MAKING THE WAK’A

Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer took me to Caballete, a narrow, dusty bowl, perhaps half a mile long and a quarter mile wide, a few miles up the Fortaleza River from the Peruvian coast. At the mouth of the bowl were three mounds in a rough semicircle that faced a fourth mound. In front of one mound, like a one-eighth scale model of Stonehenge, was a ragged circle of wak’a: sacred stones. Not far from the wak’a looters had dug up an ancient graveyard, pulling out the bodies and unwinding them from their sheets in a search for gold and jewels. When they didn’t find any, they threw the bones down in disgust. In a square perhaps fifty yards on a side the ground was carpeted with broken human bones and scraps of thousand-year-old fabric.

We walked a little further and were greeted by a curious sight: skulls from the cemetery, gathered into several small piles. Around them were beer cans, cigarette butts, patent-medicine bottles, half-burned photographs, and candles shaped like naked women. These last had voodoo pins stuck in their heads and vaginas. Local people came to these places at night and either dug for treasure or practiced witchcraft, Haas said. In the harsh afternoon light they seemed to me tacky and sad. I imagined that the families of the people who had been buried at Caballete so long ago would have been outraged if they could have known what would happen to the bodies of their loved ones.

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The history of Andean societies is so rich and complex that it often leaves archaeologists feeling overwhelmed—there is so much to learn that they can never keep up. A single example: scientists did not confirm the existence of the Great Wall of Peru, a forty-mile stone rampart across the Andes, until the 1930s. And it still has never been fully excavated.

But then it occurred to me that my views may not have been shared by either the present or the past inhabitants of Norte Chico. I had no idea what people in Wari or Chimor would have thought of the scene before me. So far in this section, I have mainly described the economic and political history of Andean Indians. But people live also in the realm of the affective and aesthetic—that’s why they bury bodies and sometimes dig them up and pour love potions on them. Despite all the knowledge gained by scientists in the last few decades, this emotional realm remains much harder to reach.

An obvious example on the southern coast is the Nazca, famous for the huge patterns they set into the ground. Figures of animals and plants, almost a thousand geometric symbols, arrow-straight lines many miles long—what were they for? Peruvian anthropologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe first brought these famous drawings to the attention of the outside world in 1927. Four decades later, the Swiss writer Erich von Däniken set off an international furor by claiming that the Nazca Indians could not have made these symbols, because they were too big for such “primitive” people to construct, and because they are visible only from the air. Instead, he said, the giant figures were landing signals for space travelers; the whole plain was a sort of gigantic extraterrestrial airport. Expanded in a series of bestselling books, this notion turned the lines into a major tourist attraction. Exasperated scientists pointed out that a) small groups could have constructed the images by moving the dark surface stone to expose the lighter-colored earth beneath, and b) the Nazca did not have to see the figures to experience them, for they can be understood by walking the lines, which it is believed the Indians did. The prevailing theory today is that the straight lines mapped out the area’s many underground faults, which channel water. But nobody knows why the Nazca made the animal and plant figures, which seem less likely to have a direct function. What were the Nazca thinking as they created them? How did they feel when they walked them? To this day, the answers remain frustratingly far away.

Or consider the Moche, leaders of a military state that overran much of the northern coast, submerging the identities of its victims in its own. Huaca del Sol, the Moche capital, contains the largest adobe structure in the Andes, still hauntingly evocative despite centuries of systematic looting. (Unwilling to laboriously dig their way through the palace’s tombs, the Spaniards diverted the Moche River through it, washing out the riches in orthodox Augean-stable style; contemporary thieves have contented themselves with picks and shovels.) After about 300 A.D., Moche artists confined themselves to perhaps half a dozen subjects, painting stories of supernatural figures on pottery and murals with ever more naturalistic technique. Actors reenacted the same stories in grand pageants and ritual celebrations. Individual combat is a common theme; losers were formally stripped of their garments and forced to parade naked. Another oft-repeated tale involves the death and burial of a regal figure. Many of the people in the paintings are sharply individuated. Great effort has gone into studying the Moche, but as Moseley says, their identities and motives often remain “elusive.” The Moche polity broke up around 800 A.D., taking with it our chance to understand.

One of the few moments when I imagined I could encompass something of the inner lives of these long-ago people occurred in Chavín de Huantar, a city of several thousand people that existed between about 800 B.C. and 200 A.D. Its most important feature, a ceremonial temple shaped in a Norte Chico–style U, was a masterpiece of architectural intimidation. Using a network of concealed vents and channels, priests piped loud, roaring sounds at those who entered the temple. Visitors walked up three flights of stairs, growls echoing around them, and into a long, windowless passageway. At the end of the corridor, in a cross-shaped room that flickered with torchlight, was a fifteen-foot-high stone figure with a catlike face, taloned fingers, fierce tusks, and Medusa hair. Nobody today is sure of the god’s identity. Immediately above it, hidden from visitors’ eyes, sat a priestly functionary, who provided the god’s voice. After the long, torchlit approach, walking straight into the gaze of the snarling deity, mysterious bellows reverberating off the stone, the oracular declamation from above must have been spine-chilling.

Most of the complex is open to tourists. Many of the sculptures have been put into museums; others presumably have been looted. Yet walking into the temple still felt to me like entering a mountain of solid rock. Over and over again, Andean stories tell of spirits embodied in stones and giants transformed into natural features. The landscape has an intricate numinous geography; it is charged with meaning that must be respected and heeded. The earth, in this view, is not something to be left alone; the wak’a that litter Peruvian anthropological sites are often partly sculpted, as if they had needed some human attention to manifest their sacred qualities. Thus the human-made tunnels into the temple were part of what made it embody the power of a mountain. As I walked down the dimly lighted corridor toward where the torchlit deity had stood, my fingers ran along the walls created by Chavín craftworkers. They were fit beautifully into place and as cold and hard as the mountains they came from. But they did not gain their power without my hand to close the circuit. The natural world is incomplete without the human touch.

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