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

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Did you have any problems?

Only with altitude. I was sick the entire time I was there.

Archaeology is often seen as something found in museums. Do the Peruvians view it as part of their daily life?

These sites in the highlands of Peru are so extraordinarily common that, yes, people see these things and they have a sort of involvement with the past that seems deeper and more profound than what we would see in the U.S. People raised crops and tended herds on these ancient terraced hillsides more than 2,000 years ago, and people are still working these terraces today.

I think they don't have a sense of wonder because this is just part of their life. In America, by contrast, we would go to see Indian sites, pueblos, which are considered national monuments. In Peru, similar kinds of edifices and complexes are just there—you can walk onto a hill and find them.

We met a couple living in a stone house that could have been hundreds of years old. They showed us a bowl they found at the top of the hill, which they were using as a kitchen bowl. Chip said it was Inca or pre-Inca, so it's 600, 700, or maybe even 800 years old and they are using it as a kitchen bowl. If we found a bowl like that we would put it in a museum and people would say, "Oh my gosh, look at that!" And they are using it for cereal.

Chip Stanish's work is in the area of Puno, a regional capital hundreds of miles south of Cuzco, which was the capital of the Inca empire. What are the people here like today?

Many of the people in Puno are Mestizos—mixed Indian and European race—but there are also many native Indians. At a parade in Puno's main square, we saw an array of military officers in front of the cathedral who were light-skinned and looked European. The people marching below were dark-skinned people who looked Indian. You can see an ethnic divide.

When you saw the extent of the ruins in the highlands did you get a sense of the Pukara and Inca people who lived there?

I did. There are varying estimates of the Andean population at the time when Europeans made contact. The high estimate is 11 million, but other people think there were no more than one million people. I can't believe there were only a million—it must have taken a lot of manpower to shape and move these stones. The people had domesticated alpaca and llama as pack animals, but they didn't have the wheel. They didn't have writing. They did have good communications that involved knots on cords on strings. They obviously were great engineers and great builders.

Describe how you found the Pukara temple.

You have the idea that in archaeology you will get there and pull branches apart and say, "Oh my god, there it is!" But there are no branches because there are no trees on this hill.

We climbed toward tall cylindrical stone structures, burial towers, and as we went along we found evidence of Pukara and Inca sites. As we approached the temple site we found pottery that was distinctly Pukara—the very era Chip is interested in. We found intact Inca stone walls, not the era we were interested in but a promising sign because the Inca built on the ruins of earlier civilizations. We came upon what Chip believed was an Inca village, standing stone houses. They are so well preserved you could put a roof on them and live in them today.

As we climbed higher, Chip noticed a sandstone slab as big as a tabletop. He turned to the Radio Expeditions executive producer Caroline Jensen, who said to him: "This is a great place to be. This is where I'd put a temple." Chip looked around and said: "My god, this is the sunken court. This is it. This is the temple. This is the site."

The temple isn't standing anymore. But there are perimeter stones—part of a wall here, some distinctive slabs. And you realize that down in the ground, which is now covered with grass and dirt, you can see the outlines of the collapsed slabs.

I was astounded. I was very excited. I had never found anything like that in my life. I felt a sense of awe and wonder for the skill of these people and their abilities and determination and creation of a civilization that we know almost nothing about.

So you were no longer skeptical when you left?

After I saw the temple I was convinced the terrain held everything Chip said it would, and that he could find it. That he could find stunning archaeological sites because they are there and he knows how to recognize them. It was his skill and that of Pepe Nuñez, a Peruvian undergraduate archaeologist.

Even if he finds a trade route, it may not prove to be the key to the civilization. But it is more evidence that trade mattered a lot to the Pukara people.

Do you think the region will now draw a flood of young archaeologists?

The more young people learn that you can actually go discover a lost temple, a fortress in ruins, burial towers, ancient tombs—that those things really are out there, undiscovered, waiting to be found—that's when people will say, "Boy, I'm gong to go be an archaeologist."

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