Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Imagining Life in Pre-Conquest Peru

                                                        by Jim Goodman

modern painter's rendition of Inca life
       The Spanish conquest of Peru was not only a land-and-treasure-grab.  It also involved the deliberate destruction, as far as possible, of an entire civilization.  Not content with looting the palaces and temples, the conquistadores also destroyed them and replaced them with churches and mansions in the Spanish style.  They were here to stay and they didn’t want to live in a place so alien and pagan-looking.  Here and there they might build on the original Inca foundation, for example, but in general the new colonial cities had to look European. 
       The primary means of transforming the native way of life was the imposition of Christianity.  One can hardly blame the natives for accepting it.  Their own gods failed to prevent the disaster of the Conquest, so the invaders’ gods were obviously stronger.  And there was that concept of Heaven, a reward in the after-life for putting up with exploitation on Earth without rebelling against it.
the Lord of Sipan's tomb
       But besides a new religion the Spanish also introduced new animals, like cattle, pigs and chickens, contributing to changes eradicating the old ways.  This process has continued down to modern times, so that it is not easy to imagine what life was like before the Spanish came.  Other civilized states existed before the Inca Empire, but these had been abandoned already and what remained in extant pyramids, palaces and temples suffered the same wanton looting and destruction as the Inca cities. 
       Centuries later, when archaeologists began to excavate, collect and preserve the relics of the past, there weren’t a whole lot left.  Fortunately, a number of gold artifacts remained, enough to show us the skill of ancient artisans.  Grave robbers, both Spanish and native, made off with most.  But one particular site, the tomb of an ancient Moche king, escaped pilferage.  Discovered in the late 20th century, inland from Chiclayo n northern Peru, this was an intact tomb of the Lord of Sipan, dating to the early 3rd century.   
the Lord of Sipan's procession
       This is generally considered the South American equivalent of the tomb of Tutankhahmen in Egypt.  The Lord of Sipan was buried with several others, in the primitive belief these would serve him in the afterlife.  He was also splendidly dressed for his internment, but today all that has been removed to a museum in Lambayeque, near Chiclayo.  What remains is a recreation of the burial site, which is near the sand-encrusted mound that covers the original palace,
       All the original artifacts, jewelry, vestments and ornaments of the tomb of the Lord of Sipan are now displayed in the museum in Lambayeqeu.  The most visited museum in the country, for Peruvians, it’s the only one where photography is not permitted.  It’s easy to see why.  In this narcissistic age, progress through the museum would be much impeded by people taking selfies of themselves beside the recreated court of the Lord of Sipan, among other places.
Moche gold necklace
       The amount of excavated items exhibited in this museum, all from a single site, reveal much about the life of the ancient Peruvian elite.  The Lord of Sipan wore a large, crescent-shaped crown, made from a single sheet of gold.  He also wore other gold ornaments and carried a gold-topped scepter.  Scholars believe that when the Lord appeared in public he faced the sun so that its rays flashed against his gold crown and ornaments, dazzling the eyes of his subjects.
       High-ranking nobles and warrior chiefs also wore gold ornaments, on the head or through the nose.  The priests also had gold necklaces of the heads of the gods, which they either wore or dangled from staffs during ceremonies.  Restorers have removed the corrosion of so many centuries, polished them up and now they look like when they were first made.  All of these items, along with weapons, ritual paraphernalia, beaded necklaces and so on, along with the paintings and models of the Lord of Sipan’s times, give the visitor a fairly complete picture of ancient Moche royalty.
Moche warrior
       One of the most obvious traits of this society was the projection of power.  Great public ceremonies achieved this domestically.  Normally hidden behind his palace walls, on this occasion the Lord of Sipan dressed in his most magnificent raiment, rode in a litter borne through the streets to the ritual site, surrounded by warriors and priests.  In full view of his subjects, assembled for the event, the Lord witnessed his priests conduct rites designed to channel more spiritual power to the state, personified by its Lord, as well as keep the people in awe of their ruler.
       The other way to project power was by waging war against neighbors.  Warfare seems to have been an important part of just about every pre-Conquest civilization.  At Sechin, an excavated ruined city that flourished about 1500 BCE, the most outstanding features are the walls with engraved portraits of ferocious armed warriors and the severed heads and limbs of their battles.  In the interiors of the Moche pyramids near Trujillo, the Temple of the Sun and Moon, built around two thousand years later, warriors on one wall duel in pairs and on other walls march off to combat with maces and javelins.
dueling Moche warriors
       Ancient Peruvian armies had archers with bows to fire arrows at the opposing ranks, but most of the battle action was hand-to-hand with clubs, maces, battle-axes and slings.  Warriors painted their faces and maybe wore animal skins to look fierce, but not much body armor, if any.  Judging from extant sculptures and depictions of warriors on ceramics, weaponry didn’t develop over the centuries until the Spanish began fighting the natives with a new kind of warrior—one mounted on a horse.
       To deal with this phenomenon the Incas invented the bolas, a device consisting of three stones tied to connected lengths of llama tendons.  They hurled these twirling missiles at the horses’ legs, which entangled them and brought them down to the ground, toppling their riders as well.  Then they would throw a bolas around the fallen soldier, all but immobilizing him.  His rescuers would find the tough llama tendons difficult to sever, even with their European-made, top-of-the-line swords and daggers, especially while fighting off the attackers.
guano islands
       Pre-colonial Peruvian states were highly stratified and evolved no sense of the popular will, only the will of the ruler.  In these centrally organized societies the people owed their rulers service of one kind or another:  producing food, working as craftsmen, construction workers or serving as soldiers.  While some people in the upper classes were generals or career officers, other than a contingent of palace guards the states probably had no standing armies.  They simply assembled one from the ranks of the commoners, trained them and sent them off to war.
contemporary flautist
ancient flautist
       Defense of the state, as well as its expansion, was an inherent duty of the ruling class.  But it also had the responsibility of the welfare of its subjects.  The Incas, for example, kept numerous storehouses stocked with food, clothing, weapons, blankets, household goods and just about everything produced in the realm.  The state would distribute these items whenever necessary.  (When the conquistadores organized the systematic looting of Cusco, they themselves went after the gold and other valuables in the palaces and temples and left the storehouses to their Indian auxiliaries.)
carrying on a litter
       In general, warfare was periodic, not an annual event.  The basic economy of these states was agriculture, supplemented in the coastal states by fishing.  In the arid deserts of coastal Peru, this was only possible in the thin strip of land along the rivers that flowed from the Andes to the sea.  States organized labor forces to build irrigation systems that extended the cultivable lands.  Peru had no draft animals then, so men used foot-plows, which were long poles with hardened points and handles, to lift up the soil, while the crouched women beside them broke up the clods and planted the seeds.
       The fertilizer for these fields was guano, the excrement of sea birds like the Guanay cormorant, booty and pelican.  The main source, for over 1500 years, was guano-encrusted islands just off the coast of central Peru.  With its high uric acid content, it was rich in nitrogen, potash and phosphoric acid.  It was effective in both the coastal plains and the mountains.  The Incas also organized its extraction and distribution and enforced edicts against killing or capturing the birds that produced it.
pounding grain
       Agriculture in the highlands differed from that in the coastal plains because not so much relatively level land was available.  So the people also constructed great, stonewalled terraces that climbed up the steep sides of the mountains flanking the valleys.  These are among the popular tourist attractions at places like Machu Picchu, Pisac and Ollantaytambo.  Farmers grew potatoes, maize, quinoa and coca in them.  Due to population transfers and the effects of repeated earthquakes, they are no longer in use, but stand as testimonials to pre-colonial Peruvian engineering skills.
       The land was owned and worked collectively, so at planting and harvest time the terraces were filled with villagers.  It was not all grueling work, though, for Spanish chroniclers observed that the natives took many breaks, drank chicha (maize beer), amused themselves with music and dance and then carried on with the task.  Judging from the ceramic sculptures preserved in Peru’s museums, flutes and drums were the main musical instruments employed.  But the Peruvian Pan pipes are also very ancient, as witnessed by the Moche ceramic of a figure playing the same instrument tourists hear today in fancy restaurants, listening to their umpteenth rendition of the old Simon and Garfunkel hit “El Condor Pasa.”
Peruvian Pan pipes
       Pre-Conquest ceramics preserved in Peru’s many museums provide much insight into how people lived back then.  Unlike ceramics from ancient Europe or China, that have to be painstakingly re-assembled from shards, those from ancient Peru were made for funerals and interred with the corpses.  Thus, excavators found them intact.  Intended for use in the afterlife, as vases, cups, bowls, pitchers and so on, they depict all the aspects of everyday life
     There are all the animals of their environment:  llamas, pumas, lizards, snakes, fish, frogs, monkeys and jaguars.  Others portray warriors, diseased people, gods, fishermen and very realistic commoners.  There are vignettes of everyday chores like pounding grain, toting water jugs, giving birth, carrying someone on a litter, catching fish, confronting a wild animal and making love.        
       Many of these vignettes in ceramic are still part of rural life in Peru, especially the poorer, less developed areas.  The ancient textiles in museum exhibits were woven on simple backs-trap looms, still in use today in the highlands.  Andean women don’t weave all the cloth for their clothing, for it is so much easier to buy it in the market, but use narrower looms for belts and scarves.
weaving with an ancient type of loom
field shrine, Taquile Island,LakeTiticaca
       When the conquistadores finally consolidated their rule in Peru they pursued an aggressive assimilation policy.  The Indians not only had to convert to Christianity, they had to relocate from their “squalid” villages to new towns.  Spanish bishops alleged that the dark, circular, thatched huts with no interior walls were conducive to incest.  The relocated Indians were to live in square buildings with separate rooms and tiled roofs.  Round stone buildings with thatched roofs still exist in Andean villages, but these are used for storage rather than residence.
bulls on the roof to bring prosperity and fertility
       As for religion, over four and a half centuries of Christianity has not wiped out every indigenous belief.  It’s hard to totally eradicate a farmer’s ingrained, ancient inclination to honor the spirit of the land he tills.  So here and there one finds modest field shrines, though these are not used for rituals or sacrifices anymore. 
       Other customs survived the Conquest through adaptation.  The roofs of Andean village houses feature ceramic statures of a pair of bulls on top.  They represent prosperity and fertility and may be backed by a Christian cross.  Perhaps the priests tolerated this ‘superstitious’ symbolism because the people added the cross and began using animals that the Spanish introduced.  Originally they were a pair of llamas, backed by symbols of the sun and moon.   
       The Conquest devastated the native people of Peru.  Disease, war and gross exploitation sent the population figures into a precipitous decline.  But over time they recovered and today the native Indians and those of mixed Indian-European blood make up a majority of the population, the only country in South America where that holds true.  Contemporary Peruvians are quite ware of this and embrace the multiple heritages that make up their country’s identity.  It’s Moche, it’s Inca, it’s Spanish, it’s ancient, it’s colonial, it’s whatever is in the country, past or present.  It makes no difference.  It’s all Peru.

ancient terraces at Pisac,used until last century

                                                                      * * *                     

No comments:

Post a Comment