June 03, 2006 GMT
Visiting the Pre-Columbians

As our days in northern Peru wind down, Sho, Pat and I visit three significant pre-Columbian sites. Just north of Trujillo rests the remains of the largest adobe city in the world, Chan Chan. As the capital of the Chimu culture (circa AD 1100 to 1471), the adobe city spread over 28 square kilometers and held a population that varied between 60,000 to 250,000 people, depending on the era. The Chimu surrendered to the pesky Incas after eleven years of heavy badgering and threats to destroy their irrigation canals.


When a Chimu king died, his palace was abandoned and another was built for the new king. By the time the Incas took over, nine palaces existed in Chan Chan. The adobe walls surrounding the royal palace were decorated with molded images of fish, condors, sea otters, pelicans, fish nets, the Southern Cross and other stuff. The image below shows a calendar record of many seasons, including years when El Niño came stalking.


When a king died, usually around 40 years old, the cause of death was often because of a hemophiliac related condition. Strangely, Chimu custom dictated the king marry his sister. But not just one death occured when the MMWC (main man what counts) died. Accompanying the king to his grave was his primary wife, 90 concubines and the lead officials from each kingdom district. I assume that unhappy prospect encouraged everyone's best efforts to keep the MMWC healthy and happy. Not helping matters was all the heavy gold and silver symbols of office the old boy had to wear. Hence he was carried everywhere he went. No exercise, bad blood and married to his sister. Not a winning combination.

The adobe walls surrounding the royal enclosure were 8 to 10 metres high and two meters at the base. Constructed of sand, clay, sea shells and cactus mixed with water, the interior walls were then painted in rich colors of red, blue, white or yellow and adorned with silver and gold. Today much of the city has been destroyed by floods, earthquakes and rain, not to mention the rude intrusion of conquistadors and today's huaqueros (grave robbers). Still, it is an impressive site.


After three lovely days in the sun at Huanchaco and visiting nearby Chan Chan, our trio heads north to the city of Chiclayo. Again, following a winning plan, we set up base in a comfortable but inexpensive hotel, park our bikes in the hotel's outer courtyard (within view of their watchful security) and grab a taxi for the next historical must-see. At their height around AD 1 to 750, the Moche culture were masters of art in precious metals, stone, pottery and textiles. Today it is difficult at first glance of the three crumbling pyramids to realize the grandeur that once was Sipán.


What looks like some dirt hills turns out to be a grand set of handbuilt structures made of adobe bricks. Time has not been kind to the Moche heritage site.


Excavations since 1987 have uncovered 12 royal tombs, each a treasure cache of funerary objects considered to rank among the finest examples of pre-Columbian art. The weathiest Moche tomb, that of El Señor de Sipán, contains a high priest clad in gold, silver, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper and exquisitely woven fabrics. In the picture below, I am standing on the ceremonial pyramid looking down at the cemeterial pyramid. The metal roofs down there protect the excavated tombs from the elements, guards 24 hours a day protect the site from the huaqueros. Before the protection much of the stolen wealth was bought by North Americans and Europeans. In times past even foreign museums were a market. We can all share some blame for this permanent loss to the Peruvian people.


As seems to be the fashion then, El Señor de Sipán was buried surrounded by his wife, a military commander, a boy, guardians (with their feet cut off), llamas (with their heads cut off), and a look-out man perched in an alcove above. Ceramic containers held a variety of food and materials needed to carry on business in the next life. Later we visit the world class Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipán in the little town of Lambayeque where the dazzling riches uncovered at the site are on display. Unfortunately we have to surrender cameras so we take mind pictures.


The last in our triad of pre-Columbian cultures is a visit to the ancient city of Túcume (circa AD 1000 to 1375), 35 km north of Chiclayo. The Lambayeque people built 26 massive adobe brick pyramids here. The largest, Huaca Larga, measured 700 metres long, 280 metres wide and over 30 metres high. Obviously anyone in this part of the world with shares in Adobe Inc. were doing well in those days.


Remarkably, much of what is known today about Túcume is attributed to the leadership and efforts of explorer-archeologist Thor Heyerdayl of "Kon-Tiki" fame. As Sho, Pat and I stand on a high cerro overlooking this incredible kingdom below, a 30 C breeze waves up at us from below. With the heat comes the scent of clay, the smell of 1000 year old history. What are now non-descript mountains heavily eroded with deep vertical wrinkles used to be a magestic and awe inspiring mega metropolis, that much is plain. Beyond the ancient city below, through the shimmer of mid-day, we can see vast fields of luxuriously green crops, the same rich fields that once fed many thousands still feeding many thousands today. I can't help but feel these elaborate cultures of ten centuries ago were doing as well or better than the Europeans I learned about in school. How could this much South American history have gone unnoticed or untold by our North American educators?

Posted by Murray Castle at June 03, 2006 04:34 PM GMT

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