Telling a tale without a script

The Inca World
March 2, 2001

It is ironic that one of the world's great civilisations and pre-Columbian America's largest indigenous empire is so poorly served by serious popular books. While the Aztec and Maya of Mesoamerica are over-published in this genre, South America's Inca civilisation has mainly inspired specialist or children's books, or volumes concerned only or mainly with the drama of the Spanish conquest in 1532.

There are many reasons for this, but the single most important factor is that the Incas had no writing system, despite creating and administering a multi-ethnic empire of perhaps twelve million people. Modern authors have to immerse themselves in the specialist literature of archaeology and ethnohistory, both of which are distanced from their subjects and both of whose insights are filtered through western attitudes and interpretations. Simply put, it is easier to write books on the Aztec than on the Inca.

Although not filling this gap entirely satisfactorily, The Inca World , edited by Laura Minelli, is a beautifully illustrated volume of scholarly and, for the main part, accessible articles by recognised specialists. This is a 1999 revised English translation of a 1992 Italian original that itself must have involved extensive translations -and it shows. The re-translation into English is often awkward and the book's coverage patchy, despite the inclusion of eminent scholars. There is also little sign of the theoretical issues that have enlivened and sensitised archaeology over the past 25 years, issues that could have been used to "talk up" the case for popularising Inca culture. This missed opportunity is particularly noticeable in the editor's scene-setting introduction.

Nevertheless, the book usefully concentrates on a well-defined 500-year period, encompassing the Late Intermediate Period (AD 1000-1450) and the Inca Horizon (1450-1534). This tight chronological and cultural focus on the Incas and their immediate predecessors is welcome, as most other non-specialist publications range over some 3,000 years of Andean prehistory, squeezing this era into the last two or three chapters.

In the most comprehensive of the accounts, Izumi Shimada provides a masterly overview of the great pre-Inca states of north coastal Peru. Focusing on the rich metal-producing Sic n culture (AD 800-1375) and its eventual conquerer the imperial Chimú (AD 1200-1470), the author paints a picture of two dazzling prehistoric societies. Sophisticated technologies, elaborate material culture for the living and the dead, and huge mud-brick pyramids and ritual centres are just some of the kinds of evidence that Shimada has spent decades investigating. The details are illuminating: a strange mix of the familiar and unexpected. The Sic n people forged then traded their arsenical copper products for religiously important spondylus shells from Ecuador, which they interred with their leaders alongside gold, gold-silver, tumbaga (copper-gold) and feather ornaments. One tomb yielded five bodies accompanied by no less than 1.2 tons of such objects.

For their part, the Chimú built Chan Chan, which, with an area of almost 25 sq km, was the largest pre-Columbian Andean city constructed. In about AD 1470, the Inca conquered the Chimú, adopting some of their ideological and physical strategies for imperial organisation and possibly dynastic succession. The Inca so admired the sophisticated metallurgy of Chan Chan that they took the metalsmiths back to Cuzco in the same way that the Chimú had originally acquired them from the conquered Sic n culture. Here we get a very human glimpse of how people, technology and objects were recycled and spread in such distant times.

Two features characterise the imperial Inca achievement in popular imagination: their monumental building style and the enigmatic quipu or knotted cords used instead of writing.

The instantly recognisable megalithic polygonal architecture is seen to great effect in the Inca capital at Cuzco, the nearby temple fortress of Sacsahuaman and the mountain-top site of Machu Picchu. In a cogent synthesis of his previous work, Jean-Pierre Protzen offers a comprehensive description and analysis of Inca architecture's formal elements, design principles, functions and site planning. We learn that the impressive facades of well-cut, tightly fitted monoliths concealed many variations from one building to another, with Inca architects always able to modify standard designs to fit the local topography. The Inca were not city builders; their structures functioned rather as psychologically intimidating expressions of imperial presence and territorial control.

While such analyses of material culture are important and enlightening, they can also be misleading because Inca culture (and its artefacts) was infused with myth. One origin story tells of the founding emperor, Pachacuti, defeating his Chanca enemies with the help of stones that magically came to life and aided the Inca victory. Other origin myths stress the animated nature of the Andean landscape, presenting an indigenous and spiritual view of stone that is forever beyond the capacity of architectural history to recapture.

The same problems of interpretation hamper attempts to understand the quipu . Minelli's account of these tools of bureaucratic control stresses the complexities of record keeping based on a decimal system of positional notation, but one which may also have possessed a literary dimension. While quipus functioned as a counting device, they also embodied Inca notions of colour symbolism, and, through their variously sized and twisted knots, seem to have had a syllabic-phonetic component whereby sacred hymns could be addressed by the divine Inca nobility to their gods. That the Spanish colonisers recognised the political dimensions of the ideological and metaphysical qualities of quipus is indicated by the Council of Lima's ordering their destruction in 1583.

This is an important book, which touches on many of the key elements of Inca and pre-Inca civilisation. It brings before a general audience a set of stunning images and equally stimulating essays. In other words, it provides a basis for the still-awaited popular classic on Inca culture to pair with John Hemmings's 30-year-old, but never out-of-print, The Conquest of the Incas .

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

The Inca World: The Development of Pre-Columbian Peru, AD1000-1534

Editor - Laura Laurencich Minelli
ISBN - 0 806 13221 3
Publisher - University of Oklahoma Press
Price - £34.99
Pages - 239

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