Thirty Two Pre-Hispanic Mummies Uncovered in Peru

Thirty Two Pre-Hispanic Mummies Uncovered in Peru

A team of Peruvian archaeologists have discovered 32 pre-Hispanic mummies at two separate sites located between La Libertad and Lima. The burials revealed skeletal remains, jewelry, textiles, and other artifacts. The majority of the graves were found at the Chan Chan archaeological site.

Chan Chan is a site encompassing nine small enclosed cities. It was the political and administrative capital of the Chimú civilization (900 – 1500 AD). The original site measured 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) and for this it has been called the largest mudbrick city in the world. This feature also led UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in 1986.

The news agent La Información has published that all the human remains correspond to adults and the majority were women. Along with the skeletal remains, 87 pottery vessels, as well as textile fragments, copper rings, earrings, and sewing objects such as needles and thimbles were recovered. María Elena Córdova Burga, the director of the Decentralized Directorate of Culture of La Libertad, told El Comerico that “The scientific research will enable us to know much more about the funeral patterns in ancient Chimú. This is a very important discovery.”

Archaeologists working in the grave sites. ( La República )

The leader of the Chan Chan Special Research Project Unit, Nadia Gamarra Carranza , told La República that the artifacts are dated to approximately 1400 AD and that:

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The 31 bodies were found in nine cells, situated on both sides of the burial chamber. Gamarra also believes that they were buried at the same time as the main authority from the burial chamber in between, “who could be an administrator or governor, as the burial chambers are outside of the complex, which is where governors were normally buried.”

The graves were found three months ago and their discovery was kept secret so that the excavation and first analysis could be completed securely and without outside involvement. The find was made when reconstruction work began at the walled Xllangchic An area of the Chan Chan site.

Panorama of Chan Chan, the largest mudbrick city in the world. (Carlos Adampol Galindo /CC BY-SA 2.0 )

All of the artifacts are being subjected to rigorous scientific testing. Some of the current focus includes analysis on the textiles (made up of red, yellow, ochre, brown, a white threads), femurs, skulls, ribs, and vertebrae.

One also must note that at the moment one of the most ambitious projects is underway at Chan Chan - the restoration of the Huaca Toledo .

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The Huaca Toledo measures approximately 20 meters (65.6 feet) tall, 20 meters (65.6 feet) across North-South, and 130 meters (426.5 feet) across East-West. These first few weeks of restoration have focused mostly on cleaning the area, putting up security signs, topographic work, and setting up camp, etc. It has been estimated that it will take 31 months to complete the full restoration work of the site.

Beginning work at the Huaca Toledo of Chan Chan. (Andina - Agencia Peruana de Noticias )

At the same time, in the La Molina district of Lima, police found another apparently ancient burial. This grave contained a woman covered in several textiles, according to the newspaper La Prensa . This mummy was found wrapped within a woven basket made of dried stalks. Cotton and corn were also found alongside the human remains and textiles.

An unnamed archaeologist told La Prensa that this other burial may be from the Pre-Hispanic Ichma/Ychma culture (aka the Lima culture.) The Ichma culture was a pre-Inca culture that flourished on the central coast of Peru from 900-1470 AD. The ceremonial center of the Ichma culture was Pachacamac.

Municipal police have closed off the area of the discovery of this other grave so that experts from the Ministry of Culture could move the mummy and begin excavations in the area, which is thought to possibly be the location of another Pre-Inca cemetery.

Researchers study and analyze some of the skeletal remains recovered at the Chan Chan site. ( La República )

Featured image: Photo of one of the burials discovered at Chan Chan, Peru. ( Ministerio de Cultura de Perú )

By: Mariló TA

This article was first published in Spanish at https://www.ancient-origins.es/ and has been translated with permission.


Human sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures

The practice of human sacrifice in Pre-Columbian cultures, in particular Mesoamerican and South American cultures, is well documented both in the archaeological records and in written sources. The exact ideologies behind child sacrifice in different pre-Columbian cultures are unknown but it is often thought to have been performed to placate certain gods.


Tomb find confirms powerful women ruled Peru long ago

Workers uncover a burial chamber of the Moche culture in the Cao religious compound, close to the city of Trujillo, Peru, on August 3, 2013. The discovery in Peru of another tomb belonging to a pre-Hispanic priestess, the eighth in more than two decades, confirms that powerful women ruled this region 1,200 years ago, archeologists said.

The discovery in Peru of another tomb belonging to a pre-Hispanic priestess, the eighth in more than two decades, confirms that powerful women ruled this region 1,200 years ago, archeologists said.

The remains of the woman from the Moche—or Mochica—civilization were discovered in late July in an area called La Libertad in the country's northern Chepan province.

It is one of several finds in this region that have amazed scientists. In 2006, researchers came across the famous "Lady of Cao"—who died about 1,700 years ago and is seen as one of the first female rulers in Peru.

"This find makes it clear that women didn't just run rituals in this area but governed here and were queens of Mochica society," project director Luis Jaime Castillo told AFP.

"It is the eighth priestess to be discovered," he added. "Our excavations have only turned up tombs with women, never men."

The priestess was in an "impressive 1,200-year-old burial chamber" the archeologist said, pointing out that the Mochica were known as master craftsmen.

"The burial chamber of the priestess is 'L'-shaped and made of clay, covered with copper plates in the form of waves and sea birds," Castillo said.

Near the neck is a mask and a knife, he added.

View of one of two skeletons found in a burial chamber of the Moche culture (between 200-700 AD), in the Cao religious compound, close to the city of Trujillo, Peru, on August 3, 2013.

The tomb, decorated with pictures in red and yellow, also has ceramic offerings—mostly small vases—hidden in about 10 niches on the side.

"Accompanying the priestess are bodies of five children, two of them babies, and two adults, all of whom were sacrificed," Castillo said, noting there were two feathers atop the coffin.

Julio Saldana, the archeologist responsible for work in the burial chamber, said the discovery of the tomb confirms the village of San Jose de Moro is a cemetery of the Mochica elite, with the most impressive tombs belonging to women.


Archaeologists unearth Peruvian sacrifices

Three teams of archaeologists in Peru have in the past week uncovered remains of human sacrifices carried out by ancient civilisations, including the skeleton of a pregnant woman.

At the Cahuachi site in southern Peru, Giuseppe Orefici, director of the Italian centre for pre-Colombian research, found two bodies along with textiles and ceramics.

Cahuachi was part of the Nazca civilisation, which flourished in Peru between 300 and 800 AD, whose members carved massive lines depicting birds and animals in the Peruvian desert that are best viewed from the air.

"A human sacrifice is very important," says Giuseppe Orefici, an archaeologist who has spent decades excavating Cahuachi.

"Human sacrifices added to the value of the offering," he says while standing next to a central pyramid that rises from the flat desert.

Major discoveries

Archaeologists from several countries are currently working in Peru which has hundreds of ancient sites dating back thousands of years and spanning dozens of cultures.

Researchers have previously found evidence of pre-Hispanic human sacrifices in Peru, but three major discoveries in the same week is unusual.

In eastern Peru at the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman near Cuzco, archaeologists working for the National Institute of Culture unearthed eight tombs and more than 20 skeletons, likely the remains of ritually sacrifices.

Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire that ruled from 1200, until Spanish conquerors arrived in 1532.

Archaeologist Carlos Wester La Torre, director of the Bruning Museum in northern Peru, discovered the remains of 10 women, including one who was pregnant.

They were apparently sacrificed in a religious rite at the Chotuna Chornancap site near the city of Lambayeque.

The Lambayeque civilisation thrived in Peru for some 500 years, starting around 800 AD.

Archaeologists believe pregnant women were rarely sacrificed because fertility was highly valued in this culture.

"It's a very irregular case," says Wester La Torre, whose team also unearthed llama remains and a mural cut into an underground wall.

He says that may be just the beginning of the discoveries he hopes to make at the site.

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Some were men, some were women, and there was a mix of ages. Lying next to them were ceramic vessels, dogs, guinea pigs, and masks of painted wood.

According to Time.com , babies and very young infants were surprisingly common in the tomb, which had somehow survived the pillaging of centuries past.

Some of the relics found included ceramic jars and other artifacts dating back to 1000AD

The site has been regularly pillaged over the generations - but this tomb avoided detection

Archaeologist Peter Eeckhout said: 'The ratio adult/children is unusually elevated at this burial.

'We have, at this stage, two hypotheses: human sacrifice or stocking of babies dead from natural causes, kept until their disposal in the tomb because of its special character.'

He added that several‬ individuals suffered mortal injuries,‭ ‬physical trauma or serious illness: 'One juvenile was killed by a blow on the skull.

'All over the cemetery we have lots of lethal disease traces, such as cancer and syphillis.'

The area is known as one of the largest Pre-Hispanic sites in South America, and an important religious, ceremonial, political and economic center.

It was ruled by Pachacamac from 900AD to 1470 - until the Inca Empire conquered the site, leading to its plunder by the Spanish in 1533.


Will a Hidden Treasure Chamber Discovered Under Machu Picchu Finally Be Revealed?

I recently visited Machu Picchu for an amazing luxury weekend and found new construction and red-taped no public access areas were increasing on a daily basis. I also watched several excavations in progress in the main temple area. Machu Picchu was beginning a massive five-year remodel that will forever change the experience for tourists.

I have always been intrigued by buried treasure and secret hidden chambers at temples all over the world, so when a well-known French archaeologist and explorer announced that he and a team of researchers discovered a secret door and possible lost secret treasure, I was excited to speak to them and get the background of the discovery. They say it could be the most important archaeological find ever unearthed within the walls of Peru’s famed Machu Picchu citadel. The Cusco branch of the ministry of culture however has blocked the archaeologist, Thierry Jamin, and the Instituto Inkari NGO from excavating in the ruins.

Jamin and other researchers announced that their electromagnetic equipment has revealed a hidden chamber concealed behind the walls, which were built around the year 1450. They think the secret space could possibly house the tomb of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the Inca ruler that experts believe Machu Picchu was built for in the 15th-century. Jamin says there is a great possibility that the crypt would contain a treasure filled with gold, silver and other precious metals, making it the largest discovery ever at the famed site. The project however has met with much controversy and resistance from the government.

Jamin tells me that when he and the Instituto Inkari presented their evidence to the local ministry of culture in the Cusco region along with their plan to excavate the area, their request was quickly denied. According to David Ugarte, the director of the ministry of culture in the Cusco region, “Archaeologist Thierry Jamin was in Machu Picchu based on the authorization given to him by the Ministry of Culture in Lima to carry out observational studies and tour the citadel, but when he proposed, above all, to excavate based on some hypothesis, because a laser scanner had detected an Inca tomb that was surrounded by children, and at the same time there were some steps lined in gold. It has been completely denied because this goes against the reality."

The ministry of culture and park directors said they worried the excavation project could jeopardize the stability of the structure. Past excavations have caused partial collapses of the historic walls and they said they worried the Inkari group was after the precious metals and not taking into account the historic nature of the site. “In terms of Thierry Jamin, he seemed to us to be more of an adventurer looking to find a treasure and not to do scientific research,” Ugarte added.

All of this started in February of 2010 when French engineer David Crespy was taking some measurements of the ruins and small passages of Machu Picchu. At the heart of the ciudadela, he noticed the presence of a strange “door”, located at the foot of one of the main buildings and leading to a small path which seems to be almost never used by the tourists, or even the archaeologists from the site.

Crespy immediately knew it was an entrance that had been sealed by the Incas. He alerted the archaeologists and the people in charge of Machu Picchu, and after a tour of the site they promised to start investigating in the near future. But after months and months, despite several emails, phone calls and emails, he never received any news from Peru about his possible discovery.

In August 2011, Crespy found an article in the French newspaper Le Figaro Magazine about the famed research work of Thierry Jamin in Peru and he decided to contact him directly. Thierry Jamin, had been investigating several archaeological sites in the North of Cusco, and was able to confirm David Crespy’s information. Between September and November 2011, along with other archaeologists, he went to Machu Picchu on several occasions to investigate the famous location. His preliminary conclusions were that it was indeed an entrance, sealed by the Incas. This site was also strangely similar to the burial sites that had been previously discovered in the valleys of Lacco-Yavero and Chunchusmayo. The “door” was located in the center of one of the main buildings of the city, the “Temple of the Three Doors", which dominates the entire urban section of Machu Picchu and created hope that the location could be a burial site of prime importance.

Historians believe that Machu Picchu belonged to the lineage of the emperor Pachacútec, the Inca who transformed the small Andean State into the most powerful empire of the American continent. This would also explain that Pachacútec would have been buried in the city of Patallacta, the original name of Machu Picchu. It is very possible that this burial chamber is somehow connected to this sovereign of the XVth century. It would be a huge event for the History of Peru and pre-Colombian America since no mummy of the Inca emperor has ever been discovered.

On March 22nd, 2012, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture gave the green light to Thierry Jamin’s team to research a series of electromagnetic surveys intended to confirm, or not, the presence of a funeral chamber in the basement of the building. With the use of a georadar “Golden King DPRP”, the research team succeeded in confirming the existence of two entrances, located behind the famous door. The researchers also succeeded in obtaining a 3D representation of a staircase that leads to a main room, and possible burial chamber.

A few days later, new echos were discovered with a Rover CII New Edition and a CaveFinder, two devices designed to specifically detect subterranean cavities. The data collected confirmed the presence of a staircase, several cavities, among which a vast quadrangular room that is about three meters wide. Georadars have also detected the existence of great quantities of metals. The use of a Molecular Discriminator of Frequencies was used to highlight the presence of golden and silver objects.

Finally, the use of an endoscopic camera was introduced into the elevations between the entrance stones, confirming the claim that the stone blocks placed in the entrance of the building had only the function of closing the entrance and not that to support the internal structures of the building.

The echos from the geo-radars are clear and the diagnosis from the technicians of several different companies specialized in geo-radars confirmed the fact. They seem to match with a classic burial chamber of pre-hispanic time and is oriented Eastward as was most of the pre-hispanic burial sites. This could lead to the discovery of a Mausoleum, the one that emperor Pachacútec built in the XVth century for his own grave but also for his entire lineage.

After submitting his Final Report to the Peruvian Ministry of Culture (approved by the ministry on September 5th 2012 by a new Directory Resolution), Thierry Jamin set out his plan to open the door sealed by the Incas more than 5 centuries ago. On May 22th 2012, Thierry Jamin submit an official request to the Peruvian authorities in which he asked for the authorization for him and his team to open the burial chambers.

This new project was called “Project of Archeological Investigations (including excavations)", with the possible exhumation of some high grade funeral material by opening of the access panel covered by stones. Directed by Thierry Jamin and Hilbert Sumire (Official Director of the Archaeological Project), the operation was composed by a team of professional experts recognized internationally such as peruvian architect and conservator Victor Pimentel Gurmendi, Director or Conservation on the project.

Between the months of June to October 2012, the “2012 Machu Picchu Project” was evaluated by several services of the Ministry of Culture in Lima. During the course of these evaluations the project was transferred to the Direction of the Historic National Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in order to get their opinion about its viability.

On July 19th 2012, archaeologist Piedad Champi Monterroso wrote a negative report on the project. “The entrance discovered by David Crespy should be considered only as a simple retaining wall, archaeologist Hilbert Sumire is only a “tourist guide” and Thierry Jamin’s team is a group of “treasure hunters”. Without any technical evidence of her claims, she also added that moving the stones of the building where the entrance was discovered would put the integrity of the entire structure at risk.

Peruvian historian Teodoro Hampe also said that the cavities discovered under the “Temple of the Three Doors” by the Inkari Team could be the burial chambers of the panaca, or lineage of the emperor Pachacútec. However, he added, the imperial mummy would have been brought to Lima during the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors and hidden with other mummies in a secret crypt located under the foundations of the San Andrés hospital.

At the time, the Regional Director of Culture, David Ugarte Vega Centeno, announced that the application for a license by the Inkari Institute, to achieve the opening of the burial chambers discovered at Machu Picchu, would not be approved by the Regional Office because the project would serious risks to the legendary Inca City.

In September 2013, an additional team of archaeologists from the National Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu performed various measurements and multiple scanners of the “Temple of the Three Doors” and the entrance discovered by David Crespy in February 2010. A project was then presented by the leaders of the Machu Picchu park to open the underground chambers. A project that would rival the one offered by the Inkari Institute.

Since the controversy began, the access to the entrance leading to the cavities became prohibited. A sign now indicates (“construction work”) and it is impossible to approach the site. (On my visit to the area last month, I personally asked my guides last month to show me the area and they were not able get access for me.)

On July 14, 2014, the Inkari Institute officially submitted a new research project led by Peruvian archaeologist Hilbert Bustincio Sumire, whose objective was the opening of underground cavities discovered in April 2012, and the study of archaeological material contained in the possible burial chambers. The project was expanded and American anthropologist Haagen Klaus Dietrich, from the George Mason University joined the group as a specialist in the study or organic funerary material. On September 4, 2014, the Regional Director of Culture of Cusco sent a letter to the Inkari Institute, and again rejected opening underground cavities.

A subsequent technical report, said that the Machu Picchu Project of the Inkari Institute was “non-viable” due to the existence of a competing project, presented by the officials of the Historical Sanctuary of Machu Picchu. Based on two “Technical Reports “, archaeologist Sabino Quispe Serrano, attaché to the Dirección de Coordinación de Calificación de Intervenciopnes Arqueológicas, declared the research project presented by Thierry Jamin and the Inkari Institute as “unfair”.

Another report was written by archaeologist José Miguel Bastante Abuhadba who is co-director of the government project. Archaeologist Piedad Champi Monterroso then granted José Miguel Bastante Abuhadba support for the archaeological work and interdisciplinary research of the hidden chamber to be executed in the field of Machu Picchu in 2017.

As reported by The Peruvian Times, a grand plan to remodel Machu Picchu was approved by the government last year that would invest $14.6 million into its re-conceptualization. The plan places emphasis on the problem of the increasing amount of tourists every year and take place over the next three years.

In 2014 Machu Picchu registered 1,079,426 visitors, not including those 200 or so daily trekkers that the site receives. This exceeds the limit that Peru and UNESCO agreed on as the site should only accept 2,500 on a daily basis.

The reconceptualization plan wants to change the experience for visitors by having them experience a larger picture of the site by utilizing the entire mountain, including moving the current entrance that sits just outside the ruins, to be placed instead in the jungle at the base of the mountain. The project would include more pathways, time limits, bathrooms, and regulation of traffic flow. Allowing only 100 tourists every 10 minutes from 6:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Machu Picchu could then receive 6,000 tourists per day, or more than 2 million a year. Critics are saying this plan would eliminate the spiritual visitation and time to spend alone contemplating the sacred mountain.

It appears things will be taking a dramatic step for change at one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, and any further exploration of the secret chambers may be covered and hidden forever. However, beginning this week, a new President takes control of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, known for his open and progressive stance and the possibilities of uncovering the mystery of Machu Picchu could become active in the near future.


Ancient Peru

Sechín Bajo 3500 B.C.

Begin your exploration of Peruvian archaeology at the beginning. In 2008, archaeologists uncovered this 5,500-year-old city. This site is one of the world’s first known cities, marking an important milestone in human civilization.

Sechín Bajo is located in the Casma Valley, where other ancient developments, like Las Haldas, have given researchers insight into the type of landscape that allowed early Peruvians to flourish. Not much is known about the inhabitants of these cities, as the rubble of Sechín Bajo is all that’s known of their remains.

Caral 3000 B.C. – 1800 B.C.

Located two hours north of Lima, Caral first came to the attention of archaeologists in 1996. Using carbon dating, scientists have estimated this site’s age at nearly 5,000 years old, making these the oldest remains of a city in South America. Before the discovery of Sechín Bajo, Caral was thought to be the oldest ruins in South America.

Aside from its sheer age, visit Caral to see the crumbling pyramids and the circular courtyards. These are building styles that were passed down and replicated over many generations of Peruvian history.

Chavín 1500 B.C. – 300 B.C.

Archaeologists believe Chavín de Huántar started as a pilgrimage site. It is best known for its many carved reliefs of feline deities. There are a wide variety of strange creatures depicted on the walls of the temple here, including animals with human faces.

One of the best-known artifacts from this site, the Tello Obelisk, is on display at the National Museum of archaeology and History in Lima. It is named for Julio C. Tello, the Peruvian archaeologist who brought attention to this site in 1919, and went on to earn a reputation as the father of Peruvian archaeology.

Nazca 200 B.C. – 600 A.D.

You will often hear the Nazca people described as “mysterious”–a mysterious people who left behind mysterious designs, and went on to disappear, mysteriously.

But a recent study of the Nazca desert suggests a more straightforward explanation for their disappearance. The Nazca harvested the haurango tree, a tree with deep roots which help keep moisture in the soil. 1,500 years ago, when the Nazca population started to decline, the number of huarango trees in the area had been drastically reduced. Without these trees, the environment became too dry to support its human population. This archaeological discovery has been cited in recent discussions about modern environmental preservation.


  • Built and occupied between 700AD and 1470AD.
  • Includes 12 sites and 400 circular buildings that once housed up to 3,000 people.
  • Some walls are 20 metres high and the foundations of the houses contain skeletons.
  • Archaeologists found evidence of scalping, the only example in Latin America.
  • For 60 years, the Incas tried to control the Chachapoya and their important east-west trading route.
  • Many Chachpaoya chiefdoms fought alongside the Spanish conquistadors to help defeat the Incas.
  • Colonial disease decimated the Chachapoya, with the population falling from an estimated 500,000 to just 10,000 by 1750.

To date more than 100 skeletons have been found in the 20-metre high perimeter walls and the foundations of homes.

The burial tradition was replaced by the mummification of the dead by the invading Inca.

The city is 700 years older than the Inca site of Machu Picchu and was built on a mountain top, 3,000 metres above sea level, by the Chachapoya around 800AD.

Construction continued until the arrival of the Incas around 1470AD.

"They (the Chachapoya) were exceptional warriors who were headhunters and eventually scalpers too, shamans, farmers, traders, architects, climbers and cavers," Mr Lerche says.

Archaeologists have called Kuelap the pre-Columbian Vatican, and believe it was a political and religious centre of the Chachapoya people, who built hundreds of kilometres of tracks for their trade between the Amazon, the Andes and the Pacific.

Supplied: Krista Eleftheriou


Archeologists in Peru unearth human sacrifices

CAHUACHI, Peru (Reuters) - Three teams of archeologists in Peru have in the past week uncovered remains of human sacrifices carried out by ancient civilizations, including the skeleton of a pregnant woman.

At the Cahuachi site in southern Peru, Giuseppe Orefici, director of the Italian center for pre-Colombian research, found two bodies along with textiles and ceramics.

Cahuachi was part of the Nazca civilization, which flourished in Peru between AD 300 and 800 whose members carved massive lines depicting birds and animals in the Peruvian desert that are best viewed from the air.

“A human sacrifice is very important,” said Giuseppe Orefici, an archeologist who has spent decades excavating Cahuachi. “Human sacrifices added to the value of the offering,” he said while standing next to a central pyramid that rises from the flat desert.

Archeologists from several countries are currently working in Peru which has hundreds of ancient sites dating back thousands of years and spanning dozens of cultures.

Researchers have previously found evidence of pre-Hispanic human sacrifices in Peru, but three major discoveries in the same week is unusual.

In eastern Peru at the Incan fortress of Sacsayhuaman near Cuzco, archeologists working for the National Institute of Culture unearthed eight tombs and more than 20 skeletons, likely the remains of ritually sacrifices. Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire that ruled from 1200 until Spanish conquerors arrived in 1532.

Archeologist Carlos Wester La Torre, director of the Bruning Museum in northern Peru, discovered the remains of 10 women, including one who was pregnant. They were apparently sacrificed in a religious rite at the Chotuna Chornancap site near the city of Lambayeque.

The Lambayeque civilization thrived in Peru for some 500 years, starting around AD 800. Archeologists believe pregnant women were rarely sacrificed because fertility was highly valued in this culture.

“It’s a very irregular case,” said Wester La Torre, whose team also unearthed llama remains and a mural cut into an underground wall. The archeologist said that may be just the beginning of the discoveries he hopes to make at the site.

One problem facing archeologists are the looters who plunder sites. The country has struggled for years to combat trafficking of its ancient artifacts.


The History of Latin America is Not a Monolithic Story

Marie Arana is a distinguished Latin American author, Peruvian in origin and universal in outlook. I met her years ago at a tribute event to the historian Miguel León Portilla that she had organized at the Library of Congress. I had published a rather critical review of her romantic biography of Simón Bolívar, but Marie did not take offense at my observations. In more recent date, I asked her to give me information on the Kluge Prize given by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, to which some friends of mine were thinking of proposing my name. She replied with enthusiasm and generosity. I found the book on Bolivar inaccurate in its historical and biographical analyses, but exciting in its epic passages. How might I put it? Arana is something rather different from a historian: she is a novelist constrained by history, but a theorist of history, too.

Silver, Sword and Stone. Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story deepens this paradox. Her thesis—a work of historical theory—is “historicist” in the Popperian sense of the term, that is, a deterministic interpretation of history as an organic whole or an essence that is subject to laws that allow for explanation and prediction. According to Arana, three crucibles—mining (silver), “strong men” and violence (sword) and religiosity (stone)—have forged not only the Latin American character but the Latin American essence, its being, from pre-Hispanic times to the present day. The violence that these three fundamentals brought in their wake has become their epigenetic destiny.

Based on a heterogeneous bibliography that mixes historical and literary sources, contemporary studies with chronicles from the 16th century, inspired—so she writes—by the work of authors she respects (she generously refers to Carlos Fuentes and myself as “mentors”), Arana draws impressionistic sketches of five centuries of history with her customary brio. Her composition is cinematographic. Her narrative account moves from present to past, and from past to present. The device is an ingenious one: starting from an individual story from the present day, taken as a historical emblem, Arana tracks its echoes into our countries’ past, moving from one to another, skipping between centuries and experiences, sometimes going into detail, at other times speeding ahead without much time to qualify or to doubt. The thing is, the book has a thesis that seldom allows for these small details, a thesis that is not historical but metahistorical—or, as Miguel de Unamuno would have it, intra-historical: Latin America is the land of a triple condemnation: the diabolical wealth from mining (that left almost nothing), the brutal order of the sword (that destroyed almost everything), and the fanatical cult of the stone, which crushed freedom.

A woman appears at the beginning, as a metaphor for all the metaphors of this metaphorical book. She is Leonor Gonzáles, who lives in the mining town of La Rinconada, Peru, situated at an altitude of 5000 meters, “the highest human habitation in the world”. Her life story, as Arana sees it, summarizes five hundred years of history. Within her soul live three indelible presences from the past. Leonor lives enslaved to pallaqueo, that is, the process of picking out silver by hand. Leonor is a victim of the sword, as vulnerable to brute strength as her indigenous ancestors were before her. Leonor clings to the stone of her religious beliefs, as unshakeable as the stone in which the spirit of Juan Ochochoque, her deceased husband, is resting. Leonor’s story began many years ago.

Fleeing from the violence of the Shining Path, Juan Ochochoque settled in La Rinconada, where he met Leonor. The work he did in the mines is called cachorreo: thirty days without pay carrying the mineral on his back, only then, if he is lucky, to find a nugget of gold for himself. All of a sudden, an avalanche put his son’s life in danger. Juan saved him, but his lungs had been infected by the chemicals. A severely ill Juan traveled to Cuzco to make a plea for his health at the church of Santo Domingo, the very site where before the Conquest the golden Inca temple of the sun had stood. But he had come too late, the doors were closed. Juan didn’t have the money to wait till the next day, nor to come back on a different one. He was dead within the week.

From Arana’s perspective, Juan Ochochoque’s life and death becomes a metaphor for mining slavery in Latin America. His forebears—Incas, Aztecs and Mayans—covered their temples in gold. They were bound together, supposedly, by a single cosmology—isolated, fearful and eternal: Ai Apaec, who has survived under the name “El Tío” (The Uncle) in South American mining culture, and who also turns out to be the Mayans’ Kinich Ahau and the Nahuas’ Coatlicue: “A Pan-American god”. The Spaniards from Extremadura were the conquest’s main protagonists, “sons of war” who “had all inherited a strong loyalist and fighting spirit”, more adventurers than mercenaries, who did also revere their god, but, as Arana sees it, revered gold more: “If Spain demanded that priest and notaries accompany them, they would comply, but it was seizure and booty that mattered most, not missionary work or the letter of the law.”

Out of the brutal clash between Indians and Spaniards a new world was born, not a world of harmony but one of imposition. From the heartrending image of churches placed on top of the ruins of indigenous temples—which are particularly visible in the extraordinary city of Cuzco—Arana extracts her idea of colonialization. It means, in essence, “to strip locals of all power, construct churches atop their temples, palaces atop their places of government, and redirect their labor to the mines.” While the mines were, according to one priest’s contemporary description, “living images of death, black shades of eternal hell,” the palaces in the great viceregal cities like Mexico and Lima showed off the latest shipment of Chinese and Japanese art brought over on the Manila galleons.

Did this dual order change radically following independence? According to Arana, it did, but only in the surface froth of political days, not in the deep sea of history that leads to today’s Peru. Is the boom in extractive industries and raw materials not an echo of the colonial mining peak? Today’s owners are after all moved by “a blind, overriding ambition not unlike the one that fueled the dreams of Pizarro.” “No industry characterizes the Latin American story more vividly than mining.” Arana argues. In this lottery (as Adam Smith called it), Latin America’s life continues to be gambled. It is no small paradox that Spain, the vanguard of globalization in the 16th century, left in its historical wake a legacy of poverty, abuses, resentment and distrust. The Latin American character —Arana states— began to be carved out centuries ago, with that luminous wound, silver.

Silver is followed by sword. Carlos Buergos is a “marielito” who barely survives in the United States having spent eleven years in prison for drug trafficking. What is a “marielito”? A fugitive from the Cuban utopia. His childhood as A petty thief came to an end when his father sent him to the “ten million harvest” and he witnessed somebody being killed with a machete. Soon afterward he received the order to enlist to fight in Angola, where he suffered injuries to his skull and distress to his soul. On his return, sick, abandoned and unemployed, he devoted himself to the theft of horses to sell for meat. He did time in prison. Following his release, he tried to flee Cuba, an act of high treason to the country which, in retaliation, condemned him to further imprisonment. In 1980, his Calvary seemed to be at an end: the government sent him off to Florida from Mariel Harbor as one of the thousands of delinquents that Castro mixed with the more that 125 thousands exiles that fled. In the United States, Carlos worked as a waiter and dishwasher. With a bullet wound, sick, living in a neighborhood filled with drug dealers and addicts, he became one of them himself. The Calvary of violence that began in Cuba has no end.

Carlos Buergos’s Calvary is a metaphor for Cuba. The conquistadors massacred Caribs and Taínos until they had succeeded in eliminating them altogether. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (the legendary 16th-century Dominican friar that wrote numerous treatises in defense of the native populations in America and is known the “Apostle of the Indians”) is the witness to this tragedy. But those cruelties are, in turn, an echo of what the indigenous people themselves inflicted on other people prior to the conquest, not only in Cuba but in the whole broader American territory. When they are all defeated by the Spanish sword, the system it imposes does not lead to the people’s autonomy but their subjugation: it forbids certain crops, it forbids trade between colonies, it forbids the slightest freedom of conscience, it forbids printing. That is, according to Arana, the only way to explain the ferocity of the response: the rebellion of the Pueblo Indians in 1680, the rebellion de 1781 of Tomás Catari in defense of the traditional rights of the Aymara Indians, and in those same years the “Gran rebelión” of the mestizo Tupac Amaru in Perú, the greatest uprising in three centuries of Spanish rule before the wars of Independence.

Two huge settings serve as theaters of the wars of independence. South America, with the dazzling Simón Bolívar, and Mexico, with its zealous insurgent priests. Independence came, but not peace, and not prosperity. The sword was still in command. The dawn of the drugs trade in Mexico occurred when the landowners murdered the Chinese railway workers to get hold of their opium fields. “Almost the entire population outside of Mexico City was landless and indigent. And restless. They still are,” says Arana. Centuries after Hidalgo, Zapata and Villa, Mexico has never stopped being one of the most dangerous countries on earth. The sword ruled in Paraguay, with the silent tyrant Dr Francia the sword ruled in the war of independence in Cuba the sword ruled in the dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. How is one to explain such persistence and ubiquity? Arana concludes: by the Spanish sword: “The fundamental instability of a region defined five hundred years before by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors: the essential exploitation, the racial divisions, the extreme poverty and degradation of the vast majority . . . the corrosive culture of corruption.

Was it not possible that the sword might be replaced by the law? Arana doesn’t think so. The different caudillos (Santa Anna, Rosas, Bolívar), put somehow into the same category, abandoned their liberal ideas to become dictators. In Mexico, according to Arana, little came out of the liberal Reform generation that in 1857 drafted a constitution. The long Porfirio Díaz period (1876-1911) was a nightmare: “Corruption, repression, rapacious profiteering became Díaz’s trademark, even resorting to the old Spanish practice of shaking down the masses where funds where short”. But the Díaz case is emblematic: dictators like him were plentiful in the region in the 19th century, and they “were all too willing to auction their countries to the highest bidder.” The sword, finally, comes back in the Mexican revolution, which Arana describes as “a fierce race war” that left hundreds of thousands dead.

The sword ruled in Latin America. The sword ripped apart Somoza’s Nicaragua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic. The sword is origin and destiny, the sword is in people’s genes: “the region is overwhelmingly, numbingly, homicidal.” Tina Rosenberg—cited by Arana—has put it like this: “Quantity is not the whole issue. Violence in Latin America is significant in part because so much of it is political: planned, deliberate. It is different from the purposeless, random, individual violence of the United States. It is more evil.”

But what are the passions that take up the sword? “The triumvirate of race, class and poverty are almost always at the root of things in Latin America,” Arana argues. “It is why the culture of violence persists”. Even in the most peaceful countries in the region, she writes, “political climates in these volatile nations could flip, demagoguery could return, and the people would be sent barreling through the cycle again.” In Arana’s analysis, Latin America is unable to deal with the violence due to corruption and impunity, as rampant in colonial times as they are today. Even democracy (such as the long-standing and stable democracy found in Colombia) does not seem to help. The war against organized crime in Mexico with its slipstream of hundreds of thousands of deaths is the most recent proof of the dark historical fate.

After silver and the sword comes the stone. Its incarnation is the Catalan Jesuit Xavier Albó, a missionary in South America. His father was killed in the Civil War by the republicans, his town destroyed by Francoist planes. He arrived at the continent very young, he learned Quechua perfectly in Cochabamba, at a time in Bolivia when great social changes were taking place (Paz Estenssoro’s coming to power, the nationalizing of the mines). What Albó found in the New World is in a way the same things his ancestors saw there, Arana writes: “a faithful vastly more attuned to nature, their cosmic orientation tied keenly to the land beneath their feet, the sun overhead, the rains in between.” In Bolivia he finds himself in a country with a racial and linguistic “apartheid”, where only the “whites and near-whites” prospered. Albó lived in Ecuador, Piura and Lima. Everywhere he found indigenous people and even mestizos who were intimidated, condemned to resignation. Though he got along with some Liberation Theology priests (such as his friend Luis Espinal, who was murdered by the Banzer dictatorship), he remained apolitical. Albó, Arana reminds, was at one point an adviser to Evo Morales, but when he witnessed him turning into a despot, he became his critic instead. According to him, this society could only heal if supported by three pillars: economic justice, social equality and educational opportunity—simple, but hard to attain.

The Stone of faith. It was a consolation, in a way. “Indeed,” Arana writes, “the sanctity of Stone seems to have united the spiritual life of the indigenous throughout the hemisphere.” Stones of churches, stones of temples. But if we are talking about stones and about faith, not only does the conquest condemn us, but the pre-Columbian world, too. It was with stones, and upon stones, that human sacrifices were performed, including those of children. The American peoples did not invent these things, it’s true, but they practiced them thousands of years after they had been forgotten in the Old World.

What was the conquest of Mexico? According to Arana, “Without the hordes of Christianized Indians who marched with Cortés against the Aztec capital, Spanish would not be spoken in Mexico today.” Cortés and Moctezuma inhabited worlds that were defined by faith. But in the order of things, religion was not number one—number one was gold. “Montezuma’s high priests were lulled into believing that [Cortés’s] true gods were gold and silver.” Which was why Arana contends that the Indians found Cortés’s reverence for the first Franciscans so strange. The unlucky indigenous people, blind to their misfortune, “had not factored entirely that, with the advent of twelve humble men, the last shred of their civilization would be taken from them.” The cross and the sword. Corrupt, simoniacal and bureaucratic, the church colluded with the crown: one to recover believers, the other to exploit the silver.

As she deals with the Stone of this faith, this third angle of oppression, Arana does suitably qualify her thesis. It was not all gloom in the spiritual conquest. Bartolomé de las Casas managed to achieve a recognition of the Indians’ humanity. The laws were ignored by the conquistadors, but at least the encomiendas (land and people allotted as property to the conquistadores) were suppressed. The work of evangelization was entrusted entirely to the friars. One chapter of this convergence of indigenous people and friars stands out, and deservedly so: the Arcadia that the Jesuits built with the Guaraní people in the jungles of Paraguay until their expulsion in 1767.

Although the church had, according to Arana, “grown skilled at glorifying itself and lining its pockets, it had also accomplished considerable good” (Indian courts, missions, hospitals, etc.). As John H. Elliot has convincingly demonstrated, Arana points out that Anglo-America never produced characters like Motolinía, Las Casas or Sahagún, and even the debate over the Indians’ humanity is notable for having taken place and having been convened by a king. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon colonization, the Spaniards absorbed the Indians, a process that was partial but not inconsequential.

Those syncretic peoples received the Jesuit Xavier Albó in the mid-20th century. The priests never stopped catechizing them. The protestant ministers also promised them a life of “miracles, signs and wonders,” Arana writes. Liberation theology understands that “if Latin America’s most pressing wound was injustice—its gaping abyss between rich and poor, white and brown, privilege and neglect—it was incumbent upon the Church as God’s champion to address this flagrantly un-Christian state of affairs,” Arana says. This is why the spirit of Las Casas is embodied in the bishop Samuel Ruiz and his apostolic relationship to the Zapatistas. Sometimes the stone genuinely does seek some redemption.

The lives of Juan Ochochoque, Carlos Buergos and Xavier Albó are individual tales. Each one apart is emblematic of the historic suffering endured by millions of people on the American subcontinent. But when connected to one another in a novel or a Netflix series, they don’t work. They are significant stories, and deeply moving in themselves, but not in relation to the other stories and of course not in relation to their own past, with which they connect in such a general way as to become artificial, forced and, sometimes, false. The storyteller in Arana obscures the novelist.

This is clearly visible in specific examples. There are countless of them. To a theorist of history, who flies like an eagle over the whole continent and over centuries, these inexactitudes, exaggerations or falsities might seem trivial. So broad and generous is the canvas she paints that it might seem mean to point them out. But to a historian—who, after all, ought at least to try to serve particular truth—these mistakes stain the canvas, they distort it.

Here is a selection. I’m sure an Argentine, Chilean, Uruguayan or Colombian historian would have similar objections to those I have about how Mexico is dealt with. There was no “pan-American God” among the indigenous people of America. The Aztec empire was very different from a mere “agglomeration of tribes,” as she describes it. The shipwrecked conquistador Jerónimo de Aguilar was not a priest, only a friar. His companion Gonzalo Guerrero was neither priest nor friar, so would have been unlikely to be ashamed to reveal himself to Cortés’s men as a “fallen Franciscan,” as Arana writes, for having a Mayan wife and children. Religious fervor was as genuine among the Conquistadors as their thirst for glory and riches. The Franciscans did not snatch away from the Indians the “last shred of their civilization,” rather they saved it for posterity in important works like the Florentine Codex.

Cortés’s personal dominions did not stretch “from the sands of the Sonora Desert to the jungles of Lacandon,” since he possessed towns and villages that were scattered without any geographical continuity over a much less extensive area, between Michoacán and Oaxaca. Far from seeking to “strip locals of all power,” the Spanish crown relied substantially on the indigenous nobles and chiefs in the establishing of the new order. The “rigid caste system that Spain had created” was surprisingly flexible, at least in Mexico. The Archbishop of Mexico never sent “warrior priests” against the insurgent priest Miguel Hidalgo. Our Reforma was not a racial fight between “the old white élite” and “the darker race,” but a conflict for the country’s political liberties and economic modernization. What characterized the decade of the Restored Republic was not “turmoil and civil unrest” so much as the flourishing of civil liberties. The Porfirio Díaz government did not resort “to the old Spanish practice of shaking down the masses where funds were short,” but rather presided over a long period of material progress, which has been documented by the most critical liberal historians, such as Daniel Cosío Villegas. The Mexican revolution was not in any sense a race war, it had its origins in the struggle for democracy and rural land ownership. The plundering of the Chinese opium trade was not connected to the railways, and nor was it the work of the “landowners,” but of the Mexican mafias.

But the problem really gets serious when in between the storyteller and the novelist there appears the theorist of history, the historicist or geneticist of the Latin American soul. Most of Arana’s generalizations are unsustainable. Perhaps the fundamental problem with this book resides in the extrapolation of the specific Peruvian history to the general history of the Iberoamerican peoples. Latin America is not homogenous very important features like mestizaje—racial miscegenation—vary from Argentina to Bolivia to Mexico. This mestizaje was not a process in which “there was no choice,” since the Anglo-Saxon case shows that there was indeed a cruel alternative: containment and annihilation. Mestizaje is not contemptible: in it we find the greatest Latin American (and especially Mexican) contribution to global culture. Spanish colonialism cannot be reduced only to the extraction of wealth, slavery, racism and oppression: it was also a rich and complex cultural endeavor. Throughout, Arana deemphasizes the catastrophic effect of epidemics on Indigenous peoples, ascribing demographic collapse almost exclusively to acts of genocide. The three centuries of peace experienced by the Viceroyalty of New Spain—which until its final years did not have a formal army—cannot be denied by the marginal rebellion of the Pueblo Indians. Mexico has not lived through continuous generalized violence since its independence, but rather has enjoyed long and sustained periods of peace that encouraged the building up of solid social and economic institutions. In countries like Venezuela, wars have had an unmistakable racial component at their root, but internal conflicts in Mexico have almost always had different causes: the separation of religious and civil power, a lack of democracy, freedom, social justice.

Latin America is no more “overwhelmingly, numbingly, homicidal” than Europe with its two world wars, China with its “Great Leap Forward,” Russia with the Soviet purges and the Armenian genocide of 1915, the United States with its countless wars, not to mention the Jewish holocaust. It is impossible to claim as Arana does that “no industry characterizes the Latin American story more vividly than mining” without excluding from this history countries as vast as Argentina or such productive periods such as the industrial, manufacturing and agricultural development that Mexico has experienced since the liberalization of its economy in the 1990s. The history of Brazil is also quite different from the pattern that Arana describes. The impact of European immigration in the region since the 19th-century left another huge imprint that doesn’t fit in the general scheme. And last but not least, the role of liberal thought in this continent has been much more real and active than Arana’s perspective acknowledges. Bello, Mora, Alberdi, Sarmiento, Montalvo, Justo Sierra are not mere footnotes in Latin America’s history. Nor are the arts, which have had remarkable exponents in the region since pre-hispanic times. These creators have not ignored the afflictions of our history, but nor can their work be reduced to them.

Is violence inscribed in the Latin American genes? Is brutality so profoundly imprinted in those people that it is accepted as a norm, as a way of life? Arana thinks so: transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, DNA that is marked by the abuses and horrors of the parents and grandparents. Something that is at least debatable, becomes the main explanation of life and people in the whole of Latin America. “We believe failure is bred in the bone,” Arana writes. This is why Latin American history is a constant pendulum between street violence and government violence. It’s all in the our genes! The clinical conclusion is a strange one, in truth: until Latin America understands how silver, sword and stone have shaped its historical physiology, it cannot have salvation.

As apocalyptic fantasies go, it’s not bad. As a historical analysis, it’s unacceptable. There was more, much more, in the plural, complex, profound, diverse history of this vast universe that for convenience we call Latin America. Much more than silver, sword and stone. There was and is more, so much more.

Featured image: The Battle of Puebla, Mexican School, 1862


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