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Andean Journal: Protecting the Inka Legacy

Editor’s note: José Barreiro is assistant director of research at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He filed this report from Cuzco, Peru.

CUZCO, Peru – The son – only three years old – follows the father awhile before running ahead, hopping and sliding without care as we wind our way up the climbing, rocky trail. We are in Chawaytiri, a community of Qhechua speaking people, weavers and herders, high in the Andean mountains. Our mission is to trace the ancient route of the Qhapac ñan, the sacred road of the Inka – the grand civilization that greeted the Spanish conquest.

Chawaytiri is on the way to the Antisuyo, the route to the yunga or jungle, conceived as the place beyond knowing. Antisuyo describes one of four major territories of the Tawantinsuyo, the Inka empire that extended from present-day Chile and Argentina and north through the modern republics of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and southern Colombia.

Dr. Matos is beside himself. “This is new! None of the scientists have registered this.”

The Qhapac ñan, or Royal Road, was the Way of the Inka, an extension of main and tributary roads – some 23,000 kilometers – that integrated the lives of a population of nearly 10 million people from over 40 indigenous nations. Its center or chawpi is the sacred city of Cuzco, often described as “the navel of the world.” Early Spanish chroniclers compared Cuzco with Jerusalem, as travelers were to purify themselves before entering the city, a rite that continued to the 1940s and perhaps to the present.

“Easy boy, don’t fall now,” Lucio Illa Mesa, our local host, calls out in Quechua to his son, but the boy is practiced at his climbing and hops ahead confidently, actually leading our group.

Ramiro Matos, Quechua, archeologist and curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, walks briskly to keep up. Matos has a keen eye for evidence of all ancient inhabitation. He stops suddenly, arm extended. “Do you see it? Tell me if you see it.” We have been playing this game for days. The old Inka road we seek to trace is often hidden in cultivated plots and overgrown with vegetation but here and there it emerges, characteristically buttressed by tightly-placed boulders. Then I see it, certainly there it is, snaking along the contours of the hill and coming our way. “Excellent,” the old professor tells his not-so-young student. “You get high marks today.”

But there is more. Lucio and his boy are deviating right on the trail. Lucio wants to show us something special. Higher up the hill, along a peak known in the oral memory as “the nose of the condor,” there is a set of rock drawings, in red paint and depicting multiple llamas. Academic researchers have often studied those. They have come, more than once, to photograph, draw and describe the centuries-old pictographs, filing scholarly reports that layer one upon another.

But Lucio Illa, son of a long line of Quechua grandfathers, knows more. This we recognize and respect, that here, in his home grounds, he is the true expert. Lucio perceives our attitude and freely shares new knowledge. To the right, off the beaten academic path, something wonderful emerges. He points out the ruins of an old INKA tambo, or “tampu,” one of the periodic way stations or rest stops one can find along the whole of the Inka roads. Dr. Matos is beside himself. “This is new! None of the scientists have registered this.”

This whole region of Peru is replete with countless ruins – remnants of many peoples and several civilizations.

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“Let me show you,” says Illa, pointing to a central stone in the ancient wall. There, too, faded but visible, is a picture of a red llama. Matos notes the archeological and cultural importance. The drawings clearly mark the place as sacred.

Speaking mostly in Quechua, Lucio Illa tells us the story. He knows the Inka road of his district well. Along the road, which he describes with reverence, he knows of several tambos. To him, the road is sacred, it is alive, and everything about it is to be respected, protected. “See here,” he says, pointing where the painted stone has been disturbed. “Thieves; they come in the night and try to pry it loose,” he explains, his countenance troubled, then a smile. “But the llamas and the sheep squeal in the night. So we fight off the thieves, and more than once.”

Beyond the mutual respect, he has a strong concern. “Friends,” he says, “what can we do to protect this sacred thing?”

He has requested help from the National Institute of Culture, which is charged with such a task, but they are not forthcoming, perhaps overextended. This whole region of Peru is replete with countless ruins – remnants of many peoples and several civilizations, of which the Inka were but the last, in place at the coming of the Spanish advance.

So Lucio Illa has taken it upon himself, along with other members of his community, to defend the country’s patrimony. “The last time,” he says, “the thieves were armed. We worry for our safety but still, we are on guard.”

Later, at the patio of his Andean homestead, over a meal of boiled potatoes and the large-kernel corn found only in this region, Lucio notes my long hair. Up to the time of his grandfather, when he was a young boy, he recalls that the men of his community wore their hair long. “Not just to the shoulders,” he says, ‘but long to the waist.”

Everyone then dressed in dark clothes and performed ceremonies to the mountain authority spirits, called “apus,” and to the “Pachamama,” the Mother Earth. It was the military that made the men shave their heads. Then, the evangelical cults came in, dividing the community so that not only thieves threaten the patrimonial sites, but the cults as well. Charging that the petroglyphs are the work of the devil they would try to erase or destroy them. He would like to carry on with his traditional dress, Lucio complains, but many of the converted ridicule it and attack the traditionally-minded for “backwardness and idolatry.”

Still, he says, “I continue to carry out my ceremonies. We make our payment to the Pachamama. We will defend the legacy of our ancestors.”

Matos wonders about where the nearby Inka road is leading. “The Inka road always leads to Cuzco,” Illa replies. “Of course,” says Matos, “the navel of the world.” Matos smiles, nodding in recognition and appreciation; it is his method always, and the museum’s, to seek the knowledge of the indigenous people of a place. “You might read the reports and never know a tambo existed here,” he says. “But you see, this man knows his land. He knows what is here; more than any so-called expert academic.”

The boy walks by with another young cousin, slingshots in hand, lively faces full of mischief. “Will the next generation carry on the ancient culture,” we wonder.

“I teach them that they should,” Lucio responds. “It’s not easy, but we mean to continue in that way.”