Bolivia lost its coast sometime since independence from Spain. I learned that 30 years ago in Bolivian high school, but didn´t catch the significance.
After my year in Bolivia I ended up eating lunch with a Peruvian man from Lima once in college, and I remember him smiling condescendingly and telling me ¨Hablas como las serranitas” meaning, ¨You talk like the little women from the hills¨ (ie hillbillies/ or in this context, indigenous people. It is true: the Spanish I learned in Bolivia is distinctly highland Spanish.
So what is the Andean world really made of? I used to think it was made of the mixed indigenous and Spanish traditions of the highlands. I also knew that the highlands stood in a special relationship with their opposite extreme, the tropical lowlands. But now during this institute I am learning what was missing: the coast!
Long before the Spaniards arrived, people from the coast, highlands and tropical lowlands had developed special relationships and views of one another dating back around three thousand years to the Chavin civilization. (The Incas ruled only 100 years, but this Andean world of interaction is much older!)
The coast here is not like our East coast of New England. It is not wet and green. Believe it or not, it is a long, narrow desert! My taxi driver told me that it hasn´t rained in Lima since the 1970s. But the Humboldt current along the coast is super cold and makes conditions really productive for fishing. Reliable sources estimate that you can get 1000 times as much fish off the coast of Peru as anywhere on earth!
The highlanders are proud of their ways of living and of speaking. They see the coastal and lowland folks as softies and degenerates in contrast to their tough lives at high altitudes.
A Peruvian comedian recently described the highlanders as people who not only get up at dawn – they get up before dawn and kick the rooster and tell it to wake up and crow!!
But now I am down on the coast, the desert coast.
I have learned more in the last 24 hours about early coastal life than I could begin to tell here. The coast has been settled for around 11,000 years, and settlements are well preserved because of the desert sands. We are visiting one of the oldest sites tomorrow, called Caral.
Some of the earliest known textiles which were dug up from the coast are now in a tiny display case outside the entrance to the Latin American galleries of the Museum of Natural History in NYC. They are so tiny people always walk right by them.