Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.
So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.
Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.
For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.
With one exception:
An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming
Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.
What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.
I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.
To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.
Here in Cuzco, I live with a family of civil engineers. The father of the house is a civil engineer, and his two college-age sons are both studying to become the same. So a favorite Sunday activity for the family is to hop in the car, drive out to whatever project the father is currently working on, and talk shop.
A few weeks ago I tagged along on one of these trips, to a bridge being repaired a few hours out of town. I was zoning out during a conversation about different types of sand when the older son plucked an object off the ground, gave it to me, and said “Here Chris, a gift!”
He passed me the piece of pottery pictured above. “It must be Inca,” the group determined.
“Thanks,” I said. “But shouldn’t this be in a museum or something?”
Their response basically amounted to “Yeah probably, but whatever.” I guess it’s uncommon but not unheard-of to turn up something like this on a construction site.
So now I have to decide what to do with the thing.
Obviously, I’m tempted to keep it. It’s totally illegal to leave the country with such relics, though I would likely get away with it. But I don’t want to be that asshole foreigner, and if TV has taught me anything, it’s that hogging ancient artifacts can have serious karmic consequences.
I could turn it in to a museum, but most around here already have tons and tons of intact ceramics that don’t even get displayed.
I could climb to the top of a mountain and leave it there, or make some other act of homage to the people who made and used this object 500 years ago. But I would hate for that to just be an opportunity for another asshole foreigner to find it and keep it for themselves.
Or I could hang on to it and “be a good steward” of the artifact, as my historian dad proposed. I’d make careful note of where the object came from and try to use it to promote the culture of its creators. And plus, the fact that it was a gift from a Peruvian should dispel the jinxes that might otherwise come with keeping it.
This blog post is a step in the “stewardship” direction, but I’m interested in hearing your creative ideas or judgmental rebukes as well. What do you think?
From Wikipedia, seems believable to me but take it for what you will:
Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. … The proper maintenance of the adjacent feeder channel, the side walls and the water-entry notch, the pond’s bottom surface, the quantity of water, and the removal of accumulated salt deposits requires close cooperation among the community of users. It is agreed among local residents and pond workers that the cooperative system was established during the time of the Incas, if not earlier. As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated and salt precipitates as various size crystals onto the inner surfaces of a pond’s earthen walls and on the pond’s earthen floor. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days the keeper carefully scrapes the dry salt from the sides and bottom, puts it into a suitable vessel, reopens the water-supply notch, and carries away the salt.
The spectacles of the Inca Trail (pics here, here, here, and here) are made accessible by the contingent of porters that accompanies each trek group. Last month, the 16 of us tourists were accompanied by 22 men from nearby villages looking to make some extra cash. They carried tents, luggage, food and cooking supplies; they set up camp before we arrived each night and took it down after we left each morning; they cooked our food, served it, and washed our dishes.
The Peruvian government passed a law in 2001 legislating porter working conditions, a job that had gained notoriety for its vulnerability to exploitation. It’s widely believed that the law goes unenforced, though. For instance, porters aren’t allowed to be given more than 20kg each to carry, but many who my friends and I questioned on the Trail claimed that they were carrying 25 or 30kg. Porters also complain of inadequate meals and sleeping arrangements, and not getting paid the $62 per trip minimum wage established by the 2001 law.
Portering for foreigners dates back to the arrival of Spaniards in the Andes. From John Hemming’s The Conquest of the Incas:
From the outset of the Conquest, Spanish armies and expeditions had commandeered regiments of native porters, and it was manifest that this abuse contributed directly to the country’s depopulation. There were dozens of grandiose attempts to discover eldorados in the forests of the Amazon. Hundreds of Spanish lost their lives on these desperate adventures; but their native porters perished long before their European masters. ‘Some two or three hundred Spaniards go on these expeditions. They take two or three thousand Indians to serve them and carry their food and fodder, all of which is carried on the backs of the poor Indians …. Few or no Indians survive, because of lack of food, the immense hardships of the long journeys through wastelands, and from the loads themselves.’
Gustav and I have been researching the subject. More to come.