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.