Last Day on the Coast

Today is our last day on the coast of Peru. We’ve now spent a very full three days and nights in the seaside resort town of Huanchaco, featuring the longest left-breaking wave in the world. Lots of surfers here! And also, lots of giant crickets. The first night I thought, “How sweet! A cricket singing in my room!” In the morning I could see that the cricket was the size of a grass hopper. The next night there were more and more crickets. Tonight they became attack crickets. Several of us got dive-bombed by crickets at a restaurant. My suitcase had four crickets hiding in it. One of them went down my back. Hmmm, I wonder how I will sleep tonight!

We are about to head away from the coast and up to the highlands, toward the center of the Inca empire. Today I discovered the answer to the persistent question: How did the Incas create the largest empire in the Americas, with roads and administrative centers extending thousands of miles up and down the continent, in just a hundred years? The answer is, they didn’t!! What they did was consolidate an empire that already existed in many ways- established by the Chimor kings.

Today our group spent the afternoon in the ruins of a pre-Hispanic, indigenous city. You can see satellite images by entering the name Chan Chan in Google Earth; it is near Trujillo, Peru. You will see that the city was enormous. The ruins today extend for eight and a half square miles; in the heyday of the empire it extended twelve and a half square miles. Chan Chan was the biggest city in the kingdom of Chimor, which was powerful on the Peruvian coast from 1100-1470. It was a walled city, with designated areas for large gatherings (that part is bigger than a football field, all surrounded by walls with big clay designs of sea creatures on it that used to be painted.) There is also a huge area of labyrinthine cubicles (you thought your office was bad) where administrators would meet with royal subjects to collect tribute and store it for redistribution. Behind that, a huge artificial rectangular pond with reeds growing in it (we are in the desert.) And behind that, the royalty’s area for burials and rituals, as well as their living spaces. Outside this palace complex there were specialized areas for different artisans: potters, weavers, shell workers, metal workers.

Most of the gold and silver that the Spanish looted from the Incas had been looted just 50 years earlier from Chimor. The Incas had subjected the king of Chan Chan to their own administrators but had left him in place. Craftsmen and royals sons were taken off to Cusco to learn Inca ways and also to be held as a kind of hostage to discourage uprisings.

OK, at the beginning of this post I said that the Inca consolidated an empire previously established by the kings of Chimor, who had many cities and palaces like Chan Chan all the way up to Ecuador and down to Lima. But in looking back at miy notes from the beginning of this trip, I would like to say that in many ways, the Inca inherited the progress made by at least two other major civilizations prior to Chimor.

The first civilization we learned about had its ceremonial center at Chavin de Huantar in the highlands, and Chavin de Huantar is claimed to have been the “Jerusalem” of the central Andes from around 800 – 200 BC. A great book about Chavin was written by Richard Burger: Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. Among the two most important things I learned from this book: the Andean world under Chavin was a peaceful society based on reciprocal relationships among people from the coast, the highlands and the Amazon rainforest. None of these three places was survivable on its own; the coast is a desert where little can grow without irrigation and only the very rich fishing grounds make it a place in which to prosper. The highlands are not just any old highlands but are nearly as high as the Himalayas and thus a very harsh environment to live in. Irrigation and llama herding (and the weaving of wool textiles) are major contributions of the highlands. The tropics are the place where plant domestication probably first began but are also hard for humans to live in. So: the development of a system of reciprocal relationships among people living in these three areas were essential for survival in ancient times.

The second big thing I learned is that there are names in the indigenous languages for the various micro-environments of the Andes, and the name “Quechua” comes from the best environment for growing crops in the highlands: the green highland valleys.

The next major civilization to unite the central Andes after Chavin is now called Moche, named after the Moche river where a huge pair of ceremonial centers was found. It turns out that “Moche” meant the same thing in the Muchik language as “Quechua” means in the Quechua language: the best part of the valley to live in, where a river makes everything green.

So we have been learning about Chavin, Moche and today, Chimor as a preface to entering the world of the Inca empire.

What I can tell you that I didn’t know before this past ten days is:
a) these civilizations were based on local religions in which jungle animals, mountains, and water gods were venerated and given offerings of human labor as well as human sacrifice
b) the arts, particularly textiles, pottery and metalworking, flourished in these civilizations and artisans produced some of the most astonishing weavings, ceramic portraits and jewelry I have ever seen
c) some of the people in these times lived in hugely populous cities and prosperous agricultural sectors

That’s it for my history lesson. And as for my travelogue: in the past week we have been in Lima, Caral, Chiclayo, Huanchacho, Trujillo, Ferranafe, San Jose de Moro, and Sipan. You can go there too! You can also look at some of these places by satellite image on Google earth and see the ruins and digs in process. If you come here, you might want to see artisans making totora fishing boats, or see the amazing restoration of clay walls and friezes in the ruins. You can even do some of that yourself by joining a dig; the archeologists welcome volunteers. Just make sure it is a real archeologist working in harmony with local authorities, because a growing number of adventure groups are devastating the environment and opening the doors for more looters.

Finally, if you want to see a really inspiring showman (and legendary archeologist) give a talk about Moche portraits, check out (I have been told you may want to skip the first 20 minutes, but I am not sure if that refers to this particular webcast.)

Chao for now!

2 thoughts on “Last Day on the Coast

  1. jmcveigh

    Hi, Sue,Sounds to me like you are becoming a historian/archeologist!It’s great to catch up on your adventures. Our thoughts were just turning to you as we attended the opening night of our favorite summertime event here in Middlebury, Vermont and heard a marvelous performance by the Colombian singer Marta Gómez, who blends original songs with a South American influence into jazz. I found the instruments and rhythms so reminiscent of the early days of Sabiá. Even her voice reminded me of someone, perhaps Cindy or Erika. I think she has a Berklee connection as well.So . . . where is the music in this trip?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s