Tag Archives: Incas

Visiting the beginning of the world

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The Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) in Lake Titicaca is, according to Incan creation mythology, the birthplace of the world. We went and visited and it was excellent.

Lake Titicaca is often billed as the world’s highest navigable lake. This seems a dubious claim as surely a strategically placed paddling pool and toy boat could beat it for the title. But suffice to say it is high at 3,800m. And it has almost endless clear blue waters surrounded by deserty shores and mountain vistas. We can understand why the Incas thought it was special and an excellent spot for a little child sacrifice on the stone table below.

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A little Incan theology

Among other things, the Incan creation myth says that the sun rose into the sky by climbing three steps of a puma shaped rock on Isla del Sol. The sun holds massive importance in Incan religion with which we sympathise. It’s what makes  a frigid I’m-wearing-all-my-merino Andean morning into a bearable sightseeing day.

The Incan emperors were said to have descended directly from the sun itself. This was all part of their shroud of majesty which kept them as unquestioned and absolute monarchs. There is actually some evidence that at least the modern emperors knew this was a ruse, which is awesome. You can imagine their kids being like “dad, are we really descended from the sun?” and them being like “No, just from grandma. We say the thing about the sun so everyone will worship us”.

One of the remarkable thing about Incan society was its ability to sustain diversity of religious belief. Even in terms of creation myth there was a competing idea that the first people had nothing to do with the sun, but instead wriggled from the ground like worms. And when new tribes were incorporated into the empire their gods were venerated and brought to the main Incan temple in Cusco. The unifying religion was the least innocuous bit – worshiping the sun, moon and stars – and the earth mother Pachamama that remains  a revered force throughout the Andean Americas today.

The island

There’s about 4,000 people living on the Island today in a few scattered settlements. We stayed in one which had a delightful village feel, complete with a sheep that had the most cliched baaa imaginable. We also met a young girl of about six who freely volunteered the problems with her parents hostel: “ya, no hay wifi” – now there is no wifi she said. “Is there hot water?” we asked, and she sadly shook her head. New tactic for assessing potential lodgings: ask innocent child.

Each settlement charged a small fee for walking through their lands. That was fine, but lead to some ticket offices in some remarkable places.
Each settlement charged a small fee for walking through their lands. That was fine, but lead to some ticket offices in some remarkable places.

Policy wonk digest: Incan edition

Normally our policy wonk digests focus on snippets of interesting policy in the countries we’re traveling through. This one focuses on the state we’d have been visiting had we arrived here 500 years ago: the Inca Empire.

  • Baby Incas had their skulls stretched in the hope their brains would grow bigger as a result. The more noble the Inca, the more the stretching. Combined with the prohibition on all but the nobility using coca, it all sounds a little Brave New World.
  • The Incan Empire expanded rapidly. The initial Incan approach was to persuade tribes to join voluntarily. Many did. The Incas were then even generous enough to incorporate the new tribe’s gods into their primary temples in Cusco. Tribes that didn’t join voluntarily were still beaten up by Incan armies, though.
  • When there were uprisings or troubles with tribes in the empire, Incas used forced migration to return things to a peaceful equilibrium. Groups that were loyal to the empire would be moved in alongside dissidents. Agitators might be brought closer to the centre of Incan power. There are, still today, tribes in Ecuador who came from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and retain their original cultural practices. The Incan approach was not all that dissimilar to Indonesian Transmigration.
  • Incan nobility were preserved as mummies after their death. Their estates – land, property, servants – continued to function and served them. In this way the Incas were arguably early adopters of legal personality.
  • The Incan road system is legendary and still somewhat intact despite unforgiving terrain. The roads allowed for dissemination of supplies and quick mobilisation of armies. Rest and store houses every 20km were kept well stocked.
  • The roads were also the lifeblood of an elaborate communication system. There would be a camp of specially trained messengers about every 2km. They would run messages in a relay system. There can have been no Chinese whispers, for the Incas were isolated from all other civilisations.
  • The Incas devolved power in an ordered and hierachical way. The Inca (the emperor) rules all. Under him were rulers of about 100,000 people, then 10,000 and so on down to, in some cases, units of around ten.
  • We’ve written before about the peculiar Incan economy that was without markets or currency. It worked mostly because ordinary Incas were required to work for the state for most of the year – a kind of taxation – and were supplied with the necessities of life as a result.

Machu Picchu too

Machu Picchu now officially makes our list – along with the Taj Mahal and Venice – of places that are totally worth their enormous tourist hype.

Starting out in the morning at 5.30am it felt like we were going skiing:

  • piling on to the buses for the windy climb up the hillside, nobody felt like they’d had quite enough sleep, but everyone was excited
  • everyone was hoping the blanket of mist would clear
  • every second person was wearing something from The North Face
  • some hard core folks were hiking to avoid the bus ride (we were not among them)

When we got to the gates there was a massive queue, but the sight absorbed the thousand or so visitors, just like a good ski field and there was much room to wander.

Machu Picchu is an enigmatic place. Most of its residents had fled by the time of European ‘rediscovery’ in 1911. As a result, beyond knowing it was an Incan city no one really knows for sure what it was for. Intuitively the fact that it’s built atop a steep sided mountain that would be tough to summit, let alone build on, suggests the Incas thought it was a very special place. This was no ordinary Incan city. But whether it was primarily a religious, political or trading centre no one is really sure.

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The site is a large part of the spectacle. The mountain is towering. It stands in the way of the Urubamba river which gushes below in deep ravines around a U-shape bend. It feels much higher than it actually is because the slopes are so dizzying. Watching the mist fade from the landscape and the ruins was both a relief, and quite magic.

And then the ruins are great. Unlike most Incan sites the Spanish didn’t know Machu Picchu existed and so they didn’t have the chance to pillage it to pieces. All that’s really lacking is the thatched roofs and the inhabitants. There’s still functioning fountains and aqueducts. And llamas, which add to any attraction. The sunrise still shines perfectly through a single temple window once a year at summer solstice.

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The Peruvian government, which manages the site, has capitalised well on the attraction, without over-commercialising it. The tickets are expensive, especially in Peruvian terms. They cost about $70NZD. But the number of visitors is limited per day, as are people climbing adjacent mountains and the Inca trail. And, really pleasingly, the commitment to preserving the site means there is no commerce wherein. Not so much as an overpriced empanada seller. There’s not even bathrooms. Everyone flouts the rule that you can’t eat and drink inside but in doing so become determined to be discrete enough to not even think about littering.

It was an effort to get to Machu Picchu, and a not inconsiderable blip in our budget too. But it’s somewhere we couldn’t have been to Peru without visiting. And that we’d recommend to any tourist without hesitation.

 

Cusco and her ruins

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Cusco was the capital of the Inca empire. At its height it must have been out-of-this-world spectacular. In fact, it’s still pretty darn cool. When the Spanish arrived they quickly ran out of grand buildings in Spain to which to compare its architecture. They were especially interested in the massive amounts of gold.

The gold is gone now. Much of it was melted down by an Inca emperor to pay ransom to the Spanish. To the Incas gold didn’t really have value outside a religious context where they thought it was special because it reflected the sun. The rest of the gold was looted and pillaged and sent back to Spain.

Some of the mighty Inca structures were used by the Spanish as quarries to build a new colonial city. Palaces in the city centre were stripped down and had cathedrals built atop them. But there are enough remaining ruins to get a sense of how impressive Incan architecture was. We especially liked Saqsaywaman which overlooks the modern city.

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Without any mortar-like substance the Incans cut rocks incredibly precisely, fitting them together in complex polyagonal shapes. One hell of a rubix cube. They managed to cart huge stones about without the wheel or draught animals. And without having figured out the strength and usefulness of the arch they made great use of the trapezoid, even tilting their walls to make them more earthquake proof.

Cusco’s not ruined

Cusco is pretty touristy. On top of all its own ruins it is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. But it manages to pull off touristy pretty well. It’s like Rotorua in that the tourist attractions are actually integrated into the city. But it smells better. You turn a corner or climb an alley and find an original Incan wall. That’s to say nothing of the colonial churches and other architecture that abound.

We’re staying with a local family who we found on airbnb.com.  Our main host likes Richard Dawkins and pop-economics, just like us. We’ve talked about Daniel Kahneman and Pikkety and I made Fiona explain libertarian paternalism and nudges. His daughters do maths for fun and like to ask how to say things in English. It’s nice to spend some time with a Latin American family that priorities education.

Our host’s sister cooks us breakfast – which is rice and something else, the something else ranging from chicken casserole to banana pancakes – and she and her daughter sleep in the kitchen behind a curtain. It’s another example of the contrast between a city that in some ways feels very European and splendorous, but it other ways not so much.

Incanomics

One of the things that makes the Incan civilisation so interesting is what they didn’t have. Despite being highly advanced in many ways they hadn’t developed the wheel, didn’t use the arch in architecture and didn’t have a written language.

Economically they were wealthy enough to build and sustain massive and intricate road networks and cities decorated with gold. But they didn’t have currency, marketplaces or internal commerce. This is very unusual.

Food before wealth

One argument for the absence of currency and markets is that Inca society was geared to optimise food production rather than wealth. You can understand why: the climate of the Andes is tough and unforgiving; the soils not very productive; and, the Incas had no draught animals. So to keep their population from starving they:

  • created elaborate mountain terracing to make land arable
  • planted trees to maintain the quality of topsoil
  • developed major stores of food in the good times
  • organised cropping on a massive scale

They also occasionally sacrificed their daughters and live-stock to the gods, which may have been the key to their success.

It’s likely that their ability to better feed themselves is also what allowed the Incas to dominate other tribes when empire building. It was probably also a contributor to why lots of tribes joined the civilisation willingly.

The Incas made terraces to cultivate otherwise inhospitable land. Many are still in use.
The Incas made terraces to cultivate otherwise inhospitable land. Many are still in use.

Central planning and tax through labour

The Incas optimised food production through central planning. This crowded out individual enterprise. There were specialists who determined and oversaw the planting of crops from potatoes to peanuts in different climates and at different altitudes. Incan hunting was a stunning example of cooperation. Hunts were organised with many hunters – some estimates say 10,000 at once – moving slowly towards the middle of a massive circle in the Andean savannah, scaring, surrounding and slaughtering animals (but not so many as to eradicate populations).

Incas were required to work for the state in common field and mines, and on other projects, for most months of the year. In exchange they drew the tools, clothes, food and other raw materials that they required from central stores. This practice gives new meaning to the libertarian maxim that tax is slavery, but also meant there was no need for currency. The transaction was labour for goods.

Were the Incas socialist?

On the back of their economic planning and focus on labour and production some historians have argued that the Incas were a kind of pre-modern socialist state.

Others say that can’t be so as there was still a noble class that was exempt from taxes and pretty well did whatever it wanted. They were the only ones allowed to chew coca and take second wives, and they were exempt from labouring for the state. So it’s best understood as an authoritarian monarchy.

For what it’s worth it seems me this kind of privileged class, exempt from the travails of labour, its entirely consistent with the realities of a socialist state. At least the Incas had a good reason for bestowing this privilege: they believed their nobility were directly descended from the sun.

 

Building an empire to stand the test of time

This screenshot is a reasonable approximation of the Inca empire at its height. It stretched from the south of modern day Colombia to the north of modern day Chile, focused on the Andean mountains.
This screenshot is a reasonable approximation of the Inca empire at its height. It stretched from the south of modern day Colombia to the north of modern day Chile, focused on the Andean mountains.

The Incas were a kick ass civilisation until the Spanish conquistadores came along and kicked their ass. The book I’m reading on the fall of the Inca empire basically reads like a retelling of an epic, if one sided, game of Civilization. So far it goes like this…

The Inca were the dominant civilisation in South America. Because of their harsh environment they focused their development of technologies on things like bridge building, pottery and bronze working. They were all about the mysticism and agriculture. Their only immediate enemies were barbarians. They captured their cities and benefited from the treasure they found there. However there were occasional civil disorders within the Inca empire, often due to complaints about taxation. This was the case on the day a Spanish naval unit arrived on the coast.

The last Inca, Atahuapala was captured by the Spanish. He arranged the sacking of Incan cities in an effort to pay ransom, oblivious to the fact the Spainards were the vanguard of an invasion force. Poor guy, when the Spanish decided to execute him they said if he converted to Christianity he'd be hanged rather than burned. He acquiesced, hoping to be mummified with his possessions like all Incas. But the Spanish, because of his conversion, gave him a Christian burial.
The last Inca, Atahuapala was captured by the Spanish. He arranged the sacking of Incan cities in an effort to pay ransom, oblivious to the fact the Spainards were the vanguard of an invasion force.
Poor guy, when the Spanish decided to execute him they said if he converted to Christianity he’d be hanged rather than burned. He acquiesced, hoping to be mummified with his possessions like all Incas. But the Spanish, because of his conversion, gave him a Christian burial.

The Inca were stunned to find the Spanish unit contained knights, for they had not developed the horse riding technology. There was only a single Spanish naval unit but the knights it contained were able to progress without incident to a major Inca city. The Inca warriors and militia were no match for the Spanish knights who conquered the city, captured the Inca emperor and used it as a base for further conquests.

Reinforced with more knights arriving by sea the Spanish moved South and then North to conquer other Inca cities. As settlers followed their military units they founded their own capital on the continent and called it Lima.