Friday, July 16, 2010

Peru: Temples, Pyramids and Sacrifices


       Standing on an outer wall of the Huacas del Luna (The Temple of the Moon) outside the city of Trujillo on the dry coastal plain of northern Peru I had a distinct feeling that I was in an evil place. The tour guide was explaining that this high wall had been used by the Moche, predecessors of the Incas, to throw human sacrifices to their death on the rocks below.

Ruins in the area of Trujillo have been carefully restored.

       A team of researchers excavated the plaza in 1995 and found 95 bodies of 16 to 25-year-old men who had been tortured then killed by having their throats cut or skulls bashed in. Breaks in their bones which had started to heal indicated they had been captured in battle about two weeks before the sacrifice. We were shown the murals on the walls and pottery which let us see details of the sacrifice. I shuddered finding the whole concept mind boggling and reminiscent of some things that have happened in the Balkans.
       Much of what we know of the early people who lived around what are now the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo in northern Peru we have learned from their graves and temples. Many of the kingdoms which arose in this area shared a ideology of power and used human sacrifice for various purposes.
       We saw a further example of this when we visited the tomb where the Lord of Sipan was found. His coffin takes up a central position in a burial chamber that has niches on all sides. In those niches are six other bodies: a nine-year-old child, two robust men and three young women. The burial ritual also included the slaughtering of a dog and two llamas. When found the Lord of Sipan was in full regalia, with ornate necklaces, feather ornaments, silver and gold rattles, knives, golden death-masks and a scepter in his right hand. Fortunately this grave was found by professional archaeologists rather than grave robbers.
Tomb of the Lord of Sipan in Northern Peru

Pyramids and Temples
        The sea level towns of Chiclayo and Trujillo lie on the dry coastal area about an hour's flight north of Lima and were home to the first settled communities in South America. The countryside of the north coast of Peru is studded with the skeletons of the vast pyramids built 2000 years ago. Their size is such that you can't tell until you get close whether you are seeing a small mountain or a large man-made pile of adobe blocks. Over the centuries the recurring El Ninos have eroded the pyramids so that long ditches spread fingers down their sides.

Some parts of the ruins have been reconstructed

       But it is not only the occasional El Nino shrinking the pyramids; other forces have been at work. The huaqueros, the Spanish word for grave robbers and looters, have been busy digging for royal burial sites and they have left gaping holes in the pyramids. Huaqueros are often poor peasants who must do their illegal work by stealth. This means their numbers can only be guessed at, but the collections of gold objects, pottery and textiles in the museums suggest there are many of them searching for sudden wealth by finding another unmarked royal grave.
       In addition to rain and thieves adobe blocks have been taken from the pyramids by later cultures and used to build houses and public buildings. These in turn have been destroyed by El Ninos. But the destruction happens slowly, because most of the time the climate is extremely dry and only a few inches of rain fall a year. That means that for the most part that mud based adobe blocks work well in this area as building material.

The Diversity of Peru
       Peru has some of the most diverse climatic and farming conditions of any country in the world. You can go from the dry desert on the Pacific coast, up the steepest mountains to the highlands where people live at elevations of 11,000 feet with a rainy season six months long, down the other side to thick Amazonian jungle. Each change of elevation and precipitation forces people to grow different crops, wear different clothes and face different hazards. The range of life styles in this South American country may be greater than that of any other country you are likely to visit.
       Because of fortunate climatic conditions this coastal area of northern Peru gave rise around 1200 BC to the first complex civilization in the Americas. This was at a time when much of the rest of the world was still in the Stone Age. Despite its aridity the coast of Peru provided the best environment in the new world for the start of a high level civilization that could support more than a few scattered hunting and gathering tribes.
        Part of its strength as a home for civilization lies in the system of rivers bringing the runoff from the high mountains and insuring a source of water for the many crops which were eventually grown in the former desert by a clever use of canals. The mild climate and ready availability of food from both the Pacific Ocean and irrigated land allowed for specialization of labor. While one person farmed another could make pottery, another weave textiles and still another beat gold and copper into beautiful forms. These products could then be exchanged between villages and accumulated.
        Once there is a flourishing permanent center an area is ripe for the introduction of high priests, royal persons and the wealthy. Next there is a great public building project to show that mine is bigger than yours. Much of the labor that built these monuments was a labor tax; everyone was required to work two months a year for the state. Eventually this led to cluttering up the countryside with the vast pyramids and temples which are now a major tourist attraction of the area.
        For over 3,000 years Peruvians have been using metal, making pottery, weaving cloth, building large edifices and conquering territory. There has been an interesting ebb and flow of kingdoms, small nations being combined into big ones which fall apart into small nations which again combine under strong leadership into a large nation.
        A number of reasons may exist for the ebb and flow. The area is a highly volatile one geologically. The occasional volcano or earthquake would have destroyed their well built irrigation systems which would have led to the breakdown of a striving culture. Another factor was the erratic weather patterns caused by El Ninos and La Ninas which caused either flooding or long periods of drought with a corresponding breakdown in the ability to produce food.

The ruins of Chan Chan in Northern Peru

More Impressive Ruins
       I thought the sheer size of the Temple of the Moon impressive until we visited the remnants of the old city of Chan Chan. It is awe inspiring in size. Now in ruins it is the largest adobe city in the world and covers 28 square kilometers. Once there were palaces, temples, streets, gardens, a canal and storerooms for the agricultural wealth of the kingdom. It was the center of the Chimu kingdom which extended 600 miles along the coast. As at the Huacas del Luna the kings were buried with their women and their treasure. It would seem that the Incas copied much of the Chimu system and transported it to Cusco. There is damage due to recent El Ninos and steps are being taken to protect the area against further destruction.

Other Sights and Sites
       But enough of temples and pyramids, there are other sights to see. There is a large covered market in Chiclayo with the usual collection of any and everything. The everything includes a section called the witches' market. Here you can buy the supplies you need for conducting your magic both black (Bruhas) and white (Curados). There are carved sticks of special woods that when rubbed over your body remove pain, fragrances to improve your love life, bark to cure impotence and prostate problems and candles for removing curses. Many people still prefer these methods to modern medicine for improving their lives and curing their ailments. Besides here in Peru they are more readily available.

The witches’ market in Chiclayo
       Near Trujillo is also found the best ceramics collection in Peru. For 40 years a gas station owner has been buying perfect models from grave robbers. In the basement of his station he displays pots from all of the major pre-colonial cultures. After cleaning with water and lemon juice they look as if they were freshly taken from the kiln. As a sex educator I found the pornographic pots of special interest, but I passed up the copies in favor of ones more mundane.
       Since the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) terrorists have been controlled Peru is becoming a major tourist attraction. At this time Machu Picchu and Cusco are the most popular destinations but I believe that in the next few years the northern coast of Peru will see a major increase in foreign visitors because of its many attractions.

The ceramics collection in a basement of a local gas station

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Iowa's Effigy Mounds


       My mental picture of Indians has been warriors on horseback as shown in movies during my youth. The fact that horses came in with the Spanish and helped create a whole new type of culture markedly different from the original way Indians had lived, was something I was not aware of. In general we were also not aware that once millions of Indians covered the continent and they had trade contact with each other exchanging the copper of Michigan, seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and Mica from North Carolina for the fresh water pearls of the Mississippi.
       The picture most of us had was that Indians were thinly settled across the continent where in fact there were large numbers that were decimated by the diseases like small pox and measles brought in by the Europeans. The Indians did not have the same level of immunity and whole tribes were wiped out. As the settlers came into this newly opened territory they assumed God had prepared it to be this way for them, and the fact it had been settled did not occur to them.
       The National Park Service preserves some of this history at Effigy Mounds National Monument that overlooks the Mississippi River not far from Harpers Ferry, Iowa.

       The visitor’s center is small with displays showing how the Indians who created the mounds responded to the changing of the seasons. Much is made of how the natives followed the seasons to take advantage of when and where food and other resources were available.
       The Indians used this area for over 2200 years from 1000 BC to 1200 AD and were known as the Woodland people. They appeared to be mostly hunter-gatherers and the display cases in the center show arrow points and other equipment used by Indians in the area. These Indians used spear throwers rather than the bow and arrow that had not been invented yet. A brief movie gives as much of the history of the mounds and local tribes as is presently known, which is not much. There are after all no written records and the tribal story tellers are all dead.

        Carla and I took the recommended self guided tour using their Fire Point Trail Guide. While only two miles in length it goes up a winding, demanding steep incline. Along the way you stop at points to view the mounds, which are mostly round, with two larger ones in the form of bears. The ritual purpose of the mounts remains unknown, but some were memorial mounds given that bodies are buried in them. When people were buried in an effigy mound they were buried in the heart or brain area and it is assumed they were leaders or special people in the community. The mounds were built over thousands of years and may have served different purposes for different groups. The view of the river with islands from fire point is striking and the view may have contributed to the mounds being built here.
         These mounds are small enough that a relatively small number of people could have thrown them up over a few days. One suggestion is that these were ceremonial mounts built when groups got together to arrange marriages, cement relationships and bury some of their dead. Although mounds are common across America it is only in the upper Midwest that they are built in the shape of animals. Effigies are related to what animals were found in the area, here they were birds and bears in other places turtles, panthers, and lizards.

The mounds are small compared those at places like Cahokia.

       In the early 1800,s 10,000 mounds were recorded, but now fewer than 1000 survive and 200 of them are in this area. Most were simply plowed over so the land could produce productive crops. Little attention was paid by early settlers to the fact that these may have had religious significance to a large group of people. Many people couldn’t believe Indians had been organized enough to have created the larger mounds such as those at Cahokia and believed they must have been constructed by some other group.

There are great views of the Mississippi and its islands from the top of the Five Point Trail.

       As mentioned above the mounds here are small, mostly round ones that were build between 1000 BC to 400 AD when the Late Woodland Indians began making effigy mounds mostly of bears and birds. The larger mounds such as those at Cahokia begun to be made after groups became more settled and had adopted an agricultural way of life growing corn and squash.

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