Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Desert Kingdoms of Ancient Peru

                                                        by Jim Goodman

terraced pyramid at Caral, oldest city in the Americas
       The Andes Mountains that run the length of Peru make a clear geographical division of the country between Peru’s portion of the Amazon basin and the arid western coastal strip, containing the biggest cities and most of the population.  About forty rivers tumble down from the mountains to reach the coast, creating green valleys that can support human habitation.  In between these valleys scarcely a plant can grow.  It’s all dry desert—sand dunes and smooth brown hills.  It reminds you of the Sahara or the middle of Saudi Arabia.  You half expect to spot a camel caravan along the way. 
       These rivers provide almost all the water that ever gets to this arid part of the country.   A little rain may fall in the far north, but not much elsewhere.  The southern coast gets the least, 4 mm per year around Nazca, for example, because of the effects of the Humboldt Current.   This brings cold water from the Antarctic up the coast this far, cooling the surface and limiting the amount of moisture reaching the clouds. 
       The earliest settlements in Peru were around these river valleys, preferably close to the sea, which was also a major food source.  Agriculture was possible wherever they could divert water to their farms.  The community’s growth required organizing the creation of irrigation systems, which could create surpluses, enabling the development of a society and culture.
'eyes' of a puquio near Nazca
       As these societies grew they opened up and irrigated new lands with canals and ditches in the north and center of the coast and in the south by underground aqueducts.  Called puquios, these conducted water from the hills to the dry plains, with periodic placement of openings (‘eyes’) for farmers to check the flow and remove debris and obstacles.  Around Nazca, ancient puquios are still in use.
       Societies also established states with non-farmer classes that lived off the surplus of the farmers—rulers, priests, soldiers and artisans.  States grew more sophisticated, expanded their territory and everything seemed to be going fine forever when suddenly the peculiar weather phenomenon known as El Niño came along and destroyed it all. 
       El Niño is a periodic temperature alteration in the movement of Pacific Ocean waters that causes warm air to rise off the coast of Peru, triggering heavy rains in the deserts, and inhibits the upwelling of cold waters in the sea.  These are the waters with the nutrients that feed the fish population, which then declines considerably.  With fewer fish the seabird population also goes down, as does their production of guano, the droppings left on offshore islands that has long been coastal farmers’ favorite fertilizer.  It is rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, all good for plant growth.
       El Niño can be relatively mild and short-lived.  But it can also be occasionally very disturbing, with years of heavy rain, which demolishes the irrigation system, followed by years of severe drought, which stifles any chance of recovery.  El Niño-related weather disruptions struck Moche society in the 6th century at its peak of development.  It recovered, but in a much attenuated form.  Decades of drought in the early 11th century forced the Sicán society to abandon its homeland and relocate to Túcume.  Moreover, the coast lies on a major seismic fault line.  Earthquakes, which can destroy irrigation works and alter the courses of rivers, can be as devastating as weird weather.
sunken circular courtyard at Caral
       Fortunately, earthquakes and spells of violent weather have never been so frequent as to prevent the establishment and growth of ancient Peruvian states and their cultures.  Many of these societies lasted several centuries.  Moreover, the first one sophisticated enough to have a city began around 3500 BCE, contemporaneous with pyramid-building Egypt.  Known as the Norte-Chico Culture, it is the oldest in the Americas and one of the six places in the world where civilization originated independently.
       When a people abandon their homeland and leave their buildings behind, eventually fierce winds blow desert soil all over them, turning then into what looks like ordinary hills and mounds.  Many centuries may pass before anyone discovers that a certain barren hill actually contains the remains of ancient buildings under its surface.  This is what happened to the Norte-Chico culture when the people disappeared from their Supe Valley habitat around 1800 BCE.  Sandstorms covered up all vestiges of their civilization and concealed their past existence until excited Peruvian archaeologists began excavating the sites in the late 1990s.   
       The Supe Valley is about 175 km north of Lima and 15 km inland.   The 19 settlements found there are estimated to have had altogether 20,000 inhabitants.  The largest was Serro Caral, the first city in the hemisphere, where 3000 lived.  Some of the features of Caral—tiered pyramids, regular staircases, placement of buildings, sunken circular courtyards and broad streets—turned out to be prototypes for the cities built by the desert kingdoms of later centuries.
warrior with severed heads, Sechín
Moche warrior
       Caral’s heyday was still the pre-ceramic age, but archaeologists did find flutes and other instruments made from deer and pelican bones.  They also found an early type of quipu, the knotted cords used, in the absence of a writing system, to record accounts all the way down to Inca times.  Besides food crops the Norte-Chico people grew cotton, using it for textiles and making fishnets.
       What the excavators did not find was anything resembling a weapon, any fortifications or any sign of war.   This particular cultural characteristic, however, was not one maintained by the states that rose after Caral’s demise.  The next oldest archaeological site of significance, dating 1000-1600 BCE, is Sechín, another 200 k, or so north, near Casma.  Lying beside a broad valley, the main feature of this culture’s legacy is the violent scenes of war etched into the remains of its city walls.  Sculptures of fierce, club-wielding warriors, severed heads and limbs fill the facades, to the exclusion, save for a rare snake or feline, of every other type of imagery. 
detail of a Paracas textile
        Whom these warriors fought and what caused the Sechín state to vanish remain unsolved mysteries in the gaps that punctuate the history of the coast.  Perhaps another wind-swept, barren desert hill somewhere hides the remains of another undiscovered ancient culture.  The next significant cultural development was the rise of the Chavín people around 900 BCE.  But their capital was west of Casma in the highlands and though their culture survived until 200 CE, their control and influence over the coastal areas was minimal.
       In the south near Ica, a century later marks the beginning of the Paracas culture. Their main legacy is the textiles used to wrap mummies in their necropolis.  Using simple looms and cotton or alpaca wool thread, Paracas weavers created extraordinary pieces of intricate patterns and fanciful, very pictorial designs, unmatched by successive cultures, with a broad range of still vibrant colors.  Paracas culture also produced fine ceramic bowls and pitchers and lasted until around 100 CE, when it became absorbed by the emerging Nazca culture a little further south.
temple foundations at Pachacámac
       Ceramic and textile production were now an embedded part of cultures on the Peruvian coast.  Except for Paracas, where the burial shrouds had been preserved by their internment and the arid climate, only scattered examples of the ancient weaving tradition have survived.  The record is much richer for ceramics, from pieces excavators found in burial sites in the original condition, intact, no cracks and unbroken.  In contrast, ancient Chinese vases, Greek pots and Roman bowls were discovered as piles of shards that had to be reassembled like jigsaw puzzles before display.
       Each culture used its own kind of materials, molding techniques (no one used a potter’s wheel) and drying or baking methods, plus particular shapes, colors and motifs.  Whether for ceremonial or everyday domestic use, the themes ranged incredibly—natural subjects like plants, fish and animals, both real and mythical, warriors, peasants and vignettes of daily life like farming, weaving, playing music, boating, pounding grain and sexual intercourse.  Sometimes they painted these themes on the surfaces.  Other tines they molded the pieces to depict the subject.
spouts of a Huari water pitcher
        The final result could be a cup, bowl, vase, pitcher with one or more spouts, or a piece without any function other than as a decorative work of art.   They could appear rather crude, even if imaginative, or could reach an amazing level of verisimilitude, as in the Moche portrait ceramics, that look like so exact a depiction of a real person you can imagine the subject striking a pose in the courtyard of the artisan until the work was completed. 
       The Moche were also skilled goldsmiths.  They produced ornaments for the aristocracy and the golden masks, ritual paraphernalia, ceremonial weapons and so forth brandished by the Lord in his public appearances.   In 1987, in another of those fortunate cultural discoveries, archaeologists unearthed a huge trove of gold artifacts and royal paraphernalia in a scarcely disturbed burial pit at Sipán, just east of Chiclayo.  The find, dated around 300 CE, is comparable to that of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt.  The treasure was removed, replaced by replicas visible today, and installed in a special museum in Lamabayeque, near Chiclayo, opened in 2002 and now the most heavily visited museum in the whole country.
relics of the Sicán capital at Túcume
       Moche culture collapsed by 800 and in the Lambayeque region Sicán culture replaced it, for a long time centered at Túcume   The Huari culture took over other parts of Moche territory, extended their sway into the highlands just south of Cusco and around 600 established a city 40 km south of Lima called Pachacámac.  Two centuries later the Huari people abandoned the site, which afterwards became the ceremonial center of yet another desert culture, the Ichma society, an Aymari-speaking people who added sixteen pyramid temples to the city and maintained independence until the Incas conquered them in the mid-15th century. 
Chancay ceramics
Sicán ceramics
       What remained of Huari culture in the north became subsumed in the Chimú takeover of the area from 900.   From its large, walled capital at Chan Chan, near Trujillo, the Chimú ruled over the northern coast of Peru as far down as Chancay, 80 km north of Lima, where yet another post-Huari culture established itself.  Chancay artisans achieved fame for their mass production of quality ceramics, textiles, metal ware and wooden carvings.  Like the Chimú, their state became part of the expanding Inca Empire in the 1420s.
Nazca Lines--the dog
       All of these cultures established cities with similar terraced pyramid temples, palaces with ramped walkways and broad streets in rectilinear grids.  They used similar techniques for farming, fishing and waging war and similar methods of venerating their gods and their kings.  But in works of art, in the jewelry, ceramics, weavings and ritual paraphernalia they were distinctly different.  Each culture had its own creative style and execution that distinguished it from all others.   Many examples of their artistic achievements are now housed in the country’s museums, displaying the enormous variety and ingenuity of different ancient peoples.  An afternoon browsing the artifacts collected in a well-stocked museum (and there are several) is one of the great aesthetic adventures of a trip to Peru.
       One artistic achievement, though, cannot be lodged in a museum—the Nazca Lines.  Consisting of enormous pictures of various animals and ritual pathways etched into the ground, they can only be viewed in their entirety by taking an airplane flight north of Nazca over the plains where they lie.  Actually, they lay undiscovered for over a thousand years until the pilots spotted them on the first-ever airplane flight out of Nazca in the 1920s.
Nazca Lines--the hummingbird
       To make the lines for both the figures and the pathways people extended a rope between two posts and removed the top layer of red-brown soil along the line to expose the lighter, almost white soil underneath.  Then they moved the posts to the next section, curving where necessary, until eventually the picture was completed.  The figures, many meters long and wide, sometimes depict familiar animals—dog, snake, parrot, monkey, spider, condor, hummingbird—and sometimes more enigmatic images, like a face with a pair of hands or the one that resembles a human waving to the sky.
       Apparently this kind of art, only visible from high above, was meant to please the gods, perhaps to encourage them to deliver rain.  But the precise intention of the works, the significance or symbolism of the selected animals and other figures, remain matters for speculation.  Nazca culture collapsed around 900 and the area was all but abandoned.  Since Nazca culture had no writing system we have no records concerning this unique phenomenon.  Like the centuries of gaps in the archaeological record of the coastal kingdoms and the precise reasons for the birth and disappearance of some of the ancient societies, the Nazca Lines, the most unusual form of artistic expression in the hemisphere, will remain mysterious until some future accidental archaeological discovery, a la Sipán or Caral, spills the secrets.  Until then we simply marvel at what only gods were supposed to see.
sunset over the desert near Nazca
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