wednesday, may 30, 2007
An Interview with Guillermo CockIn 1999, an international team of researchers led by Peruvian archeologist Guillermo Cock began the excavation of an Incan graveyard in the eastern section of Lima. It was a race against time to save the remains buried there before the influx of thousands of people built their homes over the site.
Three years later his team had recovered more than 2,300 mummies and tens of thousands of artifacts at the Puruchuco-Huaquerones site interred sometime between 1438 to 1532 – the largest such site ever discovered in the Americas. It was an incredible find that garnered quite a bit of attention due to the coverage of National Geographic who helped finance the effort.
The story is one of hundreds repeated across the country. Peru has been a siren call for those inquisitive about the past even before the fateful day in 1911 when Hiram Bingham stepped out of the high jungle into the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. With dozens of cultures stretching back as far as 7,000 years, there is an abundance of sites awaiting study but there are also forces at work putting it all in peril.
I recently visited Cock at his offices in the Lima suburb of Surco and discussed these topics and quite a few others…
Q: How amazing is Peru from an archeological standpoint?
A: It is a unique place because it combines characteristics that make research and investigation here a great experience. Because the factor of preservation, mainly here on the Peruvian coast where it rarely rains and is extremely dry, the remains of the past have been preserved very well. In addition, Peru has been described as one of few places where culture started; modification of the environment, social organization… the basics of civilization all occurred here.
Q: How come all these things happened here?
A: We don’t really have answers for that today but we do have theories. The underlying reason is that man, confronted with the difficulties of nature, had the need to survive. Confronted with a harsh environment they had to develop ingenious ways to survive. When you have an environment that presents a challenge and has this much diversity, it is ripe for development to happen.
One of the prevailing theories is that the richness of the ocean along the Peruvian coast was so great it created conditions ideal for a civilization to emerge. People were able to survive by gathering – not even fishing, but gathering – along the seashores. Then that gave them the sustenance required to develop more complex forms of society. Then we see them organize and produce irrigation, then agriculture and a fully functioning civilization.
Q: What is the key element to all this?
A: Water. There is almost no abundant fresh water along the entire Peruvian coast. Obtaining it for communities to grow is the catalyst for organizing communities and then societies. And this importance of water is going to be reflected over the next 5,000 years of Peruvian history. People are going to organize and congregate along the irrigation channels. The waterways and canals define the existence of the local polities. It creates divisions socially, economically and, as a consequence, politically.
Q: What is the biggest thing we don’t know at this point?
A: We don’t know the facts. (laughs) We don’t know the specifics of all these people and their lives. We are never going to know everything because as we get more information and develop better theories we constantly have new questions. It is a process of constantly searching for more precise answers.
A: Certainly. There are many Peruvian researchers and there is a lot of academic interest from abroad, particularly with the changes in the patrimony law in the United States. It is now very difficult to study human remains there, it's almost impossible, really. Here there is an abundance. If you want to be a physical anthropologist and go into forensics, you have to come here. And when you add the level of preservation we see in the finds here you have excellent subjects to work with. It is a good place to work.
Q: What is one of the biggest obstacles facing researchers trying to understand all this?
A: It is almost too much of a good thing. There is so much here it is a real obstacle to understanding the total of what happened here. There are so many sites, so many different cultures, so many different disciplines that it can be difficult to know where to start. And researchers have a tendency to hold our own disciplines as the most important and needing prioritization. And with this large a group of people, it can be difficult to come to an agreement. But we have to have a common ground to make better progress.
Q: Who should do this?
A: The National Institute of Culture (INC) has a key role to play in this process but it has been completely passive about this so far. They do not have the economic resources but, more than that, the academic resources. But they need to take the lead in prioritizing the research. We should organize both the research being done by foreign researchers and Peruvian researchers. We are not talking about imposing anything but more setting priorities, identifying areas of need and encouraging work in an more cohesive fashion.
A: In one word, humans. Our society. But it is pretty difficult to isolate a single factor. There are land invasions – people taking over archeological sites in order to build homes. But that’s a problem near the cities. It is not only the invaders. The squatters are a problem but it is the middle class as well. The problem is all of us. In order to continue urban development we have to destroy archeological sites to do it. It is a very difficult issue.
Q: Isn’t much of this being recovered and studied?
A: Even in the cases where the material is being recovered there is no processing, researching or investigation. We recover the objects but we are not transforming the data into knowledge. There is a brief description of what it is but that is all. There is no data to put it in any type of context for understanding. And we have to change this. We have to do more than just recover the archeological evidence of our past, we have to be able to study it.
Q: How big a problem is looting?
A: You have two different types of theft and looting here in Peru. There is the traditional style, peasants who are unemployed or during long holidays will go and loot. That is something that has happened for as long as sites have existed. And then there is the organized looting and that’s the issue nobody wants to touch.
Typically when people discuss looting they talk about looting in general. But there is at least one organized group working in up and down the Peruvian coast systematically removing objects for at least the last 20 years. They work by moving a few dozen looters with experience into a site, they provide provisions and equipment and establish a camp then over a month or two months they completely clean out the area.
And in many cases they are using the archeological reports and surveys being written to document these sites to find them and raid them. They target items given what the demand is on the black market. And nobody talks about it.
A: In Peru there is a lack of identification with the past. There is a disconnect between Peruvians today and the Peruvians of the past and that has to be dealt with before a substantive change can occur. Ancient Peru is not part of the identity for modern Peruvians. If you do not have a personal identification with your ancestral elements, you are not going to protect it. When these people go and loot these places it is partly because profaning something they believe is part of their world. They don’t see it as their ancestors. These are a completely different people.
Q: Why does that exist?
A: In my view, Peruvian history is seen by many people as a succession of failures. The first and greatest traumatic failure was the (Spanish) conquest. And that fractured the perception of Peruvians, among the peasants, the largest part of the population, with this body of history that preceded it. If you talk to a straight descendant from the Quechua people, he or she would not say they are a descendant of the Incas, they would said the Incas were the antiguos, the Ancients. There is a clear division between the generations after the conquest and before it.
Q: Is that changing?
A: Sipan is an example of that starting to change. For the first time in Peruvian history the people started to develop an identity and pride with this aspect of their ancient past. And, I partly believe, it is because it was the Lord of Sipan… a human being, not just a general culture or group. It provided a face for these people and in the form of a success. There were riches and a lot of gold and power. The Lord of Sipan was not a loser.
As early as 1989, you could find businesses in the north and here in Lima, pharmacies for example, named “The Lord of Sipan.” It was one of the few cases where Peruvians realized what they had, particularly after the publication of the find in National Geographic and the news going around the world.
Q: And are the mummies similar as well?
A: The mummies are very popular. They provide a face – a real face – for these people. It is an individual with a name not a general group. And we are nicknaming them and that helps as well. When Johan Reinhard and his team discovered the mummy on Mt. Ampato in the 1990s, they named her Juanita. It’s not a mummy, it’s Juanita. It is a name, it is now a person. And the local community then identified with it as well.
This was a very important find. It didn’t change our perception of the Inca society and it isn’t particularly uncommon, there are mummies found in all of the southern peaks; it is a great find and excellent work but not revolutionary from an archeological standpoint. But the popular importance is immeasurable. She is Juanita the Lady of Ampato, The Frozen Lady, and today is known the world over. And here in Peru there is an immediate connection with her that wasn’t there before.
|comment posted by: melissa on may 30, 2007 @ 1:41 pm|
...Oh!...what a fantastic, revealing report!
|comment posted by: judy on may 30, 2007 @ 3:55 pm|
I'm with Melissa. do the famous u.s.a. universities participate and help fund and preservations.?
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