly, I was in this quiet star-packed nerve centre of the universe, alone with my note-book, a crack photographer and a micro-skirted girl novelist: finger-waves and air-kisses.

I had forgotten the Hindu. I went straight up to Paul –John looked less approachable– and whispered, “Nick, Sketch. What are you doing here?” Paul whispered in his thick, pleasant Liverpul twang, “We’ve come for a meditation lesson, I think. But it looks a bit crowded, doesn’t it.” I asked Ringo, “What’s happening?” “You tell me,” Ringo replies. “It’s supposed to be this holy man from Calcutta. Ask George, he knows.”

We were drinking tea out of china cups and here was the story: The Beatles had disappeared for months. Brian Epstein, their brilliant young manager, had committed suicide, for love of John, it transpired. The Beatles had also been had up before the magistrates for marijuana, a big deal in those days. They had gone underground.

But here they were and now they were producing a guru.  Or as it turned out, it was the guru who was producing The Beatles.

According to my front-page smash scoop next day for an amazed Britain, the Hindu holy man was, Paul told the Daily Sketch and the world, “changing our lives.”

“We’re on a new track. We’re moving again.”

Forget Vietnam, Israel, the sterling crisis, Russia, the Bomb. This was real news.

My obscure Hindu was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and, once we were all seated, maybe 20 of us, in he came, a little chap in a straggly long grey beard and hair, parted down the middle, below his shoulders. We were all, starting with the Beatles, given flower rings to put around our necks.

My photographer snapped.

Flower Power was born.

The Maharishi, as I recollect, sat cross-legged lotus-like on a cushion on the floor. He was then, I learn from the internet, 54, more than twice the age of anyone else in the room. This was the moment that the Maharishi launched Transcendental Meditation, TM. This was the beginning of a worldwide empire.

Thoughtfully, the Maharishi had already registered the trademark, Transcendental Meditation. The Mahashi, as The Beatles were allowed to call him, was “really important,” Paul told me. “He’s helping us a lot.” Indeed he was: within a few months they were to produce the epoch-making White Album.

“Meditating is so easy, so simple,” the Maharishi said in a light sing-song, and using an English that was long out-of-date in England: “Even a duffer can do it. Even Ringo can do it!” We laughed obsequiously. Ringo was of course no more of a duffer, in his field, than Maynard Keynes was in his, and even richer, although when later The Beatles all went to the Maharishi’s ashram he was the first to give up on the grounds that he was fed up with vegetable curry and wanted a steak and chips. One of the steadiest drummers in the business, he has also had a movie career. I remember him as the lecherous Mexican gardener in Candy, and the blind gun-slinger hero of a spaghetti western. I saw him on the TV last year for his 70th birthday and he looked just as sharp and pleasant as in that London drawing-room four decades ago.

I had a chat with Paul, then Ringo, a word with John and George. “He’s wonderful” – “He’s changing our lives, our music” and moved on to the Maharishi: The Holy Man Who is Saving The Beatles, as the Daily Sketch told the world next day.

He explained to me pleasantly, “John, Paul, George and Ringo are the most admired young people in the world. If they take up Transcendental Meditation, TM, the whole world will follow.

“These people are hard-working, supremely talented. But they are tempted into problems, like drugs. With TM they won’t want these things.”

I got the Maharishi to pose for the photographer in the plush drawing room talking into a white telephone: this was chosen, presciently, as the front-page photo for the next day.

My story in the morning appeared as a slam-bang front-page Exclusive! The Holy Man who is changing the lives of The Beatles by Sketchman Nicholas Asheshov.

The photo of the Maharishi on the phone was splashed over most of the front page.

Inside, the whole centre spread was of the Beatles with the Maharishi, with quotes from everyone, with little photos of Marianne and Mick. Jane did a side-bar which started off with “The roses are back in The Beatles’s cheeks.”

All over Britain grannies, mums and teen-agers sighed a little tear of relief and pleasure.

The Maharishi died a couple of years ago aged 94 with two billion pounds in his bank accounts. He had fallen out with the Beatles a year or two after our get-together in Kensington and had taken up with other stars of the day and was, famously, accused of trying to rape Mia Farrow. Within a few years of our meeting he had five million followers, the first wave of tens of millions more and his TM was established worldwide as a useful and, at worst, harmlessly peaceful pursuit.

Paul McCartney, Sir Paul, was and, as many of you will see in Lima on Monday, still is one of the great musicians and creative forces of our time.

It was an unlikely genetic event that brought together these four modest boys in a grimy post-war British port town. That Lennon and McCartney should be two of the great artistic talents of our time is another marvel. Those of you who have had the forethought to acquire tickets will get your money’s worth. You will see and hear a Master. And when it comes to putting on a show, as the billions who watched the Royal Wedding the other day saw yet again, the Brits are in a league by themselves.

Myself, I shall be in Urubamba as usual, but thinking, as I am now, of how those four boys and I chatted for a while in the room where flower power was launched by another genius, the Mahashi. He had had the courage, the vision, the timing and the chutzpah to grab hold of the four boys who could launch for him a worldwide spiritual movement about which we all know and which coined him a massive fortune. When he arrived at that house in Kensington, for all I know he got there by bus. When he died he had his own fleet of planes and helicopters. A few weeks before he died he announced, a trouper to the last, that “My work is done.” In a century of flannelers, an all-time great.

And, bless him, and Paul and the Beatles, he launched me out of the back of the pack. Next day at the office, battle-honed veterans of savage Fleet St wars would pass by with their mugs of tea and mutter kindly, “Good read, Nick.” Or at the pub later, a paunched, nicotined warhorse might offer a pint and growl, “Nice one, Nick.”

I was on my way.

Published May 5, 2011 by

Business is betting that Keiko will be first past the post in a photo-finish

By Nicholas Asheshov

If the secret polls are right, and the stock market, which shot sharply up seven points on Thursday, clearly thinks they are, Keiko Fujimori will squeak past Ollanta Humala to win the run-off election on Sunday June 5 and become president as of July 28, 2011 through 2016.

As Keiko-backers see things, there was a nasty moment, polls-wise, over last week-end and at the beginning of the week when Datum’s three-point lead for Keiko, announced Sunday, slid to just a sliver and headed south.

Two or three weeks ago the tight-knit Keiko squad had been confident of a safe though perhaps not solid victory.  But reacting with a touch of panic, a word used by one of her advisors, to the week-end slouch in the polls, Keiko rallied the troops, and on Thursday morning the TV programs showed Keiko wheeling out Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Hernando de Soto, Mercedes Araoz, Maximo San Roman, Luis Castañeda and others –the solid, as they themselves see it, capable Center-Right.  Perhaps a bit of a muddled middle, but that is a characteristic of the hard-core center everywhere.

On Thursday evening PPK was the key-note speaker, apart from Keiko herself.  He had got 18+% of the votes in the first round on April 10, behind Keiko’s 23.5% and Thursday’s collection of anti-Humala worthies turned this into a pro-Keiko governing alliance.

Humala, a dangerous far-left fascist-montesinista, as Gustavo Gorriti and Alvaro Vargas Llosa among others, called him in the last election, is of course also seeking the votes of the same people of which there are surely now few.  The polls, the TV shows and the newspapers show a country passionately divided down the middle into anti-Humalas and anti-Keikos.

The one-half of the country that will vote for Keiko on Sunday see Humala as a re-run of the blundering statists of the 1970s, here and elsewhere, and their re-runs in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina today.

The Lima intellectuals, the Caviars, led noisily today by the died-in-the-wool Thatcherite Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, who treated Humala as an untouchable in 2006 and, in fact, till just a few weeks ago, today bill him as the last rampart of democracy against a reprise of the bad old ’90s when bullying kleptocrats, with Alberto Fujimori as president, cut a vicious swathe through Lima.  Keiko has become today’s untouchable.

Keiko and her people say they will be the first to steer clear of any new version of closed-door corruption.  They say that Keiko, 36, is first of all an unusually, perhaps unexpectedly capable, decisive administrator with five years as a congresswoman on her CV.   Certainly her campaign stump style has been as polished and silver-tongued as anyone’s.

Quite sharp, too: she told Humala on the TV to go and talk it over with her dad in jail if he wanted to complain about the old days.   She easily trounced the gloomily confused zoot-suited “Comandante” Humala in a last-ditch TV face-to-face on Sunday evening, and this was reflected in the poll figures used by the bankers and stock-brokers who came back to the market in mid-week.

Money talks as clearly here as elsewhere and what the market is saying is that it expects from a Fujimori government all the good things and more that it got from Alberto Fujimori 1990-95 in the way of pro-business, pro-growth legislation and non-bloated administration.

This may not have been such a many-splendored thing but it was so much better than the economic nonsense of the previous 30 years that it stands out as Peru’s first 15 minutes of flame.

Other effects are flowering a decade and more later.   Indices of poverty have come down sharply for millions of campesinos, according to studies being produced regularly by Richard Webb’s Instituto del Peru.

It was Fujimori I who introduced privatization, more sensible tax codes and up-graded public works –roads, electrification, schools.  The follow-up Toledo (2001-6) and Garcia (2006-11) administrations have bumbled through along these same lines, backed by record copper, gold, silver and other metals prices. This has come together with an international you-can’t-go-wrong easy money financial market.

This international bounty is a far cry from Fujimori 2 (1995-2001) and, of course, from Garcia I (1985-90).  And it will certainly too, be a distance from the shortening of commodity prices, the increase in inflation, the fall of the dollar that many bankers and businessmen are expecting for fasten-your-belts 2012+.

This is not the time, the Keiko people say, to be fooling around with state-run experiments that have never worked outside Northern Europe.  This is not just a question of political culture.  The Scandinavian model needs a tradition of administrators and, with it, a ton of real money.

This would not be the case with the motley crew of up-the-workers political drifters who have wandered into the Humala camp.  Been there, done that.

This is what Keiko Inc has been trying to get across these past few months without, a la peruana, actually saying so.  The code for this is:  We Must Abolish Poverty.  Keiko says, Grow out of poverty.  Humala says, Take it, Redistribute.

The juxtapositions of prominent names on both sides shimmered through the social pyramid as mobs sacked downtown Puno, including an army barracks, customs warehouses and the tax office.  “Humalists in Terror Infierno” said one headline.   It was so bad that it looked as though Puno, with 800,000 voters, would not vote on Sunday.   But things have calmed down for the moment because most of these votes are for Humala.

On a machete-edge call like Sunday’s, those votes will all count.

It has been an undistinguished campaign, these past several weeks.  Humala has focused on the inglorious past, and Keiko on a don’t-rock-the-canoe future.  There has been no talk, excepting earlier from PPK, of Peru in a world where Peruvians are young, unlike the Chinese and Europeans, nor of nano-technology, genetics and climate change, of viral pandemics and the fall-out from Moslem arcs-of-instabilit.

Neither of the candidates has made any promise to reform the judicial system root-and-branch and both have solid reasons for reticence even though all the voters understand that this is a top priority.  Humala has been financed illegally and almost openly by millions of dollars in suitcases from Col. Chavez in Caracas, and he is facing witness-tampering and torture court cases, and he has a brother doing a 25-year stretch for political murders which Ollanta himself instigated, according to electronic taps, now public.  Meanwhile Keiko has a father also doing 25 years for human rights violations, with scores of fin-de-siecle generals and ministers also behind bars.

Looking a month or three into the future one of Peru’s top business figures warns of big problems in the Congress for whoever is president, and indeed some new congressmen have already been migrating from the party for which they were elected –for instance Yehude Simon, a former PM, has switched from PPK to Humala.

But it is the overall quality of the new membership that has the business leader worried.  He says: “Compared with the incoming 2011-16) Congress, we will look back on the present (2005-2011) Congress as if it had been the classic Greek agora of Socrates and Plato.”

Published June 3, 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.


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.

CADE Innovations: Stay tuned for ‘El Nuevo Peru de Antes!’

By Nicholas Asheshov

As business leaders meet in Cusco this weekend to focus on “Innovation” at the Annual Executive Conference, CADE, from the countryside of the Urubamba valley the author proposes looking back for truly radical and practical, high-tech innovation.

Ancient Peru was one of the half-dozen centers of the technological and political innovation that ushered in today’s complex world of great, interdependent cultures.

Unlike the other centers — China, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, India, and finally the Mediterranean and Western Europe — most of Peru’s innovations, above all in social organization, were lost in the disaster of the Conquest.

Proud, sad bits and pieces of the ancient Andean and coastal cultures remain.  The potato and a half-dozen varieties of maize have been essential parts of the food chain that is feeding 7,000 million people.  China is today the world’s biggest producer of the potato, first domesticated around Lake Titicaca, and of the sweet potato, camote.

Peruvians can reflect, perhaps with mixed feelings, that it was the US$200,000,000,000, at today’s values —the figure comes from Prof. Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and The Rest, published in London earlier this year— that the conquistadors sent back to Europe between 1532 and 1780, which provided the liquidity for the creation of the global economy of the 21st century.

But the precious metals, like the guano, tomato, quinoa, cherimoya and cocaine, are secondary and are in any case not really what we mean by innovation.  The khipu, the cutting-edge strings-and-knots combination of iPad and Registros Publicos — production cost 35 cents— was lost, destroyed maliciously by the priests, the Taliban of the day.  Only 620 remain. According to Prof. Gary Urton, of Harvard, it was much more sophisticated than anything in Europe at the time but they still haven’t cracked its complex code.

Like Machu Picchu, the thousands of miles of all-weather roads, irrigation systems on the coast, tens of thousands of stone terraces and water systems in the valleys and highlands, and the networks of warehouses, these were by-products of the real value of life in Ancient Peru.  This was the lively, aggressive social and political stability that allowed the Incas and a dozen great cultures that preceded them — Chavin, Moche, Tiahuanacu, Huari — to produce societies that were in the front rank of their contemporaries worldwide.

On Lake Titicaca, in the Sacred Valley, and in 50 other valleys like the Colca and the Rimac, the stability and genius for working together of the ancient Peruvians literally remodeled one of the world’s toughest environments.  They consistently created an idealized, civilized world of good order and stability.

No one can look at the massive millimeter-fine, delicately imaginative granite blocks at Sacsayhuaman, Pisac, Rac’chi, Huanuco Viejo, Rosaspata, Sillustani and, naturally, Machu Picchu itself without understanding instantly that for two or three thousand years ancient Peruvians created a purposeful permanence.

The same applies, with obvious local variations, to the great adobe pyramids on the coast.  Perhaps in the same way that today’s costeños are more outgoing than the peoples of the highlands, the costeños produced the flamboyant artistry of the gold- and silver-working of Sipan.

These were productive, often competitive societies whose vision was not just day-to-day or year-to-year, but in some clear way, eternal.  You and your children do not spend a lifetime producing a granite masterpiece just to fill in the time between meals.

Peruvian schoolchildren are not taught about the power and range of their ancestors.

The Incas — schoolchildren in Urubamba, Huancane, Bambamarca and Ayabaca are taught today — were ‘indigenas’.   There is a puzzling political agenda here.  The teachers do not know, do not seem to want to know, about Peru’s long distinguished past.

So my proposal for a first innovation that Peru today might want to consider is to produce DVD and computer programs that will be in every school in the land, every classroom in the country, which will tell the real story of the pre-Conquista past.  They will learn, for instance, of the complex, innovative technology that went into the layered construction of the terraces and hydrological systems they see around them.  They will learn about the networks of warehouses and storage facilities.  When the Spaniards arrived, they found that there was two or three years of food and clothing stored everywhere.

The project includes the creation of computer games called “Build An Andean Empire” and “Run Your Own Coastal Civilization” and, of course, war games like “Incas vs Spaniards.”

Secondary-level kids will move on to “How to Run a Municipality/Region/Country.”

And so on.

The interactive computer programs and movies, modeled perhaps on the science and history programs produced for the NGS, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the BBC, will be financed and distributed by the banks and commercial and industrial companies, all of them members of CADE, which will also be in charge of distributing them.  Teachers, including members of SUTEP, will be instructed on teaching the children how to switch them on and off.

Within a few years young Peruvian voters will have a new vision of their country and its possibilities.  Unlike most other countries, including some of the neighbors, they have a history, not to mention a geography, which they can see and touch, second to none. Population: from 1mn to 3mn to 30mn — and now on to 40mn

It is hard to blame today’s governments for not telling the young about the first-class public administrations of Peru half a millennium ago.

The most crushing blow of the Conquest was in the loss of people.  Between smallpox and piratical savagery, nine out of every 10 Peruvians died between 1530 and 1601 when a census registered only one million people, most of them in the highlands.  The coastal peoples had been exterminated.

These population losses were calculated by Noble David Cook in Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru 1520-1620 and Born to Die; Disease and New World Conquest published by the Cambridge University Press.

Peru’s population was to rise painfully slowly to three million by 1911.  All the Peruvians of a century ago would all fit easily into Lima’s Cono Norte today.   As everyone knows, today Peru’s population is 30mn, 10 times greater, in less than four generations.

Inca Peru had 10 million inhabitants, according to Prof. Cook’s best guess.   All of them lived out in what is today the countryside.  Cuzco had perhaps 40,000 inhabitants, less than Huacho today.

The next innovation will be to prepare for a Peru that within another generation will have 40 million people.  Peruvians will be much younger in a decade or two than the Chinese and other Asian tigers and, of course, the already-geriatric Europeans.

The local politicians in Cajamarca, Puno and elsewhere today who are protesting against gold and copper mines are being unusually far-sighted.   They are trying to keep the gold, silver and copper out of the hands both of international bankers and of Lima bureaucrats.  “Water for us, not gold for them,” they shout, and of course we all agree.   The government should instead borrow from the bankers and, noblesse oblige, repay them in worthless paper in 2041 et seq.

A decade or two from now the minerals will be worth ten times their present value and a generation of history-savvy, computer-literate Peruvians will be able to take full advantage of their elders’ foresight.


This article was published in Caretas magazine the week of November 28, 2011 in Spanish.

Santurantikuy and Christmas in Cuzco

Just before Christmas many years ago I had crossed by canoe from Peru into Brazil along little rivers to the north of Puerto Maldonado and had got to Abuna, a pueblo on the Rio Madeira.

On the riverfront there were half a dozen enormous river turtles lying on their backs, their feet flapping helplessly, their mouths gasping slowly. They had been caught and thrown there by locals and would remain alive for days more, waiting to become Christmas dinner.

In the middle of the hot grassy plaza a rail was stuck vertically into the ground to which a man, dirty but friendly, was shackled. He was a murderer, I was told. Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blared out in Portugese on the town public radio.

I had left Cusco by truck to Maldonado via Quincemil. In those days Cusco was so quiet that you could park your horse on the grass around Huanchaq railway station which today has traffic lights, high-rise hotels and shopping malls around it.

What remains of those days are the fiestas and saints’-day processions and one of the most powerful is the Santurantikuy, the great Christmas Eve fair. Santurantikuy, ‘Buy yourself a Saint’, packs the great Plaza de Armas with hundreds upon hundreds of stalls selling everything.

We go every year and pretty sharp in the morning because by the afternoon it is usually raining and by the evening it’s wall-to-wall packed, a major party. The earliest bird of all is Jose Ignacio Lambarri-Orihuela, the hacendado and antiquary.

“I’m there every year sharp at nine. You often get families from the campo bringing in old carved stones and ceramics. Lovely stuff. But by 10 they’re gone.”

Now you know why.

The stalls sell decorations like colonial-style wooden and pewter candlesticks, and candles, some of them really super, with ornate designs in thick wax and masses of colour and light. Some are of genuine beeswax and I have to be forcibly restrained from buying them all.

They will also, of course, sell you made-in-Thailand Christmas tree lights as well. But the overall impression from the Santurantikuy is of local stuff. The toys include big wooden lorries made here, accurately reflecting the dilapidated, tough, overloaded sierra trucks that grind forever along the cliff-hanging Andean roads.

Last year, a sign of the times, one of the stalls selling fake dollar and soles notes had added Euros. You buy a packet of this laser-printed currency ready to put on the altar of your favourite saint to remind him or her that you need some of the real stuff. This has to be blessed by the priest, along with toy apartments, houses, trucks and, these days, narco-style 4×4 jeeps.

There are all kinds of miniature pots and pans, kitchen stoves, plates and cups, and then earthenware animals of all domestic kinds, often selling for 10 or 20 centimos. These are to populate your Natividad, your crèche which with candles and incense will be the centerpiece of the family Christmas.

There are different kinds of musical instrument, of course, from guitars and mandolin-charrangos to all the pan pipes and flutes that many kids in the countryside know how to play. Last year I was sorely tempted by a locally-made fiddle, and by a saxophone made from the plastic piping you buy at the ironmonger’s. I saw an Andean harp, with its thick wooden sound-box, but the owner was playing it, not selling it. The Andean harp makes a pleasant, full-blooded sound, with the peculiarity that it doesn’t have semi-tone strings.

This is the place to buy Baby Jesus dolls. Also, plaster saints, quite elaborately figged out in their Christmas best.

Many Cuzco families have had their Baby Jesus and saints for generations. Next morning, on Christmas Day, women of all sorts and conditions take their Baby Jesus, new or old, along to church to have them blessed.

Here in Urubamba on Christmas Day at the church of Nuestro Señor de Torreychayoc the morning mass features a sell-out crowd led by the women and children and their hundreds of Baby Jesuses blessed in Quechua by the priest.

As the mass drones to an end, on come the dancers. It’s like a thunder-bolt, a shock of lighning within the church. Three or four elaborately-dressed masked groups backed by powerful drums and flutes advance and retreat, never turning their backs on the altar and its new-born Christ.

The dancers and musicians will go off to jolly lunches of maize beer and a parillada and they make even me feel that I’ve done something to earn my turkey and Christmas pudding.