Dark hands creased with time unconsciously cradle the drop spindles that transform wool from llamas and alpacas into multicolored cloth. The resulting beautiful weavings are a source of rainbow-hued pride, outlining the native population against green-terraced mountainsides and grey-block cities. The alpacas and llamas are the threads of life in the Andes, and they are present everywhere, leaving their droppings even on the modern cobblestone streets of Cusco. They are the first, rich, organic smell sensed as one steps out onto the incredibly engineered terraces of Machu Picchu where the gentle animals keep the forest at bay as they graze on grass covered platforms among gaping tourists.
The Incas were a pinnacle of a maturing civilization stretching from Central America to deep in South America over 500 years ago. They, like their contemporaries in 4 other great civilizations around the world, were acquiring advanced astronomical knowledge, developing engineering skills, and perfecting the science of artificial selection in ways that are still unfathomable. Unlike the other ancient cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, or Anasazis (whose sites we have wandered), the Incas were massive transformationists of the abiotic and biotic environment. Signs of their civilization are present everywhere in the many varieties of potatoes and corn, in the quality and quantity of wool-producing alpacas, in the smoothly engineered massive grey blocks which are the current foundations of Andean cities and villages, and in the richly unmistakable faces of their descendants. These are a people who dared to rebuild mountains soaring above deep, mysterious valleys by constructing terraces reaching toward the heavens. They are a proud civilization in which today, local people share jokes and understanding in Quechua rather than choosing to speak with each other the Spanish of their long ago conquerors. As their oral knowledge is increasingly coupled with educated scholars of their own race, a nuanced understanding of the Inca civilization emerges and old myths and misinterpretations provided in the past by the Spaniards are being struck down. Many campesinos, or highland natives, are learning English as they seek new sources of wealth from visitors (tourists and trekkers) to the sites of their Incan heritage.
As we reclined on terraces high above Machu Picchu, we wondered what life in South America, and in fact all of the Americas, would have been like if the Spanish Conquistadors had failed in their bid for land and wealth across the ocean. There was a sophistication of the Incas that was centuries before their time. Like other cultures, the diseases of the invaders were terrible, leading to dark ages where 60-90% of the population died in one generation and knowledge was irretrievably lost. Their current issues associated with poverty are significant, but recent elections suggest an opportunity for change for the average citizen in a society long dominated by those with great wealth. The hands that weave colorful patterns of culture and symbolism into stunning llicllas supporting new generations on the backs of women are capable of weaving a new society with greater equality and opportunity. The people in the Andes have the feel of a recovering society sitting on the edge of greatness.
Images of Machu Picchu, a Chincherra woman working alpaca wool, and Renato, our guide extraorinaire from Cusco Native. Posted from Cusco, Peru.