Tag Archives: South America

The Archaeologist as Artist

On the taxi ride there, I felt a little ill. The long, sleepless flight to Lima, a dodgy lunch that was coming back to haunt me, and the abrupt swerving and lurching of the taxi through the congested streets of the Peruvian capital—all seemed to be taking their toll.  By the time I and my companions clambered out at the Puruchuco Museum and filed into a small backroom to meet the director, I was certain I was in for a long, queasy afternoon. Then I spotted two old notebooks lying on the table.

To read more,  please click here.

Keep Your Enemies Closer















This story of a golden crown with an exquisite golden plume caught my eye yesterday. Actually, it did far more than catch my eye. It brought to mind a relatively little-known chapter in the history of the Inca Empire—the fierce conquest of the proud and wealthy chiefs of highland Ecuador, nearly a thousand miles away from Cuzco.

But before I get to that, let me tell you first about the crown. It comes from a royal tomb in or near the small Ecuadorian town of Chordeleg, a place where the Cañari people once buried their greatest chiefs and nobles. In 1854, someone digging in the site—someone I haven’t been able to track down, so possibly a curio collector—discovered this Andean masterpiece. What happened next is unclear, but in 1862, the president of Ecuador sent the crown as a present to one of the greatest queens of the day, Victoria, soon after the death of her beloved Albert. Perhaps this Latin American statesman was a sentimentalist and meant to cheer her up. In any case, the queen’s officials duly logged it into the royal collection at Windsor Castle. And there it remained until another British queen, Elizabeth, prepared to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

To mark the grand occasion, curators planned a major exhibition of the queen’s royal treasures in Edinburgh. The gold crown from Ecuador fit the bill perfectly, but no one knew much about it, though some had described it as a symbol of the Inca Empire. Was it really? The queen’s curators called in the experts, who proceeded to conduct metallurgical studies and stylistic analyses. These revealed a surprise. The crown wasn’t Inca at all: it was likely the work of a Cañari goldsmith. And this raised two different scenarios. Quite possibly, the goldsmith fashioned it for a wealthy Cañari chief in the early 1400s.  Or perhaps he designed it later in the century for an Inca king.  Such rulers, after all, delighted in donning crowns adorned with the plumage of tropical birds. Read more…

The Lost Story of Madre de Dios











One of the hardest things about being a freelance writer is seeing a great story— the kind of story you’ve always dreamed about writing—slip through your fingers. Your editors fail to see the beauty or the tragedy. No one shares your obsession; no one wants to put you on a plane to Miami or Lima or Mobasa, say, and pay for expenses while you throw yourself into the reporting. The pitch falls flat, eyes look away in embarrassment, and a half beat later, a kindly question. What else have you got?

Thirty years of freelancing and I can pretty much remember each and every one of these failures, these lost stories. They continue to dog me, and I sometimes think that this will be the last thing on my mind when I die. It won’t be my life flashing in front of me; it will be stories, particularly these stories, the ones that never saw light of day.

To read more,  please visit Last Word on Nothing.

Photo of Madre di Dios courtesy Marcin Nowak

Civilization Beneath the Amazon Forest

As empire-builders,  the Inca took a deep,  abiding interest in the wealth of the lowland forests of the Amazon.  They were fascinated by the brilliant colored feathers of parrots, macaws,  and hummingbirds;  the sweet, exotic fruits of Amazon trees and shrubs;  and the potent medicines and hallucinogens that could be distilled from rainforest plants.  But the Inca emperors did not extend their military reach into the Amazon Basin of Brazil:  these lands remained largely the stuff of legend and myth.

Until very recently, the dense rainforest cover of this region discouraged many archaeologists as well.  But now intense logging  in the region is laying bare great tracts of land,  an environmental disaster that is inadvertently giving archaeologists their first glimpse of a previously unknown civilization.  In the current issue of Antiquity, an international research team led by Martti Parssinen,  an archaeologist at Instituto Iberoamericano de Finlandia in Madrid, Spain,  reports on their discovery of some 260 sprawling earthworks — geometric shaped enclosures,  ditches and long avenues–in uplands and floodplains along the border of Bolivia and Brazil.

The team found many of these constructions while conducting aerial surveys and examining Google Earth images.   Their excavations produced pottery sherds,  stone tools and other domestic debris  at some earthworks:  others revealed no artifacts at all.  Taken together,  the  new evidence suggests that these geoglyphs date between 2000 and 800 years before present, and were made by digging ditches measuring as much as 11 metres wide and 2 metres deep.

When I first saw the team’s photos of these earthworks,  I was immediately reminded of the massive geometric enclosures constructed by the Hopewell people of North America’s Eastern Woodlands.  The Hopewell had an immensely sophisticated and complex culture:  they were early agriculturalists with very rich ceremonial and artistic lives. It’s now very clear that the western Amazonian people who built these impressive earthworks in Bolivia and Brazil had a similarly sophisticated society.

I think that we are going to hear much more about this complex Amazon culture  in years to come.

Scientific American has an interesting video on this.  Please click here.