Ancestors of the Incas: Lost Civilizations of Peru

By Masler, Steve; Paden, Tracy et al. | USA TODAY, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Ancestors of the Incas: Lost Civilizations of Peru


Masler, Steve, Paden, Tracy, Ritterman, Phillipp Scholz, USA TODAY


The largest, most comprehensive exhibition of Peruvian artifacts ever to travel to North america is on display as part of WONDERS: The Memphis (Tenn.) International cultural Series. Spanning 3,000 years of Peruvian prehistory, it includes more than 30 objects from 35 ancient cultures.

The Incas, a nation of just 40,000 people, conquered 10,000,00 subjects to form an empire larger than the Ottoman Empire at its peak. They accomplished some of the most amazing architectural feats in the world, including the mountaintop city of Machu Picchu. However, it wasn't until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century that a written language was introduced to the country. Although the accounts of the conquistadors tell a little of the Incas' religion and society, all that is known of their ancestors is found in the imagery of their art. Cultures such as the Moche, Chimu, Paracas, and Nazca brought plants and animals, human images, and supernatural creatures to life in the form of painted ceramics, woven textiles, stone sculpture, and delicately wrought metalwork.

The exhibition, "Ancestors of the Incas: The Lost Civilizations of Peru," features examples of double-spouted ceramic pots decorated with hummingbirds, jaguars, and other animals; a tunic and headdresses made with the brightly colored feathers of jungle birds; and large ceremonial vases made of gold. Through these beautiful objects, a picture of the Incas' ancient cultures and their relationship to the world around them emerges.

Despite the fact that there were hundreds of different cultures in ancient Peru, separated by formidable barriers of land and many centuries, all of these people shared a way of looking at the world. Their mysticism and resilience were formed by their relationship to a beautiful, mysterious, yet often hostile environment.

Peru is a land of harsh extremes, where survival is a constant struggle for water and land. The places where both are available simultaneously are rare. Its desert coast, 1,500 miles in length, is one of the driest in the world. Life and civilization could flourish only in the narrow valleys formed by the rivers that intersect the desert. Less than 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the Andes Mountains rise to heights more than 10,000 feet. Although rains falls frequently in this region, most of the land is not usable for agriculture because of the steep mountain slopes. Like the coastal desert dwellers, the people who lived here were forced to devise ways of mastering the topography in order to exist.

The exhibition views the world through the eyes of those who struggled daily for survival in an ever-changing, often unkind land. The artifacts that reflect these concerns for survival, happiness, spirituality, sexuality, and security are arranged to show how they saw themselves in relation to the Natural, Human, and Supernatural worlds, each with a section of the museum devoted to it. …

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