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
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.

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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