What Became of the Incas?

Published in Wanderlust (Latin America supplement), August 2006

“Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.” These words were the cornerstone of Inca law, an ethos so deeply rooted that it was the standard greeting between friends. But in 1532, with God on his side, Pizarro followed a more flexible morality. His army of 200 Spaniards, exhausted by their trek up from the coast, were pitted against 6000 Inca warriors. Pizarro tricked Atahualpa into entering an enclosed courtyard accompanied only by his nobles. Defenceless against the combined power of cavalry and gun, the supreme Inca and his courtiers were swiftly captured. Atahualpa bargained for his life, promising to fill his prison cell, as high as he could reach, once with gold and twice with silver. This accomplished, he was put to death and with him perished the Inca Empire.

In military terms the conquest of the Incas was one of history’s greatest achievements; culturally one of its greatest disasters. Yet was it? Visitors to Peru will find remnants of the Inca Empire wherever they go, not just in the wonderful ruins that are on every tourist itinerary, but in the everyday lives of the Inca descendents.

A farmer, tending his terraced land high in the mountains, digs a furrow with the chaquitaclla, footplough, used by his Inca forebears. Before breaking the soil, he asks the pardon and permission of Pachamama, mother earth. When he breaks off to drink some maize beer, he will pour a few drops into the earth as thanks. He gazes up at the snowpeaks, source of the streams that irrigate his land, and prays to the apu who dwell there. And in the icy dawn he blesses the arrival of his ancestor’s god, the sun.

The Incas revered the natural world, so it is no accident that the finest ruins are situated in the most beautiful locations. The glory of trekking in Peru is that the Incas are everywhere, both physically in the remains of their buildings and spiritually in the lives of the rural people. The Inca Trail is not unique – there are remnants of exquisitely engineered Inca roads throughout the land. These people were perhaps the finest stone masons the world has ever known, but their taming of water, both for agriculture and ritual, is equally astounding. The Urubamba river near Ollantaytambo was straightened, at Pisac and Phuyupatamarca, on the Inca Trail, streams tumble into a series of baths, and in the mysterious site of Cumbe Mayo, above Cajamarca, an aqueduct mimics the zig-zag of lightening.

Nature was honoured but also controlled. There was no poverty, no hunger, thanks to some of the most sophisticated farming methods in the world. The Incas brought us potatoes – hundreds of varieties – and maize. They domesticated the New World camels, llamas and alpacas, and used them as beasts of burden, and for their wool. And every house had its colony of guinea pigs: meat for special occasions. So it is today. Visit any house in the Andes and there will be a scurry of little feet and a chorus of squeaks from the free-range cuys. The mestizo artist who painted The Last Supper for the cathedrals of Ayacucho and Cusco knew what would be the main component of an important meal. Jesus prepares to break, not bread, but roast guinea pig.

Even their god was subject to the control of his deputy on earth. At the winter solstice the supreme Inca is believed to have held a ceremony to “rope back the sun” which seemed in danger of disappearing. He was always successful: the days grew longer, and the sun rose higher in the sky. Now the Festival of the Sun, Inti Raymi, has been revived and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the week-long festivities in and around Cusco, climaxing on June 24 in the re-enactment of Inti Raymi in the great arena of Sacsayhuaman.

Inti Raymi is uniquely an Inca festival, but during the course of post-conquest history the descendents of the Incas have taken the aspects of Christianity that most appealed to them and created the fiestas that explode with colour and music throughout the year. One of the best is at Paucartambo, a three-day affair where the local Indians perform their costumed dances with tribal intensity, but barely a week goes by without some village in the Andes holding a fiesta in honour of its patron saint. It is the chance for the villagers to get blind drunk on aguadiente, dance until they drop, and dress up in outrageous costumes which ridicule the gringo invaders. The saint – or his effigy – gets an outing too, being paraded around the village before being returned to the church to bestow good fortune on his worshippers.

“Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.” Most Peruvians still obey the commandment of their ancestors, overlaid with Catholicism which teaches the same message. To observe a ragged Peruvian farmer murmuring Quechua prayers in the great cathedral in Cusco is to understand that the Spanish never really conquered the Incas, they simply brought an added dimension to their spiritual lives. And introduced them to poverty.

© Hilary Bradt

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