Holy burnt fathers and Catholic mummies

July 6, 2001

Nicholas Saunders praises a great scholarly effort that overturns historical prejudices in a fine reassessment of a continent

.At the beginning of the 20th century, South America was the least known continent. It was this that in part lay behind the publication of Julian Steward's monumental seven-volume Handbook of South American Indians ( HSAI ) published between 1946 and 1959. As the 21st century begins, the same can still be said, though archaeology and anthropology have changed dramatically in the amount of information available and in the theoretical sophistication with which it is interpreted. Instead of the HSAI 's exhaustive but dated people-by-people and artefact-by-artefact account, the emphasis today is on the multi-vocal nature of the past. It is thus a thematic, "idea-oriented" approach that characterises the two large volumes reviewed here, and that bear the ungainly title of The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume III, South America, Parts One and Two .

Although described as being neither encyclopedia nor handbook, the Cambridge History is clearly part of a recent fashion for publishing large, synthesising overviews. Archaeology, anthropology and, regionally, North America, and Mesoamerica especially, are awash with dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks and companion guides, and more are on the way. This phenomenon has many origins, not least the need to present in digestible chunks the huge amount of specialist knowledge available, and to reflect the increasingly sensitised nature of academic engagements with the past. South America has been in need of such a treatment for several decades.

In many respects, the Cambridge History fills this void admirably. In their introduction, the editors delineate a multidimensional framework that encompasses the imperatives of different areas, bodies of evidence and the methods by which regional specialists conceptualise and problematise the relationship between data and theory in their respective areas. As the editors allowed contributors free rein in dealing with their material, a degree of overlap is inevitable. The compensation is a diversity of approaches. Some chapters are organised chronologically, others by region, others around key problems and concepts. This has produced a richly textured publication that allows for a variety of positions to be adopted in dealing with myriad pasts, not least indigenous ways of categorising the past through myth and ritual. Here there are many indigenous voices to be heard, not just that of Native America as a reified category.

The multi-vocality of indigenous testimonies and their historiographical potential are explored by Frank Salomon in his opening chapter. We are challenged to assess, for example, how origin myths and chants to mummified ancestors can be considered history and if so, how they should be read. Of the mass of colonial period records mined in recent years, trial records from the Spanish campaigns to "extirpate" idolatry in Peru during the first 60 years of the 17th century are particularly informative. These records provide details on ritual, visionary experiences and the role of women in indigenous religious activities. They reveal that for many indigenous peoples, their own history was an integral part of what the Spanish regarded as paganism.

For instance, during the mid-17th century, some 120 years after the Spanish conquest, a major clandestine ritual took place in the town of San Pedro de Hacas. During the Christian festival of Corpus Christi, celebrants assured the indigenous huacas (sacred places/spirits) that despite their daytime devotions to Catholic saints, the festival was really in honour of them. They scattered coca in the plaza, sang, chanted, remembered the deeds of their sacred mummies and drank until dawn. Even when the Spanish discovered such rites and burnt the mummies and ritual paraphernalia, the resulting ashes were sometimes gathered to make a special kind of holy object known as a "burned father", thereby creating a new kind of spiritualised materiality.

In this and many other ways, we are sensitised to the complex layering of South America's many histories. We leave behind the view, sedimented in the HSAI , and still dominant in the 1970s, that "Indian history" was too vague or fantastic to be of use in (western) historical reconstruction. Our sensibilities also are re-oriented in looking at the archaeological record of pre-Columbian societies. We are forced to acknowledge that the materialities with which archaeologists deal, themselves embody and objectify "ideas of explanation and being" previously uncaptured by a rigid and theoretically naive approach to excavation and interpretive analysis.

An emphasis on material culture necessarily dominates the chapters that treat South America's archaeological past. The inconsistencies and enigmatic nature of the archaeological record of America's earliest inhabitants are illustrated by the continuing debate about the nature of Monte Verde - a site in Chile dated to c.13,000 years ago, possibly even 33,000 years ago. Misinterpetation of stratigraphy, contamination of radiocarbon dates and misidentification of artefacts are charges levelled at a site that breaks the universally agreed barrier for the arrival of Palaeoindian peoples some 11,000 years ago. Thomas Lynch navigates this morass of data, weaving together faunal, floral and climatic information to give a judicious account of this early period.

Also afflicted by patchy data and compounded by difficult working conditions are the Amazonian lowlands. In a wide-ranging account, Anna Roosevelt offers a detailed synthesis of this still little investigated region. This is especially valuable as it adds a diachronic perspective to an area best known for ethnographies of post-contact Amerindian societies whose lifeways are a mix of traditional culture and creative strategies developed to cope with the encroachment of European civilisation since the early 16th century.

Although coverage extends from early Palaeoindian presence in coastal Peru to the Andean ritual centre of Chavín de Huántar (c.800BC) with its vivid anthropo-zoomorphic art, it is east of the Andes that the author makes her most valuable contribution. In the Amazon lowlands, Palaeoindian culture has been discovered in the Caverna da Pedra Pintada near Santarém, and dated to c.8,000BC. The site yielded cave-wall paintings and some 30,000 pieces of quartz crystal and chalcedony debitage alongside tools made from these minerals. Importantly, these nomadic hunters appeared well adapted to a tropical rainforest environment, a fact that undermined a long-standing view that early human migrations of big-game hunters moved from North America down the Andes and avoided the tropical lowlands.

Equally significant is the debunking of long-held ideas about the sparse settlement of the region in later prehistory. Such ideas were based on the projection into the past of post-contact realities - 500 years of disease and dislocation that produced a small and scattered indigenous population by the 19th century. The past few decades have shown that the region was densely populated in prehistory, with multi-mound sites, some more than 10 sq km in area, known from Maraj" Island at the mouth of the Amazon, and archaeological deposits up to 4m deep extending for miles along the river's banks. Time and again this chapter illustrates how physical evidence, informed theoretical approaches and technological innovations have overturned past prejudices.

While Amazonia's archaeological potential is only now being realised, that of the Andes has long been known. The monumental task of synthesising the astonishing cultural diversity of Andean civilisation between 500BC and AD600 fell to Izumi Shimada. The result is a cogent and clear-sighted analytical account of archaeological evidence and cultural process, a consummate piece of scholarship that sifts a wealth of variable data and presents the best overview to date.

Shimada designates this the "Early Regional Development" (ERD) period to try to avoid previous subjective valuations and evolutionary implications being attached to individual cultures. Many critical issues are raised - notably the over-reliance on often-looted funerary objects that has denied a dynamic and holistic view of ERD cultures. Shimada highlights the uncritical application of ethnohistoric and ethnographic analogies and the simplistic reading of painted scenes on pottery (mainly from the Mochica culture) as representing an "obviously" militarily aggressive polity. The majority of attention to date has focused on the ceremonial aspects of these cultures and the notion of "elites" operating within a putative pan-Andean "universal" worldview - a concept derived almost exclusively from a biased object-based methodology. These powerful and well-made criticisms will encourage more inclusive and representative approaches in the future.

Inevitably in such an enterprise, some chapters work better than others. Louis Allaire's contribution on Caribbean archaeology is characterised by admirable scholarship and careful interpretation, and is informed by many years first-hand experience. Nevertheless, it makes for frustrating reading. The dispersed, compartmentalised and highly variable quality and nature of island Caribbean archaeological research make it difficult to synthesise. Complicating this was the decision to extend the chapter's remit to include the circum-Caribbean mainland of Central and South America. While intellectually justifiable as it adds crucial contextualising data, it makes for an awkward organisation that jumps back and forth from one geographical and cultural area to another.

The region fares better from the perspective of ethnohistory. Neil Whitehead's chapter on Caribbean transformation between 1492 and 1580 is an engaging account of the variable impact and novel indigenous responses to European discovery and colonisation. The author's mastery of the written sources allows him to go beyond synthesis and offer perceptive insights. Typical is an account of the way in which competition between European colonising powers was perceived and interpreted by the natives of Trinidad and the Orinoco. When Raleigh was arming and calling on the natives of Trinidad to help him overthrow the Spanish, a local shaman experienced apocalyptic visions and claimed the authority of the "Spirit of Fire" to prophesy the liberation of the native peoples from the Spanish by the military powers of the English and Dutch.

Equally stimulating is a discussion of the physical and metaphysical nature of gold for native peoples and the confrontation with European commercial valuations. In the Caribbean, it was the odour and cosmological associations of ornaments made of guanín (a copper-gold-silver alloy) that were paramount, with chiefly titles incorporating local names for such shiny metals. On Española, the chief Caonabo's name meant "He who is like gold". Here, ethnohistory bears directly on the materialities of archaeology, contextualising notions of shiny cosmological powers objectified in elite artefacts and in wider conceptions of worldview.

Careful re-readings of ethnohistorical texts are a feature of many chapters that move away in time from Columbus's first contact in 1492. Karen Spalding's account of the Andes between 1500 and 1580 is typical of the temporally bounded, fine-grained analyses found throughout these two volumes. Apart from offering an account of the conquest itself - in which we learn that Atahuallpa's ransom is conservatively estimated at half a billion dollars at today's values - there is an insightful analysis of the reasons behind the demographic disaster that afflicted the native inhabitants during the 16th century. Apart from war, disease and abuse, the population decline was also structural, because of the nature of the initial plunder economy, which saw thousands of natives assigned to a Spanish encomendero , who then profited from the labour of his encomienda . Access to an encomienda was the main, sometimes only avenue to riches for Spaniards who went to Peru in the wake of the conquest.

Reflecting the anthropological attention given to Andean societies, several chapters investigate the colonial experience in this area. The late Thierry Saignes focuses on the Quechua-Aymara heartland between 1570 and 1780, charting the long process of integration that occurred during Hispano-Andean colonial coexistence - a process, he informs us, whose depths of change still defy historiographic conceptualisation. An illustration of this was the discovery at Tarapacá, on the Chilean Pacific coastal desert, of a colonial-period native nobleman buried as a mummified corpse in a cave. Despite this indigenous aspect, the burial contained a pouch inside which was a 1680 document stating that the deceased had paid "the papal bull for the holy crusade" and would thus enjoy indulgences that shortened his stay in purgatory. In death, as presumably in life, this individual was caught betwixt-and-between.

More broadly in this part of South America, it was the reforms of viceroy Francisco de Toledo who reined in the would-be Spanish feudal elites, finally crushed the small Inca state of Vilcabamba in 1572 and engaged in reducciones whereby 1.5 million Indians were re-grouped into 600 communities, a process that dismantled many indigenous social structures that had survived the conquest. One consequence, as Saignes perceptively points out, was the increasing expectation among the indigenous inhabitants of a cataclysm or reversal that would see the Spanish expelled from the region. Sometimes, natural disasters were conceptualised as signs of this impending change, such as the volcanic eruption near Arequipa in 1600 and the Cuzco earthquake of 1646. There were other, more creative paths to insurrection, including the rise of subversive native messiahs such as the Christ of Tacobamba near Potos!, who advocated drinking chicha (maize beer) and eating the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, and countless shamans who proclaimed themselves Saint James the Apostle or the Virgin Mary. A native cacique (headman) told a Jesuit how his priest was an idolater, worshipping his silver coins by night. To the Indians, it now seemed they were the true Christians, and the Spaniards heretics and demons.

In his account of Indian rebellions between 1680 and 1790, Luis Miguel Glave explains how the stratified estate-based social scheme of the time is often regarded as a set of paired republics - of Indians and of Spaniards. The Republic of Indians did not mount a unified attack on Spanish power but engaged in a number of qualitatively different struggles - from a wave of small movements in what is now Ecuador, or the rebellion of Juan Santos Atahuallpa in 1740s to the larger insurrections led by Túpac Amaru II and Túpac Catari beginning in 1780. Although the latter are often referred to as the "Great Rebellion", in reality they were more complex - a mix of peasant revolts, rebellions in defence of traditional Andean culture and the consequence of systemic failures in the ability of the state to manage economic change.

A welcome focus on materiality is included in Brooke Larson's account of 19th-century nation-making among the Andean peasantry. This analyses a suite of photographs of Andean peasants known as Cartes-de-Visite , which feature Aymara "Indian types" in stylised European poses. These postcard portraits were collected by their hundreds and analysed by scientists to construct "composite types" that might be useful for genetic theories of race, criminology or creole debates over Indian legislation, education, and civilising potential. Here we see plainly how objects make people just as much as people make objects.

The Cambridge History is an intensely academic publication whose conception, structure and coverage make it a benchmark for future work. Even a long review can only briefly sample the rich store of information and insight found in these two volumes. Although not exhaustive in the old-fashioned sense of the HSAI , its value lies as much in the intellectual rigour of organisation and argument as in the necessarily selective case studies that authors use to illustrate broader issues. No one interested or involved in indigenous South America can afford to ignore such a prodigious feat of modern scholarship.

Nicholas Saunders lectures in archaeology and anthropology, University College London.

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