Darkest Peru: Peter Furtado Visits Some Remarkable Sites Rivalling Machu Picchu, the Endangered Inca Hilltop City Which Was Recently Voted One of the Seven Wonders of the World

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VIRTUALLY ALL THE CULTURAL TOURISTS TO PERU make for the Inca honeypots of Cusco and Machu Picchu, but this vast and diverse country has one of the richest archaeological heritages in the world, and one that continues to produce remarkable new finds and sites including gold-drenched mummies and lost mountaintop cities--to amaze and fascinate the casual visitor and the specialist alike.

Physically, this is one of the most diverse countries in the world. While the Andes forms the backbone of the country, the coast is a 2,000-kilometer desert interrupted only by a series of short rivers, each of which offers an oasis-like interruption in the miles of sand, and an entree to the mountains. Beyond the mountains lies the rainforest of the upper Amazon basin.

The Incas, like the Romans, still astound us for the strength of their dominance over their empire from their mountain tops in the south, and for the complexity and discipline of their power--and for the way in which their regime crumbled in the face of fewer than 200 conquistadors in the 1530s. But their empire had lasted no more than a hundred years. It was preceded by an array of earlier civilizations, each with a quite distinctive culture and behaviour, yet all of which shared a common religion and traded widely across the whole of the modern country and beyond. While cultural continuities can be traced in some areas from 4000 BC, some of the most remarkable archaeology is being done in the period An 200-1400, with the coastal cultures of the Moche, Lambayeque and Chimu, and the Andean Chachapoyas people.

In all of these cases, the quality of the discoveries challenges this Third World country to protect, preserve and present them in an effective manner. Looters remain the bane of archaeologists here, and some sites--as in Iraq--resemble the lunar surface through their efforts. In view of this--and of the climatic difficulties--these survivals are even more remarkable.

They include the Lord of Sipan, a Moche culture chieftain of AD 200 found in the late 1980s outside Chiclayo, 300 km north of Lima, complete with almost as much gold as Tutankhamun, on a site that has also yielded a barely less richly endowed 'Old Lord' of AD 20. And the discovery of yet another important tomb here was announced as we went to press. In a similarly weathered adobe pyramid site of El Brujo, 100 km to the south and right on the coast, is another Moche burial, this one discovered in 2005 and awaiting full analysis. This priestess, of around An 250, was wrapped in thirty layers of fine cotton decorated with ocean waves and catfish; her young body inside preserved so perfectly that her tattoos of spiders, seahorses and snakes are clearly visible and the stretchmarks on her belly indicate clearly that she died in childbirth. At another Moche site, the temples of the Sun and Moon near Trujillo reveal a most impressive wall of friezes, with prisoners and guards at the base, and gods towards the top: this echoes the physical remains found there, of dozens of prisoners who had died with a blow to the head from a pointed mace, and who had then been flayed to remove their muscles and organs, while leaving the skeletons held together by sinews and tendons. The temples of Sun and Moon were abandoned after a disastrous El Nino in about AD 600, and a few miles away a quite different civilization arose, that of the Chimu with their capital Chan Chan, a huge adobe city centred around nine vast palaces, each one built by a king for a dual purpose: for his own tomb and for his successor to inhabit.

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While the coastal sites are fabulous in their wealth and grandeur, those of the mountains to the east seize the imagination. If the Incas resemble the Romans, then the Chachapoyans are the Etruscans, with information scant on many aspects of their culture--except their extraordinary funerary habits. Yet in many ways these were precursors of the Incas (and suffered at their hands so much that they welcomed Pizarro as a liberator, though they soon came to regret it)--and their emerging site, the mountaintop redoubt of Kuelap, will surely become as well known as Machu Picchu itself. …