In the Land of Four Quarters


In the early 1960s, Henry F. Dobyns, a young anthropologist working on a rural-aid project in Peru, dispatched assistants to storehouses of old records throughout the country. Dobyns himself traveled to the central cathedral in Lima. Entering the nave, visitors passed by a chapel on the right-hand side that contained the mummified body of Francisco Pizarro, the romantic, thuggish Spaniard who conquered Peru in the sixteenth century. Or, rather, they passed by a chapel that was thought to contain the conqueror’s mummified body; the actual remains turned up years later, stashed inside two metal boxes beneath the main altar. Dobyns was not visiting the cathedral as a sightseer. Instead, he descended into the structure’s basement—cold, dank, poorly lighted—to inspect birth and death registers kept there.

Dobyns belonged to a research team led by his doctoral advisor, Allan R. Holmberg of Cornell, the Holmberg after whom I have unkindly named Holmberg’s Mistake. Holmberg had persuaded Cornell to let him lease an old colonial estate in rural Peru (the Carnegie Corporation, a charitable foundation despite its name, provided the funds). The estate included an entire village, whose inhabitants, most of them Indian, were its sharecroppers. “It was really a form of serfdom,” Dobyns told me. “The villagers were just heartbreakingly poor.” Holmberg planned to test strategies for raising their incomes. Because land tenure was a contentious issue in Peru, he had asked Dobyns to finalize the lease and learn more about the estate’s history. With his adjutants, Dobyns visited a dozen archives, including those in the cathedral.

Dobyns had been dipping his toe into archival research for more than a decade, with results he found intriguing. His first foray into the past occurred in 1953, while he was visiting his parents in Phoenix, Arizona, during a school break. A friend, Paul H. Ezell, asked him for some help with his doctoral thesis. The thesis concerned the adoption of Spanish culture by the Pima Indians, who occupy a 372,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. Many of the region’s colonial-era records survived in the Mexican town of Altar, in the border state of Sonora. Ezell wanted to examine those records, and asked Dobyns to come along. One weekend the two men drove from Phoenix to Nogales, on the border. From Nogales, they went south, west, and up into the highlands, often on dirt roads, to Altar.

Then a huddle of small houses surrounding a dozen little stores, Altar was, Dobyns said, “the end of the earth.” Local women still covered their heads with shawls. Gringo visitors, few in number, tended to be prospectors chasing rumors of lost gold mines in the mountains.

After surprising the parish priest by their interest in his records, the two young men hauled into the church their principal research tool: a Contura portable copier, an ancestor to the Xerox photocopier that required freshly stirred chemicals for each use. The machine strained the technological infrastructure of Altar, which had electricity for only six hours a day. Under flickering light, the two men pored through centuries-old ledgers, the pages beautifully preserved by the dry desert air. Dobyns was struck by the disparity between the large number of burials recorded at the parish and the far smaller number of baptisms. Almost all the deaths were from diseases brought by Europeans. The Spaniards arrived and then Indians died—in huge numbers, at incredible rates. It hit him, Dobyns told me, “like a club right between the eyes.”

At first he did nothing about his observation. Historical demography was not supposed to be his field. Six years later, in 1959, he surveyed more archives in Hermosilla and found the same disparity. By this point he had almost finished his doctorate at Cornell and had been selected for Holmberg’s project. The choice was almost haphazard: Dobyns had never been to Peru.

Peru, Dobyns learned, was one of the world’s cultural wellsprings, a place as important to the human saga as the Fertile Crescent. Yet the area’s significance had been scarcely appreciated outside the Andes, partly because the Spaniards so thoroughly ravaged Inka culture, and partly because the Inka themselves, wanting to puff up their own importance, had actively concealed the glories of the cultures before them. Incredibly, the first full history of the fall of the Inka empire did not appear until more than three hundred years after the events it chronicled: William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru, published in 1847. Prescott’s thunderous cadences remain a pleasure to read, despite the author’s firmly stated belief, typical for his time, in the moral inferiority of the natives. But the book had no successor. More than a century later, when Dobyns went to Lima, Prescott’s was still the only complete account. (A fine history, John Hemming’s Conquest of the Incas, appeared in 1970. But it, too, has had no successor, despite a wealth of new information.) “The Inka were largely ignored because the entire continent of South America was largely ignored,” Patricia Lyon, an anthropologist at the Institute for Andean Studies, in Berkeley, California, explained to me. Until the end of colonialism, she suggested, researchers tended to work in their own countries’ possessions. “The British were in Africa, along with the Germans and French. The Dutch were in Asia, and nobody was in South America,” because most of its nations were independent. The few researchers who did examine Andean societies were often sidetracked into ideological warfare. The Inka practiced a form of central planning, which led scholars into a sterile Cold War squabble about whether they were actually socialists avant la lettre in a communal Utopia or a dire precursor to Stalinist Russia.

Given the lack of previous investigation, it may have been inevitable that when Dobyns traced births and deaths in Lima he would be staking out new ground. He collected every book on Peruvian demography he could find. And he dipped into his own money to pay Cornell project workers to explore the cathedral archives and the national archives of Peru and the municipal archives of Lima. Slowly tallying mortality and natality figures, Dobyns continued to be impressed by what he found. Like any scholar, he eventually wrote an article about what he had learned. But by the time his article came out, in 1963, he had realized that his findings applied far beyond Peru.

The Inka and the Wampanoag were as different as Turks and Swedes. But Dobyns discovered, in effect, that their separate battles with Spain and England followed a similar biocultural template, one that explained the otherwise perplexing fact that every Indian culture, large or small, eventually succumbed to Europe. (Shouldn’t there have been some exceptions?) And then, reasoning backward in time from this master narrative, he proposed a new way to think about Native American societies, one that transformed not only our understanding of life before Columbus arrived, but our picture of the continents themselves.

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