Chronicles of America ´╗┐

Early Peruvian Culture

The topography of primitive Mexico was impressive enough: a low-lying Atlantic seaboard; a gradual rise through tropical vegetation and life to a plateau seventy-four hundred feet above sea-level; guarding this plateau, a mountain wall accentuated by twin volcanic peaks seventeen thousand feet high; and within the wall, covering the plateau in considerable part, a cluster of lakes fresh and salt. But magnificent as was the Mexican scenery, in Peru, Nature, overpassing the impressive, became stupendous and sublime. The Peru of the Incas at the coming of Pizarro stretched along the Pacific coast of South America from the River Ancasmayu, north of Quito in Ecuador, to the River Maule, below Santiago in Chile, a region some twenty-seven hundred miles in length and comprehending the modern States of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, with part of Chile and Argentina. Its main features within the limits of Peru proper — the Peru of today — were an arid ocean strand less than one hundred miles in breadth; a double, at times treble, cordillera or mountain chain — the Andes — from one to two hundred miles in breadth; and a district of tropical forest conserving the sources of the Amazon. To these features should be added the Antarctic, or Humboldt, Current, flowing up the western shore, a current so cold as to shroud the coast in mists and infuse a chill through even the tropics.

The mere walls of the Andes at their ordinary elevation attained fourteen thousand feet and more. Then there were giant peaks ranging between seventeen and twenty-two thousand feet; and, on the verge of the Inca dominion, Aconcagua, chief of the Andean giants, to which nearly twenty-three thousand feet must be assigned. Mere altitude, however, was not in Peru the engrossing element in the sublime. That element was aloofness — a weird and stern inhumanity to which all observers have borne witness. " Savage solitudes " ; "somber grandeur "; "strange weirdness "; "awe-inspiring vastness "; "solemn immensity "; "a waste land where no man goes, or hath gone since the making of the world !" — such are the words of description used.

But the grim topography of ancient Peru had its redeeming feature — sunlight — first on the mountain tops and then on the surface of Lake Titicaca. The lake — today about the size of Lake Erie, but in places some six or seven hundred feet deep, very irregular in shape, and studded with islands — lay within the plateau of Peru and Bolivia at an elevation of about thirteen thousand feet, the largest body of fresh water in the world at so great an elevation.

The light of the sun in the Titicaca Valley gave rise in the course of ages to the barbarism or semi-civilization of the Inca mode of life; but far earlier it gave rise to the Peruvian stage of development in the Megalithic or Great Stone period. "The Sun, " to quote a Peruvian writer of Inca descent, "placed his children near the Lake of Titicaca." How long after the Stone Age the age of the Incas came is a question — several centuries, no doubt. Suffice it to say that the Megalithic folk were one day overthrown by invaders from the south, and the remnant of them took refuge, as is now conjectured, in an inaccessible canyon in the valley of the Urubamba River, northwest of the site of Cuzco. Here, at Tampu Tocco (Machu Picchu?), a city peering thousands of feet down upon roaring rapids, the Incas were bred, and in due time —somewhere about the twelfth century — became strong enough to leave their fastness, retake possession of the Titicaca region, and begin that movement of conquest and organization which, with Cuzco as a center, resulted in an empire vaster than was ruled from Moscow or Aix-la-Chapelle, from Bagdad or Granada.

At the coming of Pizarro, the distinctive features of Peruvian culture — features wherein it differed palpably from the culture of the Aztecs —were two: centralized authority in government and monotheism in religion. The Peruvians (Quichua tribes) were a far less hardy race than the Aztecs, yet despite their softness they achieved things which the Aztecs failed to accomplish. In a sense they were the Asiatics of America; both actively and passively they gave evidence of an aptitude for despotic statecraft. Unlike the Aztecs, they ruled conquered tribes by direct interposition through governors and garrisons; by imposing their own language (Quichua); and by the establishment of military highways. When CortÚs invaded Mexico, Aztec authority, an authority limited to the levying of tribute, was respected throughout an area about the size of the State of Massachusetts. When Pizarro invaded Peru, Inca authority was much better respected throughout an area about equal to that of the United States east of the Mississippi River. In a word, by the time when Pizarro arrived, the Peruvians had largely passed out of the clan stage of development into the national stage. Particularism, or localism, with its delegated and revocable leadership within the tribe, and its leadership by confederation as between tribes, had given way to incipient monarchy.

The Peruvian religion, like the religion of Old Persia, centered in the worship of the Sun. And, forsooth, what more natural than that the orb to which in peculiar measure the culture of Peru owed its existence should become the chief object of the adoration of the Peruvian tribesman! "The dawn — was it not Birth to him? The mid-day splendor — was it not Power to him? The sunset — typified it not Death to him?" The Inca himself was Sun-begotten, and, being so, bore divine attributes. No Indian official in North America or in South — in Florida, in Mexico, or in Mundus Novus — could compare in rank with the Inca, politically a king and religiously a god.

Centralization of governmental authority in Peru is decisively shown by the social organization which prevailed. The primary unit was the family of five persons, and thence greater units were derived by multiplying by ten until there was obtained the ultimate unit of fifty thousand, the head of which was directly responsible to the Inca. Clanship, however, though outgrown politically, survived economically, for land belonged to the local community and not to the family or individual. In agriculture the Peruvians were adept.

They produced the finest of cotton, and grew excellent maize and potatoes. They made use of the vicu˝a and the alpaca as sources of the finest wool. But, like all things Peruvian, farming was rigidly supervised and controlled from Cuzco, the produce being divided into three equal parts, whereof two went to the state and one only to the producer.

Countless were the ways in which Inca rule made itself felt. Everybody was enumerated; everybody must dwell in a fixed district and follow a fixed occupation; and, in order that the multitude of tribes incorporated into the nation might readily be distinguished, each tribe must use a distinctive dress and method of wearing the hair. Caste too was universal. Below the Inca and constituting a nobility were lords, priests, warriors, and civil governors; and below the nobility, constituting commoners, were shepherds of llamas, hunters, farmers, and artificers.

The softness which characterized the Peruvians physically, characterized them also intellectually. They excelled in the arts — in pottery, in weaving, and in the fashioning of gold, silver, and bronze. Literature they produced in the form of dramas, love songs, and hymns of worship — of worship, at times, of something more universal than the Sun:

Oh hear me!
From the sky above,
In which thou mayest be,
From the sea beneath,
In which thou mayest be,
Creator of the world,
Maker of all men!

But they evolved no system of writing; not even a pictographic one, using only knotted and twisted cords, called quipus, to perpetuate their thoughts. At the time of the Spanish conquest of America there was more promise for the future in the Hellenic-like barbarism, plastic though crude, of the Aztecs, than in the Asiatic-like barbarism, rigid though polished, of the Peruvians.

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