In Peru Highlands, Temple Remains Offer Window on Pre-Inca Civilization

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
February 4, 2002

Charles "Chip" Stanish, an archaeologist with UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, is working in the remote highlands of Peru searching for lost temples of the Pukara, an ancient people that preceded the Inca by more than 2,500 years. National Public Radio's Alex Chadwick followed Stanish through uncharted territory as the team discovered one of these sacred ruins.

Chadwick's journey is the subject of NPR's Radio Expeditions and a four-part series being aired on National Geographic Today beginning February 4. Here Chadwick discusses his experience on the expedition.

Q: What is Chip Stanish looking for in the highlands of Peru?

Chadwick: Chip Stanish is looking for evidence to explain why civilizations developed, and he thinks the ancient society of the Pukara (who lived more than 2,500 years before the Inca) may help provide the answers. His theory is that one of the key factors that led to the development of the first civilizations was regional trade.

He is looking for sites along a 2,000 year-old road linking the Peruvian highlands with Amazonian lowlands, where he believes he will find important trade goods buried among the ruins. The Andean highlands where the Pukara live are at 12,000 feet (3,650 meters). They had clay that they developed into superb pottery and they had animals that don't exist in the lowland—llama, alpaca, and others—from which they could get wool for weaving textiles. In the Amazonian lowlands the people had access to jaguar pelts, which were valued by the Pukara. They also had hallucinogens, such as coca leaves. Chip's theory is that these were very important trade goods.

Why were you interested in accompanying Stanish on the expedition and what were your expectations?

Chip has studied ancient Andean ruins in the Lake Titicaca basin for 15 years. He has just concluded a major project on the Islands of the Sun and the Moon on Lake Titicaca, a very important religious site. What he is doing now is reconnaissance work, looking for new sites where he can do a systematic investigation.

I was very skeptical about the ability to simply drive down a road in this valley at the edge of the Lake Titicaca basin and find significant archaeological sites that no one has ever recorded. He assured me he could. To get to something as spectacular as an undiscovered temple seemed like it would involve a lot of rigor and difficulty—I expected to spend a lot of time driving and walking and not finding anything. I've been in the field with scientists a lot so I expected a lot of rigorous activity and disappointment.

But the highlands of Peru are fairly unexplored by scientists and are littered with the remnants of past civilizations. No scientist or archaeologist has recorded any of these sites, and the only disturbances are by local people looking for artifacts to sell or looking for something to use. The actual experience was not very rigorous and was full of discovery of spectacular sites.

Why have these Peruvian highlands not attracted more archaeologists, including Peruvian scientists?

For one thing, it's high and it's difficult to get here. Outsiders could suffer altitude sickness. It is also in an area where outsiders have some difficulty being because of the drug trade—visitors come from the lowlands, the coca-growing area, to the highlands, which is a drug-smuggling area. Outsiders are regarded as a threat to that.

Also, since the early 1970s the area was a stronghold of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a radical revolutionary movement, and it was just too dangerous to be there. I talked to a Peruvian archaeologist who was asked by the Sendero movement to leave. He left and didn't go back. The Sendero Luminoso was broken up several years ago, but some people say that they are still a factor in the highlands and being there is still a little dicey.

Continued on Next Page >>


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