How Did They Know That?

The Inca Ruins at Something Something Picchu

I was surprised to find out that, according to a professor of anthropology, Machu Picchu should be called Huayna Picchu instead. The reason I was surprised is that the Incas never had a written language like the Maya and the Aztecs. They were great engineers and stonemasons, but left no writings or even hieroglyphs. The only “communication” of any sorts we have from the Incas are in the form of quipu, knotted cords that were used to quantify taxes or inventories.

Quipu at the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru

You can read the story here at CNN Travel. It doesn’t much matter what the “official” name of the Inca ruins was. After all, most Meso-American ruins are probably misnamed. Either the Conquistadores or the archeologists just assigned a name for convenience. And, for good or ill, it stuck.

Don’t Let Machu Beat You!

At the Ruins of Machu Picchu

At the Ruins of Machu Picchu

Yes, the ruins at Machu Picchu are probably the premier tourist attraction in all of South America, followed by Iguazu Falls between Argentina and Brazil.

There were only two problems with my visit there on September 25:

  1. It was raining
  2. I could only see apart of the ruins because I was terrible of the irregular stone steps (without guard rails) that connected the different levels, of which there were many. Also, because of the rain, they were slippery.

See the picture below for a view of some of the steps.

Irregular Stone Steps at Machu Picchu

Irregular Stone Steps at Machu Picchu

I could see myself taking a step the wrong way and tumbling down a couple thousand feet into the Valley of the Urubamba. So excuse me if I was petrified for much of the three hours I spent at the ruins.

In a way, I anticipated the possibility that Machu Picchu was not going to be the be-all and end-all of my trip: There was so much else going on, not only with regard to the ancient Incas, but to the numerous indigenous cultures (Quechua, Aymara, and Collagua, among others) and the spectacular churches—about which more anon. I made the reservation for the ruins in June, not knowing what the weather would be like.

Did I like Machu Picchu? For sure! It was in a phenomenal setting, with spectacular views along two ranges of the Andes. Was it the highlight of my vacation? By no means. In the weeks to come, you will understand why.



Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas

Yes, There Were Great Civilizations Before the Incas—Witness This Moche Pot

We tend to think that the only advanced Pre-Columbian Civilizations were the latest. For Mexico and Central America, that would mean the Aztecs and Mayas; for Peru, the Incas.

As one who has traveled to Mexico many times to see archaeological sites, I can vouch for the fact that, long before the Aztecs left their mythical homeland of Aztlán, there were other civilizations in Mexico that they replaced, but which they did not necessarily improve upon. The peoples who built Teotihuacan north of Mexico City did it around a hundred years before the Christian era. Then there were the Toltecs, the Totonacs, the Olmecs, and the Huastecs. I have seen remains from these and other Meso-American civilizations over a thirty-year period.

The Mayans are slightly different: They were less a centralized political entity than a people who have been around for thousands of years and lived through both empires and more localized city states and leagues of city states. The last Mayans were conquered by the Spanish at Tayasal in 1697, representing a much thornier military target for the conquistadores than the Aztecs.

The Moche Civilization of Peru

The Moche Civilization of Peru (100-800 AD)

Like the Aztecs, the Incas were fairly late on the scene, first coming to notice around 1438 and being conquered (but not decisively) by Francisco Pizarro a hundred years later. In many ways they were not as advanced as the Aztecs and Mayans inasmuch as they did not have writing—though they appear to have been able to use a writing system of colored knotted cords called quipus for inventories and other business purposes. (In this regard, they were like the ancient Greeks who used Linear A in a similiar way.)

What the Incas had going for them were primarily two things:

  1. They built a great paved road system covering some 25,000 miles. (But since these roads included steps at times, they could be navigated by sure-footed llamas, but not by the Spaniards’ horses).
  2. They were great builders who, in a major earthquake zone, erected structures that are still standing.

Prior to the Incas, there were numerous Peruvian civilizations who bettered the Incas in many respects. The Moches or Mochica of the north were just one example: Their pottery is far more artistic (see above photo) than anything the Inca were able to create. Then, there were the Wari, the Nazca, the Chavin, Tiwanaku, Chincha, Chanka, and Chimu.

My upcoming trip to Peru will include some visits to non-Inca ruins, such as Huaca Pucllana of the indigenous Lima culture and Pachacamac of the Ichma people. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve never been to Peru before—and I don’t know whether I can go again—I will concentrate mostly on the Inca sites of the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu.


“Mother of Stone and Sperm of Condors”

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has, in his The Heights of Macchu Picchu, written with exquisite feeling about those Inca forebears who gave all South Americans a metaphor that unites the disparate strains of their pasts. The following is the sixth poem in the sequence:

Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you Macchu Picchu.

Tall city of stepped stone,
home at long last of whatever earth
had never hidden in her sleeping clothes.
In you two lineages had run parallel
met where the cradle both of man and light
rocked in a wind of thorns.

Mother of stone and sperm of condors.

High reef of the human dawn.

Spade buried in primordial sand.

This was the habitation, this is the site:
here the fat grains of maize grew high
to fall again like red hail.

The fleece of the vicuña was carded here
to clothe men’s loves in gold, their tombs and mothers,
the king, the prayers, the warriors.

Up here men’s feet found rest at night
near eagles’ talons in the high
meat-stuffed eyries. And in the dawn
with thunder steps they trod the thinning mists,
touching the earth and stones that they might recognize
that touch come night, come death.

Neruda’s Macchu Picchu

Neruda’s Macchu Picchu

I gaze at clothes and hands,
traces of water in the booming cistern,
a wall burnished by the touch of a face
that witnessed with my eyes the earth’s carpet of tapers,
oiled with my hands the vanished wood:
for everything, apparel, skin, pots, words,
wine, loaves, has disappeared,
fallen to earth.

And the air came in with lemon blossom fingers
to touch those sleeping faces:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
blue wind and iron cordilleras—
these came with gentle footstep hurricanes
cleansing the lonely precinct of the stone.

For some reason, Neruda always spelled the ruins “Macchu Picchu” rather than “Machu Picchu,” as it is called today. That’s okay. He’s a poet and can call the place whatever he wants. For all intents and purposes, it’s his creation.


Indiana Jones in the Flesh

Hiram Bingham III and Indiana Jones

Hiram Bingham III and Indiana Jones

Yes, Virginia, there was a real Indiana Jones. He was the son of a Protestant missionary in Hawaii, who was in turn the son of a Protestant missionary in Hawaii. In fact, if you’ve read James Michener’s Hawaii, his grandpappy was Abner Hale. Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956) had too much of the spirit of wanderlust to be tied down to a clerical life. He was an explorer, aviator, and eventually Governor of Connecticut and U.S. Senator from Connecticut during his long and active life.

He came to my attention as the self-proclaimed discoverer of the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, which I hope to visit later this year. He came upon the ruins in 1911, thinking he was the first—even though they appeared on an 1874 map. No matter. Even if he was wrong, Bingham did a great job publicizing the ruins using his association with Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Among other things, he wrote an excellent book entitled Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and Its Builders in 1948. (He also wrote several other books, including Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru and The Ruins of Choqquequirau, among others.)

If he weren’t such a good writer, I might not have forgiven Bingham for being so wrong. Not only was he the first white man at Machu Picchu: He thought he had discovered Old Vilcabamba, the last hideout of the Incas as they fled the Conquistadores. In reality, the last four Inca rulers were based in the jungle at a place called Espiritu Pampa. Curiously, Bingham had been there (see photo below), but thought the place was far too tropical for his beloved Incas.

Bingham (Upper Right) and Peruvian Assistant at Espiritu Pampa (1911)

Bingham (Upper Right) and Peruvian Assistant at Espiritu Pampa (1911)

It is almost pathetic to read Bingham’s forcing the issue regarding his misidentification. He practically ordered furnishings for the rooms from Macy’s to prove his point:

One day we located the burial place of the High Priestess or Mama-cuna, the Lady Superior of the convent, the person chiefly responsible for the training of the Chosen Women. It was a very sightly location on a rock-sheltered terrace on the slopes of Machu Picchu Mountain, about a thousand feet above the highest part of the ruins. The terrace was about forty feet long above some agricultural terraces and connected with the highest by two flights of stairs. It was almost completely overhung by an immense bowlder which looked like a peaked crag of the grey granite mountain. The flat-faced projecting portion of the bowlder was at least fifty feet high. The terrace was constructed largely of rock and gravel. Sheltered from the fierce noonday heat of the sun, it offered an ideal resting place for the Mother Superior.

Yes, but what kind of tea did she drink?

I might be a little hard on the guy, with all his palaver about Chosen Women and Virgins of the Sun. Remember, the Incas had no writing, so Bingham filled his discovery from his own imagination. Mother Superior my Aunt Fanny!