Thursday 12 November 2015

A scientist in the making

In the foothills of the central Andean highlands to the east of Lima is the province of Huarochirí. The ravines here are studded through with mineral and precious metal deposits, and patchwork smallholdings cling to the valley walls. 

Photo: Mylene D'Auriol ©PromPeru
This is the land of the Huarochirí manuscript, a sixteenth century Quechua language document which was forgotten for centuries in the royal library of Madrid. Nowadays its detailed description of the myths, beliefs and traditions of the Huarochirí Indians makes the manuscript a go to text for Andean scholars.

These mountains were also the birthplace and childhood home of Julio C. Tello.  At the small local school in Huarochirí town, Tello’s nickname was Sharuko (Quechua for powerful and irresistible) because of his impulsive and vivacious nature. 

Later in life he served as elected Representative of Parliament for Huarochirí for a decade, during which time he campaigned for the improved education and infrastructure in rural areas needed to reduce the economic and cultural isolation of indigenous communities.

In December 1941 Tello, who was by this time a renowned and distinguished archeologist in his sixties, travelled once again back to his home town. This time to be honoured by induction into the Académia de Ciencias Fisicas.  

In this story, Hernan remembers him telling the tale of his first scientific experiment.

A scientist in the making
In which a young Tello loses his hat

In the evenings at the Huiñay Huayna camp after a hard ten hour day of labour clearing the site, we would sit back and rest under the makeshift shelter which formed our canteen. To one side was the dense tropical Andean forest, on the other a sheer drop to the river below. There, in this beautiful place, in spite of our fatigue, the gentle warmth of the sunset was incentive enough for us to linger a while chatting about the days discoveries.

Monday 9 November 2015

This little piggy

The young Hernan was always quick to poke fun at any kind of affectation. Here he is again at his most ruthless

This little piggy
In which small town graces are no match for an insistent dinner guest

No one knows better than the society ladies of a country town how razor sharp can be the subtle derision of their comrades at arms. Woe betides anyone who falls foul of a small town gossip. A single comment is enough to cut to the quick.

To my mind there’s nothing more laughable than when the local crème de la crème presume to parade their colours, but the young ladies of a certain Andean district wished to have the pleasure of the notable scientist Tello’s presence at lunch at their home.

Friday 9 October 2015

The celebrity ruins of Celendín

the route from Celendín to Leymebamba
 photo - Omar Carbajal ©PromPeru 

About 100 kilometres east of Cajamarca, is the town of Celendín.  In the published reports of the expedition team’s stay in the area there are pages and pages with photographs and illustrations of the ancient stone burial towers or chulpas they investigated in nearby Chocta. 

In contrast, there are two paltry sentences describing the previous day’s explorations. One of which witheringly sums up: “some of these specimens seem to be archaic, although difficult to identify due to the scarcity of material”.  

In Hernan’s Anecdotes I found the story behind the story.  

The celebrity ruins of Celendín
In which a mysterious Inca city proves to be elusive - but at least there is some good eating for Hernan

We were already four months behind schedule when the Marañón River Basin Expedition arrived at Celendín. When Tello went out on expedition he resembled in some ways the great Don Quixote. Like that famous wandering horseman of La Mancha, he also followed his own fancies and predilections, and this often led him to make numerous unforeseen discoveries. It was one of the reasons why he was so good. He was not afraid to launch out on a spontaneous exploration, not knowing where it would lead him or when it would end.

As he went along making enquiries here and raking up snippets of information there, he would sometimes digress from his route whenever he saw ancient mysteries or riddles to unravel. He would make lengthy diversions along unfrequented footpaths, just on the mere chance that he might uncover something along the way. Of course this had much to do with our delay in reaching the town.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

The law of the jungle

Rio Marañon in Chachapoyas
photo - Omar Carbajal ©PromPeru 

After their extended stay in the Casma valley, the Marañon expedition headed north up the Pacific coast continuing past Trujillo towards Pacasmayo. On the way they investigated ruins in the Nepeña, Santa, Moche and Jequetepeque valleys. Then they turned inland. 

By the beginning of October they were in Cajamarca. From here on they were in the highlands, where in Yanakancha, Tello and Hernan stopped to investigate an obelisk in the courtyard of the Yanakancha hacienda

The monolith depicted a human and feline figure on opposing sides, and I have always been keen to discover its location because of a family photo that we have with Hernan proudly standing beside it. Well at least now I know where it was. But, intriguingly, whilst researching for this post I also discovered that no one seems to know where it is now.

Striking further east the team finally reached Cochabamba. By now they were penetrating the densely forested sub-tropical highlands of the Amazonian Andes. This is the land of the Chachapoyas – the cloud people.   

Inca legend talks of the cloud people as being a tall warrior race, fair of skin and hair.  Nowadays the great Chachapoyas fortress of Kuelap draws tourists to this remote north eastern region of Peru. Rivalling Machu Pichhu and Sacsayhuaman, the large compound clings to a rocky slope 3,000 metres above sea level, its huge defensive walls more than 20 metres high.

I get the idea from this story that Hernan was not too keen on the tropics.

The law of the jungle
In which Hernan and Tello are assigned a curious task by a diminuitive figure in a pink hat

There's nowhere more quite like purgatory than the boondocks in November. In the whole of the two weeks that we were in Cochabamba (Chachapoyas) we never saw the sun once, and our shoes and feet were never dry. For those of us who were members of the Archaeological Expedition to the Marañon River, our memories of Cochabamba will forever be the forest, the rain, the fog, the fireflies and the singing of the birds sitting shriveled and soaking wet in the trees. 

Saturday 3 October 2015

Casma ('s) bull

Tello’s 1937 expedition to explore the Upper Marañon river basin and Peru’s northern coastal valleys was aimed at uncovering evidence that the Andean Chavín culture had spread to the coastal plain and influenced later civilizations there.

An enormous mound, Sechín Alto, in the Casma Valley just over 300km north of Lima had always been visible from the roadway. But an unexpected discovery close by was to lead Tello and his team to stay far longer in the valley than originally planned.

fig. 1

The locals led them to a place they knew as el Indio Bravo, so called because of a human face carved on a large rock there. As it turned out this face was only part of a stone that was still three quarters buried underground. Tello was eventually to discover over ninety more, and the Cerro Sechín temple is now famous for the monolithic façade that he uncovered and Hernan sketched.  

The huge stones depict warrior like figures carrying clubs or staffs, surrounded by naked victims and their severed body parts. The Sechín complex forms today one of the largest and most ancient monumental sites in Peru.  

Local tomb raiders as always played their part in the discoveries. Tello seems to have taken a pragmatic approach to these huaqueros. He understood that, whilst he fought against the destruction they wrought, he was also reliant on them to lead him to new sites.

But the relationship didn’t always yield results.

Casma (’s) bull
In which an enterprising huaquero excites some interest

We had been in Casma for several weeks, and by now a large amount of monoliths had been discovered in the Temple of Sechín that we had unearthed. Tello, worked from six to six, and had filled four volumes of notes on these remarkable discoveries. One day, as we were about to start work, it was evident he was itching to share some potentially exciting news with me.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Don Timo's turtle

fig. 1
Julio C. Tello was convinced that pre-hispanic Andean cultures were much older than his contemporaries believed. Up until then scholars such as Max Uhl had focused primarily on Peru´s coastal civilizations. Tello developed a revolutionary theory that flew in the face of accepted scientific thinking. 

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Chavín de Huantar is located on a tributary of the Marañón River, east of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, near the Callejón de Huáylas. 

An important political and religious centre, at over 3,200 metres above sea level, it occupies a strategic mountain intersection where many of the major early routes linking Peru’s tropical rainforests and its desert coast came together.

In 1919 Tello was the first archaeologist to make a detailed scientific study of Chavín de Huantar and its people. He looked upon Chavín as a kind of ‘mother culture’; an ancient Peruvian civilisation that grew and spread from this centre in the mountains, sophisticated enough to migrate downwards to the coastal regions and influence subsequent cultures there.

He later searched all over the coastal regions of Peru for the signs of Chavín that would validate his theory.
When in 1937 the expedition team arrived in a coastal valley just over 300km north of Lima, Tello‘s instincts were on high alert. And they were not wrong. The Casma Valley is home to one of the largest and most ancient monumental sites in Peru, including the Cerro Sechín temple, now best known for the macabre monolithic stone frieze that Tello eventually uncovered and Hernan recorded.

But you have to kiss a lot of frogs……. 

Don Timo’s turtle
In which our enthusiastic explorers set out on what proves to be a wild goose chase, or in this case a wild turtle chase

Just before Mejía Xesspe discovered the Sechín Temple in Sechín Bajo on the Corrales Mountain, Tello was already excited about the possibility of an impending discovery. He had seen the Chavinesque stone that was currently in the possession of a certain Señor Juan Reyna, and although Reyna, along with everyone else involved, had no idea as to its provenance, Tello believed the small monolith could only have come from the Casma Valley.

All the more reason then for his delight when an Indian sharecropper from the San Diego Hacienda, Timoteo Reyes, came to him with some information that seemed to provide a trail leading to more discoveries. According to Don Timo he knew a place where there was a stone turtle complete with engravings on its shell. 

Thursday 3 September 2015

Lost in translation

A short snippet this week. There’s not much more I can add to this one. For those of you who speak Spanish, you will be familiar with the word ‘poto’. For those of you who don’t, I think you’ll get the gist.

ornamental mates burilados in Nazca, Peru

Lost in translation
In which the young Hernan makes a seemingly simple request

One evening when we were in Cochabamba, Tello quietly called me over to him and whispered to me under his breath. The hollow, dried out pumpkin or mate that he was using as a chamber pot had a hole in it and he needed another one. But he didn't want to be the one to ask our hostess for it. Could I do it?