Empires of Mystery

Manco Capac, Mythical Father of the Incas
This colonial-era portrait depicts Manco Capac, Mythical Father of the Incas.
[Photo courtesy of Florida International Museum]
Unraveling the mysteries

Times staff writer

Even Francisco Pizarro was amazed. And he had hoped for years that he would find another kingdom as rich as Aztec Mexico.

He did: Peru’s Inca Empire.

“It is so beautiful and has such fine buildings it would be remarkable even in Spain,” Pizarro wrote back to the Spanish court a year after he arrived.

Even after he had plundered its art and despoiled its society, Pizarro had only skimmed the surface. The Incas were only the last great empire to arise in the coastal plains and mountains in Peru, atop layers and layers of civilizations unknown to the Europeans.

Treasure hunters and scholars alike have been sifting the sands, combing the mountains and digging through the centuries to find these lost civilizations ever since.

When Pizarro first pushed the Spanish conquest down the Pacific coast of South America, his victory was easy. An advance guard of smallpox from Mexico and Panama had felled the ruling Inca and his heir and plunged the country into civil war before Pizarro arrived. When Pizarro and his tiny army landed in 1532, it was just as the victorious Inca, Atahualpa, was marching nearby on his way from Quito south to claim the throne in Cuzco.

Civilizations have been found on the coast and in the highlands of three regions of Peru. Only the Inca Empire encompassed them all.
[Times art: Cristina Martinez]
After Pizarro tricked Atahualpa in a violent ambush, the Inca offered to fill a large cell with ransom, once with gold, twice more with silver. When the treasure came, it only convinced Pizarro there was more. He executed the Inca and marched hundreds of miles south up the Andes to take the capital.

He found his prize, a small valley with a city full of palaces and temples, built of precision cut stone, with running water in the streets, peopled with nobles in bright costumes and large gold plugs in their ears, all surrounded by carefully terraced farms and pastures.

This was what the Incas called Cuzco, “the navel of the world.” It was the religious and political center of Tahuantinsuyu, an empire that rivaled Caesar’s or Alexander’s, more than 10-million people stretching from Ecuador to Chile, connected by 20,000 miles of paved highways and an elaborate bureaucracy.

In the middle was the temple of Coricancha, its plaza a garden of life-size people, trees and animals -- all of gold -- and inside altars and throne rooms of mummies packed with still more gold.

After subjugating Cuzco, the conquerors pressed the search for more El Dorados in the unknown continent.

They found still more riches in the realms that the Incas themselves had conquered barely a century before, but not all.

In the centuries since, the Spanish colonists, Victorian explorers and modern archaeologists have continued to uncover an amazing array of civilizations.

It was not until 1911 that Yale professor Hiram Bingham found his way to the forgotten Inca citadel of Machu Picchu; only in the 1930s did a geologist flying over the plain see the vast lines and pictures the ancient Nazca drew in the dirt; and just in the 1980s grave robbers led Peruvian police and anthropologists to Sipan, an unknown Moche capital.

Mysteries on display

Today, museumgoers can follow their footsteps and perhaps experience the same awe at the wonders of ancient Peru in the “Empires of Mystery, The Incas, The Andes and Lost Civilizations” exhibit at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg.

The 300 artifacts collected here offer a glimpse of what has been found from thousands of years of civilizations that flourished, died, rose and died again, their graves pried open and examined by five centuries of conquistadors, smugglers and scientists. Peruvian museums loaned most of the items; some were seized by customs agents in Miami and will be repatriated to Peru after the show.

These objects, from drinking vases to feather capes, display intricate artwork of civilizations as sophisticated and advanced as Egypt, Greece, Rome and China in the arts and in the everyday business of architecture, agriculture and statecraft.

While the metalwork of gold and jewels entranced the Spanish, the finest art of ancient Peruvians may be in weaving and ceramics. The subjects range from detailed geometric design to fantastical images of the supernatural and scenes that provide vivid pictures of the jaguars, killer whales, rainbows and warriors that filled their lives and beliefs.

[Times art: Cristina Martinez]
Weaving of cotton and wool came first. Some beautiful examples date from more than 1000 B.C., and include incredibly tight weaves, brilliant colors and elaborate designs.

The ceramics made by potters in dozens of cultures took the same subjects and gave them new form, from perfect bowls, stirrup-spouted pitchers and “whistling” pots to vivid sculptures of wild animals and people. Many cultures achieved a technical expertise that amazes contemporary potters: delicate thin walls, intricate mold casting, detailed incisions, and all manner of glazes, slips and colors. They’re not primitive folk crafts, but the polished big-city art of their time, and among the world’s best.

Some seem ghoulish today, like the mummies, whose bodies were preserved buried with many of the artifacts. But in several ancient Peruvian cultures, ancestors were so revered that their remains were cared for and paraded in public long after death.

The exhibits of human skulls with large holes are the most eerie, yet they reflect an impressive accomplishment in surgery. They realized that draining blood through holes in the skull could relieve pressure on the brain from head injuries, techniques used in modern emergency rooms.

All are products of an amazing array of civilizations that flourished in various parts of Peru, producing huge cities, empires and warfare for thousands of years. They cultivated cotton, domesticated the native camel to produce llamas and alpaca, made the desert bloom with irrigation, terraced the mountains and linked them with trade, highways and taxes.

Harsh beginnings

Prehistoric Peru was a forbidding place to cradle civilization. It had one long arid strip of plains and desert along the coast, shifting to steep jagged mountains and bitter-cold plains with poor soil. This harsh landscape was fiendishly alive: the earth quaked, the volcanic mountains spit fire and lava; and the currents we now know as El Nino could rise up in tidal waves, destroy fishing and cause floods and drought.

The people survived by cooperation and ingenuity. The ancient Peruvians had no wheel and little use for it: The Andes were too steep and the llamas too slight (they could not carry 100 pounds). They lacked iron, yet their metalsmiths could electroplate gold onto copper.

The Chavin culture was the first to leave impressive monuments, a vast temple and tomb complex built of stone high in the northern Andes. Here the faces of their gods are carved into massive walls that date from approximately 1000 B.C.

Farther south and on the coast, scholars have found the “necropolis” of another culture, the Paracas, who lived about the same time. Among 400 skeletons and mummies buried together are some of the finest weavings in Peru, as well as gold, pottery and skulls showing evidence of successful surgery.

They were succeeded in the south by the Nazca, best known for the patterns of spiders and birds and geometric designs they marked out in the parched earth. The lines show a good understanding of astronomy and apparent effort to please gods of the mountains or the skies. Nazca’s most polished art, however, was ceramics: pottery of strong form, slip-painted in brilliant colors, with crisply drawn fruits, animals, humans and supernatural beings.

At the same time in the northern coast, the Moche civilization arose and became one of Peru’s greatest empires.

The immense mounds and pyramids they built as temples and tombs have begun to crumble, but their life has been preserved in ceramics, the most realistic in Peru. Brown and white Moche pots were molded in life-like shapes to portray all of their culture, from nobles to families, the deformed and handicapped among them, a menagerie of wild animals and bizarre combinations such as a bird with human hands and a potato with human heads for eyes.

The next great civilization on the north coast would be the Chimu, powerful warriors who built a new empire in Moche territory. Their pottery was darker and cruder, but their capital of Chan Chan was a massive adobe city of 9 square miles and at least 50,000 inhabitants. Eventually conquered by the Incas, it still stands, 400 years later.

Still another culture was rising along the central coast, the Chancay. They produced great weavings and pottery most remarkable for a stylized humor; even the stone figures chosen as the symbol of the Empires of Mystery exhibit seem playful as well as frightful.

About A.D. 1200 around Cuzco, a small culture emerged that called its nobles Incas. If their early history is unclear, their rise to imperial glory was certain, quick and remarkable. During a Chancay attack on Cuzco in 1438, the ruling Inca failed and a son took charge. He repelled the Chancay, renamed himself Pachacuti and set out to conquer Peru.

When the Spanish arrived 100 years later, the Incas ruled the Chancay, the Chimu and every other culture for 3,000 miles.

The Incas’ great genius was unifying these peoples, integrating newcomers with Cuzco loyalists. They borrowed the arts, skills and even the leaders and gods of the conquered. In turn they gave them common language, well-organized local government and a vast system of granaries filled with corn for lean times. On their 20,000 miles of roads, high-altitude runners relayed the imperial mail.

All were governed by a hierarchy of Inca elites in Cuzco headed by an emperor who represented the sun god, and a queen who represented the moon, followed by Incas of varying rank of birth and privilege.

Each element of the society performed mit’a or turns of service for the Inca. Groups of nobles were assigned provinces to govern, temples to maintain or rope suspension bridges to build; the lowest citizens spent part of each year farming, building or fighting for the state.

This complex structure collapsed quickly, weakened first by disease, then Spanish steel, horses and cannon, and finally treachery and political infighting.

After futile rebellion, a few Incas fled north and east toward one place they had never truly conquered, the Amazon jungle, to set up their last, lost outposts.

Modern archaeologists believe they found those last strongholds of Vitcos and Vilcabamba in the mountains outside Cuzco. Other adventurers still on Pizarro’s treasure trail search for a mythical stronghold called Paititi deeper in the jungle. Unraveling the true mysteries of the empires of ancient Peru is a difficult path that begins by realizing how much has been lost.

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