We rode ten hours on a bus today to see the ruins at Caral on Peru´s North Coast. On the way, I saw an ad at a gas station for a popsicle called egocéntrico. It has a strawberry filling (go figure…)
The ruins at Caral were dated about 3000 BC and consisted of a large number of big flat-topped pyramids in a desert valley surrounded by desert mountains (no trees.) These huge structures were built presumably for big gatherings and pilgrimmages – a kind of event still practiced in some Andean communities today. A Peruvian archaeologist named Ruth Shady has been supervising the excavation and the Peruvian government is excited to bill it as America´s oldest city. One of the pyramids had a large number of ancient flutes in it made of pelican and llama bones.
I had a very distinct recollection of the soundtrack from the movie 2001 when we saw a large standing stone set ahead of one of the temples. Did I say that we were surrounded by mountains? The place was so absolutely desert, devoid even of birds, and all you could see was the pyramids which seemed to imitate the mountains, and the standing stone which our guide said could also be interpreted as a likeness of a mountain in some sense. Mountains are sacred here and are said to be spirits.
Another sacred concept in Quechua is Tinkuy which is the junction of two rivers. This joining point is said to symbolize the coming together of opposite forces and has been re-enacted in events such as symbolic battles (with real bloodletting and dying) and also gatherings for youth to come together and dance. Around the bend from the arid sacred place of Caral is a Tinkuy of two rivers and all of a sudden we could see green and hear birdsongs! I felt that even the accoustics were altered in the enormous sacred desert space – it was silent compared to the green area.
This seems like as good a moment as any to reflect on ideas about different kinds of spirituality which I have been chewing on for a few weeks. I´ll start with a vivid memory: as a 16 year old arriving in Bolivia in 1976, I sometimes couldn´t believe my eyes. The world was full of Native American women in black braids and men in sandals with funny knit caps. I had thought that ¨Indians¨ were a thing of the past – but here they were overwhelmingly present.
On the train ride from La Paz to Cochabamba, I saw a group of three or four people walking near the tracks wearing black, and one of the men had a dead bird on his head. I realized with a chill that this had something to do with a ritual sacrifice or offering and I was simply shocked. In the world I was familiar with, (Judeo-Christianity) people had practiced animal sacrifice dating back to Passover to stories about the first two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel (the farmer vs. the shepherd.) Blood sacrifice and conflicts between farmers and shepherds seemed to me a thing of the distant past. Yet here in the Bolivian highlands all I could see for miles was the occasional farmer or shepherd, now pilgrims engaged in some kind of blood sacrifice.
This was one of my first sensations of time travel. Had I arrived at a re-enactment of my spiritual culture´s distant past? Many of the first Europeans who spent time in the Andes asked themselves this same question. They equated the Andean present with a vision of their own past and assumed that the Andean natives were living at an ealier stage of a linear spiritual development. Those who cared about the natives assumed that their beliefs were a naive or childish precursor to their own beliefs and practices. One proponent of this view was the famous Catholic sympathizer and defender of indigenous people, Bartolomé de las Casas.
An enormous danger of this kind of view is the misinterpretation of what you are seeing. For example, according to Regina Harrison, Quechua-speakers throughout the Andes have a word for powerful forces and spirits which can mean either a positive or negative force: Supay. Guess how Supay was translated into Spanish? Diablo/devil/demonio/demon. The assumption of a one-way evolution led to the conclusion that these people were either at an earlier stage of development, or errant – have strayed from the path altogether.
Are there other possibilities?
I had two recent conversations that gave me food for thought. One was with my Quechua teacher Hipólito Peralta Ccama. His opinion is that the ancestral spiritual traditions passed on to him by his parents are not naive or childish (he´s the one who told me about Bartolomé de las Casas´ view) but rather, deep and well-tuned to the natural forces around him.
The other conversation was with a friend on the bus today, and anthropologist named Robin. I pointed out that Judeo-Christian-Muslim beliefs are the product of millenia of active debate and writing and intensive human contact and thought. She pointed out that Andean beliefs (and many North American native belief systems) are the product of societies in which there is not a great deal of contact between humans in a lifetime and the major selective force which one must attend to is nature. So our values and spiritual traditions have had to fine-tune to a very differet set of forces.
That´s it for today, and hopefully more enlightening than the popsicle egocéntrico.