According to his discharge papers, he stood five feet, eight inches tall. He had a pale complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, two moles on his back, his sole distinguishing marks. In June 1918, he was discharged from the British Army with a disability received in the Great War–a sadly innocent term that people used before they became accustomed to slaughter on an industrial level. Read More
Who really conquered the Inca Empire? I found myself mulling over that question for the first time today, after reading a really fascinating new paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology by a team of American and Peruvian scientists. Led by Melissa Murphy, a physical anthropologist at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, the team has just pored over the skeletal remains of 258 Inca men and women, who perished from extreme violence sometime between 1470 and 1540.
First, let me very briefly summarize the conventional view of the Conquest of Peru. According to the Spanish chronicles (the only surviving written source of the invasion), Francisco Pizarro set sail from Panama in January 1531 with 3 ships and 180 men. Landing near the port of Tumbes in the midst of a civil war in the Inca realm known as Tawantinsuyu, Pizarro and his men journeyed inland. At the Inca provincial town of Cajamarca, they laid an ambush and captured the Inca king Atawallpa, whom they subsequently executed. In November 1533, Pizarro’s force occupied the Inca capital of Cuzco, bringing the empire to its knees.
I personally don’t recall hearing or reading much about indigenous Andean peoples fighting on the side of the Spanish invaders. But as the new paper by Murphy and her team points out, aboriginal people certainly seem to have played a part in the Conquest of Peru, and perhaps quite a large part.
Murphy and her colleagues examined human remains excavated from two large Inca cemeteries in the archaeological zone of Puruchuco-Huaquerones, 7 miles from the center of Lima. Many of these individuals likely died during the ill-fated siege of Lima, when Inca forces tried to expel the Spaniards in 1536. As expected, Murphy and her colleagues found ample evidence of severe injuries caused by medieval European weaponry–the top spike of a polearm, the beak of a war hammer, and possible gunshot wounds. (Intriguingly, evidence of slashing injuries from swords is missing from these victims.)
But what I found especially intriguing in this study was the evidence that team-members found for wounds inflicted by indigenous weapons, such as clubs and maces. Indeed, as the authors note, “the majority of perimortem injuries to the cranium were likely due to blunt force trauma, probably from native weaponry like maces or clubs, with only a few of the injuries caused by Spanish weapons.”
Now of course, Spanish soldiers might well have picked up native weapons and used them expediently. But some Spanish chroniclers do refer on occasion to indigenous allies and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they were under-representing the numbers in order to make themselves look especially courageous to readers back home.
Moreover, we know that the Incas had made a host of enemies during their own conquests, particularly on the northern coast of Peru. And these dissidents might have seen Pizarro and his men initially as liberators, before they truly understood the rapacity of the Spanish forces. Certainly, this is what happened in Mexico, when aboriginal people rallied to the banner of Hernando Cortez, eager to rise up against their oppressors, the Aztecs.
This new research by Murphy and her colleagues is the first forensic-style study of the Inca victims who fell during the Conquest of Peru. I really look forward to reading more.
Last summer while I was researching an article for National Geographic magazine in Ecuador, I had the remarkable pleasure of staying at the Hacienda Guanchala. Lying almost exactly on the equator, the Hacienda Guanchala is the oldest colonial hacienda in Ecuador. Indeed, some of its buildings date back as early as 1580, and its shadowy corridors feel haunted by all the history that has passed through them.
I arrived at the hacienda late in the day, well after dark, and after dining there I retreated to my room and lit a fire in the old stone fireplace. Someone had left several glossy Spanish language magazines there, and so I began to thumb through them: they were all devoted exclusively to the Peruvian Paso horse. I had never heard before of the Peruvian Paso, and I was too tired to dig out my Spanish-English dictionary to begin translating the articles. But I was much struck by the athletic appearance of this horse–with its massive deep chest and its powerful looking haunches.
Yesterday, I came across a fascinating blog post on the Peruvian Paso. It turns out that the Francisco Pizarro and his men brought the ancestors of this horse with them when they landed in Tumbes in early 1532 and embarked on their invasion of the Inca Empire. And they later rode and led these horses by halter through the Andes to a fateful encounter with the new Inca emperor, Atahualpa, in the provincial center of Cajamarca.
Atahualpa had just defeated the forces of his half-brother Huascar in a lengthy civil war, and he was resting with his wives, lords and elite bodyguard in the hills outside Cajamarca. He and his entourage had never before seen a horse. But in the preceding months, Inca scouts had sent them a good deal of intelligence about the Spanish invaders and the large foreign animal they rode.
Pizarro sent one of his bolder captains, Hernando de Soto, and several men out to Atahaulpa’s camp to invite him to a meeting in Cajamarca. To impress on the Inca entourage the power of horses, de Soto first led a charge on several of Atahualpa’s bodyguards, sending panic into the crowd. Then the Spanish captain reined his horse in sharply and trotted over to where Atahualpa sat on a low wooden throne. He nudged his horse so close to the divine king that the animal’s exhalations ruffled the braided royal fringe–a mark of imperial office–that hung from Atahualpa’s forehead. But the emperor betrayed no fear: he sat impassively as the animal gazed down at him.
Tragically the intelligence that Atahualpa had received about the Spaniards was badly flawed. His scouts informed him, for example, that the Spanish could not ride their horses in the dark. So Atahaulpa delayed his arrival at Cajamarca for the meeting until late afternoon the next day. But the Spanish forces and their horses were ready and waiting, quickly slaughtering the emperor’s bodyguard and taking Atahualpa himself a prisoner.
Seldom has one breed of horse witnessed so much tragedy and misery.
My apologies to subscribers who received a garbled version of this blog earlier today. Something went a little wrong in the blogging software this morning.
Archaeology magazine has just published a story I wrote on an almost completely forgotten tragedy of the Civil War. In 1863, the Union Army razed and laid waste to nearly four counties in Missouri–a year before the better known scorched-earth destruction of Atlanta, Georgia, by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his forces. Archaeologist Ann Raab, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and her colleagues are now excavating sites in what is still known as “The Burnt District.” They are bringing to light a virtually unknown chapter of the Civil War–incredible work. Archaeology has posted an abstract of the article here. I will have more to say about this story in a future post.
Oh, no. Not again! Yahoo News is reporting that Mel Gibson is planning yet another of his nightmarish historical blockbusters. The man who brought us Braveheart andApocalypto is planning to unleash his filmmaker talents yet again on another unsuspecting ancient culture with a reputation for extreme violence–the Vikings. “I’m going to give it to you real, man,” Gibson reportedly told a Yahoo News writer. “I want a Viking to scare you.”
Actually what scares me is Gibson. The man is a menace. He loves decking out his projects with all the trappings of historical accuracy, while merrily jettisoning any real fidelity to history and truth. Take Apocalypto, his ghoulish, blood-spattered epic on the Maya. His cast all spoke Yucatec Maya like natives. His Maya nobles and priests wore exquisite costumes and headdresses. And he even threw in a real honest to goodness environmental crisis that plagued the Classic Maya–the deforestation of Maya lands to provide timber for fueling lime kilns. (All the lime went into plaster for the buildings.)
But was Apocalypto true in any way to what we know about the Maya? Not by a longshot. It depicted the Maya almost en masse as ghoulish blood-thirsty club-wielding savages — what Mayan archaeologist David Friedel once wryly described as “orcs in loinclothes.” It depicted little if anything of the beauty and richness of Maya art, science, and religion, pretty much rendering an entire culture into a historical horror show.
Sure it’s entertainment, and it wouldn’t matter so much except for two things. One is that his films are huge box-office hits, seen by millions of people, particularly impressionable teenagers. And secondly his version of past looks and sounds so historically authentic that many people are conned into believing that they are witnessing something truthful.
And there’s one other aspect that disturbs me. Gibson is already talking about how he will apply his techniques of verisimilitude to the Vikings. “I think it’s going to be in English, an English that would have been spoken back then and Old Norse,” he told the reporter. “I want to see somebody who I’ve never seen before speaking low, guttural German who scares the living **** out of you.” Some critics applauded Gibson for filming in foreign languages in The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, but if Gibson was quoted correctly, I’d say that he sees the act of speaking in such a language as something that will increase both the fright factor and brutality of scenes. What kind of a message is that to send to kids? How about xenophobic.
I know one film that I won’t be rushing out the door to see.
The China Daily News carried a very cool story this week on a major new archaeological discovery in Hubei province. According to Shen Haining, the director of Hubei’s cultural heritage bureau, excavators working in a tomb that dates back to the Warring States period of China’s history (475-221 B.C. ) recovered a trove of water-saturated bamboo strips covered in inked Chinese characters. Resembling a snarl of soggy noodles, the strips are remains of ancient and exceedingly rare Chinese books–a find that is sure to generate huge interest in China and abroad.
Perhaps a little Chinese history is in order here to help make sense of this find. The Warring States period, as its name clearly suggests, was a time of massive violent military clashes. Lords of seven major states all vied for supreme power in tianxia (which means “all under heaven”), and they threw huge infantry armies bristling with mass-produced iron weapons at one another. These armies also boasted for the first time in Chinese history archers with crossbows and soldiers fighting on horseback, both of which completely transformed military engagements in the Far East, rendering them far more horrifying.
The period came to an end finally when one of the combatant lords, Qin Shi Huang, subjugated all his rivals. But while the new emperor brought peace to China, he committed a grave sin against history and literature. Fearing that all earlier books would cast doubt on the legitimacy of his rule, Qin Shi Huang ordered most Chinese books of the day to be burned and he had scholars who possessed such forbidden writings buried alive–making bamboo-strip books dating from the Warring States period rare indeed today.
You might ask yourself why we should care today about the fate of these lost Chinese documents, many of which were recorded on bamboo strips. Well, it turns out that amid all the bloodshed and chaos of the time, many of China’s greatest thinkers were discussing warfare and dreaming of peace. Many of their works were undoubtedly lost in the destruction ordered by Qin Shi Huang, though a few, including the very famous meditation The Art of War, survived to the present thanks to later copyists.
I am dying to find out what the soggy bamboo strips in the newly discovered Hubei tomb will hold. “It’s still to early to tell,” Shen told the China Daily reporter. “Let’s wait and see. Archaeology is all about surprise.” Hear, hear.