Thursday, 14 May 2015

Point of departure

photograph by José Alva

Hernan’s 50 Anecdotes del Sabio Tello don't only tell the stories of the expedition team's adventures around Peru in the 1930s and 40s.  Several of them also tell the story of Tello himself. 

How did this boy from the mountains come to be 'arguably the greatest Native American social scientist of the twentieth century'?*

Point of departure
In which we find our where it all began for Tello

Scattered all over Peru are the chulpas of our ancestors. The burial towers and chambers where ancient Peruvians lie swallowed up in their eternal slumbers are where today’s farmhands, shepherds and animals continue to find shelter.

Many of them lie so far off the beaten track that they are never visited. One of these sites, Chuicoto in Huarochirí, was where the young Tello used to hide himself away and play as a small boy. 

According to the famous archaeologist, there was more than one occasion when he stopped and wondered who might have been the people who had lived there before. And although he had no way of knowing then what they were, it was while he played around the mysterious chulpas that the seed of this unanswered question was sown in his soul.

It was in his role of governor of Huarochirí that Tello’s father once received a somewhat out of the ordinary instruction from the Prefect of the Department. He was to initiate a search of the area for trepanated skulls and send any that were found to a certain Doctor Manuel Antonio Muñiz.

It was a request that, as you can imagine, was not easy to comply with; trepanated skulls, generally speaking, being rather scarce! But Don Julián took his duties as governor very seriously and did not like to disappoint.  He mobilised all the officers he could find, he himself included. They searched the chulpas around Huarochirí, amongst them those at Chuicoto, and the search did indeed unearth a fair number of the required skulls.

fig 1

What a shock awaited the young boy Tello when he arrived home that day. There before him was a macabre spectacle. On the floor was a pile of skulls, and, what seemed to him even more peculiar, each and every one of them, without exception, had a hole in it.  His obvious fright was very natural under the circumstances, but alongside it came the first stirrings of curiosity. What had made those holes? What had happened to those people when they were living? He was not yet to know exactly what trepanation was, but he was left with a vague notion that the holes somehow had something to do with the customs of the ancients.

Until his next encounter … years later when he was a university student studying medicine, and working part time at the National Library in Lima to help fund his studies. He tells of a day when, with brush in hand, dusting the books with protective kerosene, he came across a volume of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Opening it up, he found an article on trepanation rituals in ancient Peru written by the very Dr Muñiz who his father had so diligently aided in his research all those years ago.  

fig 2

And, there was a photograph of one of those same skulls that had left such an impression on his young mind. Now, with the page of the journal open in front of him, he was struck by the fact that these things, which held no special interest whatsoever for the local people of his district, had an extraordinary value in the scientific world.

The photograph touched and impressed him. He could see clearly the paper in which the skull had been wrapped and dispatched for display, and was surprised at how even now he could recall the fineness of its texture. This object from his home town and from his childhood filled him with a strange sense of familiarity and affection.

And he thought … 'I am from Huarochirí and I am studying medicine. I have the advantage of easier access to this material than any of the well known authorities in the field, and it’s very possible that there is a lot more to unearth'.

It was this one skull that Tello, the famous explorer and anthropologist, always spoke of as the decisive factor, the ‘point of departure’ for what was to become a fascinating journey and an illustrious career  

fig. 3

* Michael Moseley, University of Florida - quoted from back cover of  The Life and Writings of Julio C Tello - edited by Richard Burger

fig. 1  Hernan's illustration of a chulpa on Mount Chokta, taken from Arqueología de Cajamarca Expedición al Marañón - 1937 Obras Completas Julio C Tello Vol 1 (p. 98)

fig. 2  as above (p. 108)

fig. 3  Tello takes a rest from describing the chulpas on Mount Chokta, taken from Arqueología de Cajamarca Expedición al Marañón - 1937 Obras Completas Julio C Tello Vol 1 (p. 137)

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