The Altiplano never ceases to surprise me. I thought I had it all worked out, ancient cataclysms and all. Then, one morning, I decided to visit Cutimbo. The micro picked up speed as we cleared the suburbs of Puno and headed towards the South-west. The road cut a straight line across the plateau, the only deviation being a slight vertical one, as it accommodated the banks of mud that had settled on its floor thousands of years ago. This was once the bed of Lake Tauca; a vast salt lake that had engulfed this part of the Altiplano, – as well as present-day Lake Titikaka – during the Ice Age.
A geological conundrum
Geologists still really do not know where all of Tauca’s salt came from. Today, there is salt in profusion further south in the Andes. In Bolivia, Lakes Uru Uru and Poopo are all heavily saline. Then there are the salt flats at Uyuni and Coipasa, which are evaporated lakes. Even as far south as Argentina, the Salinas Grandes glisten blindingly in the Andean sun and there is the salty Mar Chiquita; a vast lake in the Province of Cordoba, thousands of miles (kilometres) from any ocean. How did all this salt get here? Was it just what was left from some very ancient ocean bed, or did it arrive here more recently from catastrophic earth changes?
Most of the salt was probably washed out of this part of the Altiplano, and from what became Titikaka, by the sudden melting of the glaciers at the very end of the last Ice Age – about eleven and a half thousand years ago. The ensuing freshwater floods would have swept it southwards into what is today Bolivia and Argentina.
A walk to the table mountain
Lost in my geological reverie, I barely noticed that the micro had pulled up and that the driver was calling out ‘Cutimbo’. I fumbled in my pocket for change, handed him the required two and a half soles and got out. Then, I looked up. Before me stood what seemed to be an immense citadel formed from the very Earth herself. From the plateau on which I was standing, there rose another one, perhaps a thousand feet (300m) higher. Just beneath its culmination was a sheer wall of of rock, a rampart fashioned by nature to defy all but the most earnest of seekers.
I glanced about me at the wider landscape. The daunting prospect before me did not stand alone. There were similar massive protrusions from the Altiplano all around me, suggesting that the plateau here had once been about 1,000 feet (300m) higher than it is today. I thought of the mesas of Arizona, except that where I was standing was already two and a half miles (4.5 km) above the sea. Was this extraordinary phenomenon really the result of tiny streams gently nibbling away at the rocks over millions of years, or had something far more sudden and dramatic happened here to create these curious formations? My mind drifted back to the immense floods that I believe took place when the Ice Age came to abrupt end – perhaps in a matter of days
I started to cross the road. A local man, who lived in Cutimbo – the modern village clustered around the foot of the meseta – had alighted at the same stop. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the archaeological site, which was at the summit. We walked along the pathway chatting, until he reached his smallholding. I took the opportunity to ask him about any legends concerning the ruins. His rather evasive reply was along the lines of, ‘Oh yes, there are many legends concerning this place’, and then left it at that. Although intrigued, I did not press him on the matter. I’ve learned that trust has to be earned from the country peoples of the Andes. They guard their lore and customs ardently. I made a remark about the presence of the chullpas at the top of the meseta, but again he remained largely taciturn.
Towards the beckoning chullpas
We parted by shaking hands and I pressed on alone, up the ever increasing slope, towards the top of the meseta and the chullpas. I took my time during the ascent. At this altitude it is very easy to lose one’s breath, even when accustomed to the dearth of oxygen. At about a third of the way up, I was surprised that another chullpa came into view, because it was not visible from the road.
At first sight it appeared unremarkable, but it was only on closer inspection that I noticed some of its striking features. In my article on Sillustani, I described some of the Andean cosmology that underpinned the design of the chullpas there. The cosmology employed here at Cutimbo was essentially the same. Here was the familiar ‘doorway’ facing almost due east at the bottom of the tower; an orifice that would allow the first rays of the solstice sun into the chullpa during the ceremony in which the shaman sought guidance from the ancestors. Chullpas, however, have two entrances. Whilst shamans enter from the material world at the bottom of the tower, the souls of the ancestors enter at the top, as they complete their journeys from the celestial realm.
It was only when this rather obvious thought impressed itself upon me that some of the features of this chullpa started to make sense. I checked the stonework for magnetic anomalies. There were none, except for the lintel that supported the stones above the ‘doorway’ at the bottom of the tower. When I moved the compass towards this stone, the needle spun from magnetic north to west. Interestingly, the only photograph I took with the Oldfield Filter at the whole site that showed any colour variation was the one I took of the lintel in the wall of this chullpa. As at Tiwanaku, it seemed, the boundaries between different realms were deliberately marked with devices that changed the orientation of the magnetic field.
I turned my attention to the chullpa’s celestial entrance and was amazed to find several very worn carvings around the top of the tower. A little later, I will discuss the relief carvings in more detail, with respect to the two large chullpas at Cutimbo’s summit. For now, here are details of the carvings I noticed on this chullpa:
Keen to find out how this example compared to the massive chullpas sitting on the meseta’s summit, I returned to my slow climb upwards. More surprises were in store for me, however. I had climbed but a short way when I came across a sign that diverted me from my upward path towards some cave paintings. I scrambled along a rocky trail that jutted out over a sheer drop on one side to reach a covered recess set in from the craggy wall on the other.’ ‘Hardly a cave at all’, I thought. These places provided spartan refuges in the most difficult of times: when the skies went dark, when the floods laden with debris and boulders swept over the Altiplano and when flares from the sky seared into the flesh. They were shelters born of necessity, not primitivism.
The French researcher and writer Simone Waisbard spent many years collecting the oral traditions of Andean peoples. They told her of an epoch in which the people were forced to leave the Altiplano and take refuge in the caves of the cordilleras, when a succession of devastating floods plagued their homelands. As the waters started to recede, the amautas (wise ones) used to draw instructional diagrams on the walls of the caves in order to teach large bands of survivors strategies for hunting the remaining game. Was this, I wondered, what was depicted here?
Towards the table top
I resumed my slow climb to the flat summit of this mountain laden with secrets. As I rose, I could see further and further across the Altiplano towards the jagged grey peaks of the cordilleras beyond, highlighted with snow. Finally, the path levelled out and curved as I reached the plateau. I looked across the plane that now revealed itself in front of me. I was confronted by the prospect of an immense megalithic tower, rectangular in shape, that made the chullpa I had just inspected lower down seem miniature in comparison. It was not just that the tower itself dwarfed the one lower down the slope, but it was that the stones that comprised this immense chullpa’s walls were so much larger.
It was as if, like Gulliver, I had found myself washed up on the shore of a land of giants. All around the tower, strewn across the summit’s surface, lay large stone blocks, their straight cuts and regular angles jutting out from the tall grass of the pampa. My eyes wandered to the left and a second enormous tower confronted me. About as tall as its companion, this was round and it seemed to have suffered rather less structural damage. It was built from enormous interlocking blocks of stone.
In many ways, this tower resembled the ones I had seen at Sillustani, but I could not help thinking that it was much older. Its andesite blocks, although equally finely worked as those at Sillustani, seemed to have been much more weather-worn.
The sacred geometry of the chullpas
Both Cutimbo and Sillustani are sites where there are rectangular and circular chullpas. The combination of styles may not be because of invasions by different peoples, who brought with them distinct building technologies, as is often supposed. Rather, it could be an expression of complementary principles of geometry at work in the universe, which was reflected by the builders of the chullpas.
The Peruvian researcher, Javier Lajo has observed that the geometries of different pre-Columbian temples in the Andes varied according to whether a male or a female deity, or spiritual presence, was worshipped there. Put simply, those buildings intended for the worship of the male tend to be square or rectangular, whereas those intended for the female are circular.
Might it just be that this principle also accounts for the different geometries of the chullpas? In my article on Sillustani, I argued that these towers were where the shamans of the Kollas communed with the souls of their dead ancestors during the southern winter solstice. Could the rectangular chullpas have been built to house the souls of returning male ancestors and the circular towers those of female ancestors?
Enigmatic relief carvings
Curiously, only the large round chullpa at Cutimbo’s summit sports any relief carvings. Its rectangular companion possesses none. Whereas most of the carvings on the chullpa on the mountain’s slope are grouped around the ‘spirit entrance’ at the top of the tower, here they are grouped around the shaman’s ‘doorway’, which faces due east at the bottom. To say the least, they present a mystery:
In his book Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock draws certain parallels between these relief carvings and those at Golbekle Tepe in eastern Turkey. There are certainly stylistic similarities, but the Golbekle Tepe carvings have enjoyed the benefit of having been buried for many thousands of years before they were unearthed. These carvings have not been so fortunate. The extreme weathering of the hard andesite rock from which they have been formed is testimony that they may be as old as their Turkish counterparts.
There is another difference between these carvings and those at Golbekle Tepe. Several of those who have studied the Turkish carvings have been able to identify the animal figures depicted there. Here, the figures seem to defy any identification. When I first studied them, I searched the internet for pictures of South American mammals, both modern and from the Ice Age, both small and large. I could find nothing that matched the Cutimbo creatures. The carving of the two heads is equally puzzling. Are the heads human, or are they apes? Bearing in mind that the chullpas enabled contact with the spirits of ancestors, are they some sort of tacit acknowledgement of hominid ancestors, of which we are no longer aware? There are many questions to be asked.
Perhaps, as with the relief carvings at Tiwanaku, these may be representations of chimera, therianthropes and other shifting shamanistic spirit forms. If so, then they are stylistically very different from the Tiwanaku sculptures. Yet, conventional archaeology tells us that the builders of these stone chullpas were supposed to have been culturally linked to those who built Tiwanaku. Could it be that conventional archaeology’s map of South America’s past, before the arrival of the Spanish, is completely wrong?
As I turned to leave this most baffling of sites, my attention was drawn to one of the many megaliths lying on the ground close to the rectangular chullpa. There, carved on to one of the large stones that was probably shaken from the tower during an earthquake, was one of the most unfathomable figures I have ever set eyes on:
Was the head intended to be human, or had the thousands of years of wind, rain and hail deceptively worn its features that way? Why did it have no hind legs, or were millennia of rain and hail responsible for erasing those too? Why were the hands, which appeared to cling to the stone so desperately, that large? As I stated earlier, Cutimbo has left me with so many questions, but with hardly any answers.
The semi-subterrainian Temple, Tiwanaku. In his ‘History of the Incas’, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa tells us that after having created the Sun and the Moon, Wiracocha travelled to Tiwanaku, where he fashioned statues of all the races that were to inhabit the Andes in the age to come.
A Strange Fascination
I cannot define what has drawn me here, but whatever it most certainly has exerted a force on me. It all began in England in 2004, when I knew I had to come here. The last stage of my trip, an overnight journey from the Chilean border to the Peruvian city of Puno – at 12,556 ft (3,827m) above sea level – left me bed-ridden with altitude sickness for several days. It was during that nauseous and breathless sojourn that something re-asserted itself in me about the nature of reality. The world most certainly was not what I had comfortably come to believe in, neither was it what I been told it was constantly. I eventually became acclimatised to the rarefied atmosphere and pressed on with my journey to Tiwanaku.
It was not as if Tiwakanu provided any clear-cut answers to my new-found revelation; it just deepened my sense of perplexity. It defied all of the rationale inculcated into me over years of teaching and of working Civil Servant. Here before me was this vast city, mostly built from immense blocks of precisely-cut stone, on a mountainous plateau that is elevated some two and a half miles (3.85 km) above the level of the sea. There are no luscious tropical fruits here, neither are there plentiful sources of game. The unforgiving mountain climate makes it a struggle to breathe, let alone grow crops. What was it that drew people to settle here and to build this great metropolis?
The Andean metropolis
Yet people were drawn here, perhaps even in their tens of thousands. An aerial survey carried out in the 1980s identified some 420 hectares (1,038 acres) of Altiplano that displayed crop markings, indicating that the fields surrounding the present archaeological site were once part of a vast complex. Recent drone surveys have confirmed those earlier findings. What visitors see when they visit Tiwanaku today may give a very false impression of the living metropolis that Tiwanaku once was, for It is very much a twentieth-century creation.
With very few exceptions, most modern cities have grown up piecemeal, with streets and suburbs having been added in an ad-hoc manner as their populations grew. Tiwanku was not like that. Earlier aerial surveys carried out in the 1950s by the Bolivian organisation CIAT (Centro de Investigaciónes de Tiwanaku) suggested that the site was planned as a whole and that it adhered to a rigorous astronomical orientation. The metropolis’ principal thoroughfares converged on a structure known as the Akapana. Today it resembles nothing more than a rather large amorphous mound, but in its heyday it was a seven-stepped pyramid which would have looked complex when seen from above, because it appeared ‘stepped’ in plan view.
How old is Tiwanaku?
Interestingly, when the Austro-Bolivian researcher Arthur Posnansky excavated the Akapana in the first half of the twentieth century, he found it to have been built directly over what he believed was a natural hillock. His excavations also revealed fossilised human remains, including an elongated skull. Posnansky noted that the stratum in which the find lay was the same as one in which toxodons had been found in a place not far away. This would date these very strange human remains to at least 11,700 years ago, if not even earlier. It would seem that the nucleus of Tiwanaku has a very old pedigree indeed.
Conventional archaeology cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Evidence that does not fit the relatively recent inception of the site (c. 3,500 BP) is conveniently forgotten, or is swept under the proverbial carpet. Although Posnansky photographed the skull, it is nowhere to be found today, despite having been sent off to a museum in La Paz. Similarly, conventional wisdom relies almost exclusively on carbon 14 dating and related methods to draw the picture of Tiwanaku’s chronology. Conveniently, this reinforces the idea that Tiwanaku’s past can be but a comparatively recent one.
I have discussed some of the technicalities of Tiwanaku’s dating elsewhere, but it is worth emphasising here how so much evidence has been brushed aside simply because it raises awkward questions. Even though Posnasnky’s astronomical dating of 17,000 years BP has been shown to be too old, subsequent studies at the site using the same methodology have continued to yield dates that are nearly as early. Curiously, they all agree on a dating of between 11,300 and 12,000 years ago – a period that corresponds to the end of the last Ice Age.
Is astronomical dating valid?
I need to point out here that this method of astronomical dating was originally developed by Sir Norman Lockyer. It is now largely, if reluctantly, accepted as valid for the dating of certain Egyptian and Greek temples and for Phase III of Stonehenge. Yet somehow, the astronomical alignments producing the above dates of all four cornerstones of the Kalasasaya Temple at Tiwanaku are dismissed as mere ‘coincidences’.
If this is indeed no mere ‘coincidence’, then consider the feat of surveying required, not to mention the knowledge of the Earth’s dimensions and of its curvature.
Mystery of the megaliths
The massive worked stones that lie scattered across the Altiplano are perhaps what raise the most questions in people’s minds, if they think about Tiwanaku and neighbouring Puma Punku at all. How were they moved? Why are some of them cut so precisely? Were they just for buildings, or are they the scattered fragments of machines? There are hundreds of more questions that have been asked, but very few who ask have considered the nature of the stones themselves. By far most of the megaliths at Tiwanku are either red (sometimes striped) sandstone, or grey andesite. (Incidentally the same combination of stones was used at Puma Punku). My research has focused on the andesite, but I also think that the great sandstone blocks need further consideration. The two types of stone may well have complementary properties that were understood by the paleo-engineers who constructed both sites.
Some of the andesite blocks here on the Altiplano have very unusual properties indeed. They contain lumps of a mineral called magnetite, which as its name suggests, is highly magnetic. Sometimes you can see the black lumps of magnetite near to the surface of an andesite megalith. When this is so, the megalith’s surface is often stained an orange colour, because the air oxidises the magnetite into haematite – common rust.
Those who built Tiwanaku and Puma Punku knew about the presence of magnetite in these rocks, Indeed, they chose these stones deliberately for their unusual magnetic properties. This is evident because those megaliths that change the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field most acutely are nearly always marked with a chakana, or Andean Cross. In other words, the builders were quite consciously engineering changes in the Earth’s magnetic field in this locality.
This raises the question of why they would want to engineer the magnetic field. My previous article on Pukara Grande mentioned the work of John Burke in relation to telluric currents. Burke conducted a series of experiments at Tiwanaku’s Akapana Pyramid, where he placed seeds inside its chambers as thunderstorms approached. He found that the seeds grew much more vigorously, and produced much higher yields, than control specimens.
Natural electromagnetic fluctuations at Tiwanaku are certainly affected by the presence of thunderstorms there. I have found that the distortions in the magnetic field around these andesite blocks become accentuated as storms approach. On one occasion the compass needle even started to spin in an anti-clockwise direction! More productive harvests would have obvious benefits, especially in this difficult growing environment, but was it the only reason the builders sought to engineer the Earth’s magnetic field here?
A shamanistic citadel
Another feature of the Tiwanaku complex that conventional archaeology treats inconclusively is shamanism. True, it acknowledges that shamanism was practised here – at least during the the relatively late period when it recognises it was occupied – but it leaves the subject at that.
On the other hand, I consider that shamanism was a central feature of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, perhaps especially during the very early dates discussed above. Could it really be that the engineering of the Earth’s magnetic field was intended to facilitate shamanistic practices there?
Certainly, shamans might be asked to produce greater crops, but there were other reasons as well. One curious fact about magnetite is that we actually manufacture it in our bodies. In humans, most of it can be found at the top of the nasal passage and around the centre of our foreheads. This is very close to the pineal gland, which has been associated with the ´third eye´ in many spiritual traditions.. Could it be that we are sensitive to these natural fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and that the magnetite our bodies produce can sense these? Many researchers think that we are. Perhaps the engineering of the magnetic field at Tiwanaku was also intended to induce altered states of consciousness in the shamans who practised there.
The more I have studied Tiwanaku, the more I have realised that shamanism was central to the very being of the place. Its strange relief carvings have been the cause of many theories. Some, including myself, think that several of them may even hint at large mammals that became excinct at the end of the Ice Age. One thing they are not, however, are realistic representations of any animals – from whatever era. Invariably, they are exotic combinations of birds, serpents, mammals and humans in what can sometimes seem a baffling mixture of features.
One of the most striking amongst all of these is a creature called the chachapuma. In a sense, it would be wrong to think of the chachapuma as a cobination of man and puma, because it is really a dynamic transformation from human to feline. Even the most conventional archaeologists recognise this to be a shamanistic motif, which seems to be associated with journeys into the spirit-world.
Here, it is worth understanding the meaning of the name Puma Punku in English: it means ´Gateway of the Puma´. Is it just coincidence (that word again) that doorway and gateway imagery abounds at both Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, including the famous Gateway of the Sun? Perhaps these ´doorways´ were not simply the constructional devices we so often assume them to be.
I don´t think I shall ever solve all of the mysteries of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, but it is the fascination of what´s difficult that keeps me returning to this ruined city on the Altiplano.
Huanuni clings to the side of a valley in the Bolivian Andes, about 30 miles (40 km) south of the city of Oruro. The morning is bright and sunny, but clouds are gathering. Every now and then one of them obscures the sunlight, bringing a sudden biting chill to the thin mountain air. The town owes its existence to one thing alone: tin. Dust from its massive tin mine clogs the streets, turns the stream that divides its streets yellow; and leaves you gagging for what little oxygen there is at this altitude. The smell of crushed ore sticks in your throat, as the heaps of spoil loom all around you, like some villain in a melodrama about to asphyxiate his victim.
This is not the kind of place people usually read about on the web pages proclaiming the mysteries of the Andes. Those brightly-coloured itineraries, with their ‘iconic’ mountain vistas, which lure increasing numbers of tourists from North America, Australasia and Europe to seek meaning in their lives. The irony is that, without Bolivian tin, China could not produce the plethora of smartphones and hand-held devices through which we desire ever more to see the world.
Slowly, as I walk along the road that leads south from the town, the air begins to clear of the stench of tin. Lupins gingerly make appearances between the lumps of spoil littering the roadside and I feel confident enough to take the deep breath that my lungs so sorely need. This is not the first time I have visited Pukara Grande, but nothing compares to the feeling I get when approaching an archaeological site, especially when it is remote and relatively unknown. Without the usual distractions of souvenir stalls and themed restaurants my mind can absorb itself in the presence of the deep-cut valley landscape that leads towards this most ancient and sacred place.
A catastrophic past?
The cutting that was dug for the road I’m walking along reveals a thick reddish clay soil interspersed with rocks and boulders. On previous visits here, I have looked for evidence of a catastrophe that I believe happened at the end of the Ice Age, but that is not what is running through my mind this time. Instead, I consider the fact that this part of the Andes is so rich in metals: tin, copper, iron, gold, silver and, of course, gold. Today, we tend to think of metals in terms of their commercial value and of how to extract them in the most efficient way from the Earth. I’m convinced that ancient peoples’ perspective on metals was very different. Yes, they made use of metals – copper has been mined in Bolivia since at least 4,000 BC – but it was their qualities within the landscape that so fascinated those people. In particular, the high metallic content of so many minerals here means that they are very effective at conducting electricity; and there is plenty of electricity to be had here.
A tempestuous place
This is where the cold air surrounding the Cordilleras rubs up against warm thermals that rise from the Amazon Basin. As a result, thunderstorms abound and lightning strikes are commonplace. At the end of the last Ice Age the differences in temperature between pockets of hot and cold air were far greater. Back then, it would have been prime territory for generating tornadoes. Even today, along the Altiplano just to the North of Huanuni, you can see dark storm clouds begin to form torsion patterns as they move along the plateau lying between the Cordilleras.
The electric landscape
Not surprisingly, some of this region’s most ancient inhabitants, the Urus, regarded lightning as sacred. Like other Andean peoples who can trace their origins in the distant past, they were probably able to sense the presence of electromagnetic fluxes – called telluric currents – flowing through the landscape they inhabited. Experiments conducted by Andrija Puharich in the 1970s showed that fluctuating magnetic fields did seem to enhance his subjects’ psychic abilities, but not in a way that could be explained through what we know as the standard model of physics. Was this why Pukara Grande has been regarded as a holy place by the local Aymara communities since time immemorial?
Just then, my thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt by something I had perceived on previous visits, but which hadn’t really registered with me. By now I had reached the northern skirt of Pukara Grande. On the opposite side of the road from me was a yellow sign warning drivers that there was a geological fault running across the road. In other words, the northern edge of Pukara Grande bordered a major geological fault line.
It seems that the interior of Pukara Grande was the result of deliberate engineering. It is not just a network of natural caves, however. The engineering involved not just precisely fitting megaliths , but perhaps fluxes in the Earth’s natural electromagnetic field.
Those who have read any of the scientific studies carried out by the late John Burke into telluric currents at megalithic sites will know that geological faults feature prominently in many such ancient places. Burke found that the faults acted as what he called ‘conductivity discontinuities’, meaning that they could produce very powerful fluctuations in the local geomagnetic field. In effect, they amplify the changes in the Earth’s electromagnetic field induced by the sun and by atmospheric conditions – such as thunderstorms.
I have written elsewhere about how I found that Pukara Grande stood on an extension of the alignment of sacred sites rediscovered by the mathematician Maria Sholten d’Ebneth. Towards the end of the same article, I outline the legends of the local Aymara people, who say that Pukara Grande became a place of refuge during a great cataclysm. I believe this to be a cultural memory of the changes that took place in the Andes at the end of the last Ice Age, between about 13,000 and 11,500 years ago. The local people also consider Pukara Grande to be their most holy place. Even today they celebrate the December Solstice there, which they call Ayllu Bomba. What interested me on this visit was the possible relationship between their reverence for this place and any particular electromagnetic properties it may possess.
Although most of Pukara Grande’s summit appears to be natural, it actually consists of an immense vaulted roof. Investigations on the summit have revealed massive flat stones that may have functioned as slates. In addition, there are entrances to the labyrinthine corridors below the vault. Were these opened up after a mega-flood had engulfed the adjacent valley in water, ice, mud and boulders?
A strange attractor
I pressed on towards the path that leads through the village to the summit of this most ancient and holy place. By ‘chance’ on the previous morning, I had met the leader of the local community and had used the opportunity to ask his permission to make a visit, as well as to writing this article. When I began to climb the path that led to the summit, I noticed how much the skies were beginning to darken.
I climbed further, as the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. Then the hail came, biting into my face with all of the vehemence of someone scorned. I was nowhere near the summit and I struggled to take pictures of the great bluff in front of me as my hands froze. A clap of thunder nearly split my ear drums. Ominous clouds gathered on the ridge that forms Pukara Grande’s summit. There was no way I could climb any further. It was far too dangerous to try to do so in this weather. One slip and I could tumble chaotically down a steep slope, my arms and legs flailing uncontrollably against boulders as I fell.
I turned to make my way back to the deserted village below. As I did so, the storm started to abate. This was not the first time that this had happened. In February 2015 a vicious storm had blown up just as I had reached the same spot during my ascent. Then, as now, Pukara Grande had decided to occult its true nature from me.
The vaulted roof of Pukara Grande could not have spanned such a vast expanse without support. This was done through articulated stone columns that at first appear to be a natural feature. Please look closely at them and with an open mind.
Worked stones both large and small
There are many large stones on the slopes of Pukara Grande that appear to have been worked, rather than being erratics deposited by glaciers. Additionally, there are occasional finds of smaller stones that show clear evidence of working, some of it very fine.
Dedicated to the memory of John Major Jenkins (1964-2017), without whose scholarship and insight this article would not have been possible.
The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly; Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass, Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Funerary towers, or a technology for ‘catching’ returning souls?
If non-natives of the Andes picture a chullpa at all, they most probably picture one of those megalithic circular towers like the ones portrayed above. The truth of the matter is that not all Andean chullpas are built of stone, neither are they necessarily circular. One of the first people from the English speaking world to study Andean archaeology, Ephraim George Squier (1821-1888) came across a rectangular chullpa made of adobe, when he was making his way to Cusco. Similar chullpas to the one Squier encountered exist further south on the Bolivian Altiplano.
Modern archaeologists generally think of the Sillustani chullpas as funerary towers, since they were often found to contain the mummified remains of the Kolla people, who lived in the Titikaka region from before the time of the Incas. In the Aymara language of the Kollas, the towers were actually called uta amaya, which perhaps gives a us a better clue as to their significance. Uta amaya means, ‘houses of the soul’. Far from being simply places where the dead were laid to rest, the chullpas of Sillustani performed a vital function in the lives of the Kolla people and in their Cosmos. Even though Towers of Sillustani housed the bodies of dead ancestors, they really had nothing at all to do with funerals.
Lords and Ladies of Hatun Kolla
Sillustani’s towers were built for the mummies of the royal members of the Kolla tribes. These were the Lords (and Ladies) of Hatun Kolla, who are spoken of with reverence by local people in this part of the Andes even today. For the present day Aymara peoples, the Hatun Kolla are a link to a lost age, when heroes of mythical proportions inhabited cities that are now lost beneath the waters of Titikaka. Strange as it may seem to us, there may be substance to these Aymara legends.
Hitching-posts of the Sun
The chullpas are not the only archaeological curiosity that Sillustani has to offer. Lying close by are two stone circles that go by the name Intihuatana. The name may be familiar to anyone who has visited Machu Picchu, for it is the name of a megalith there, which is thought to be an astronomical clock. The term Intihuatana comes from the Quechua language and translates as ‘hitching post of the sun’.
So why are the stone circles at Sillustani called hitching-posts of the sun? Well, the notion of hitching the sun so that it appears to stand still in the sky is probably a reference to the solstices. For many traditional cultures around the world, these dates in June and December were important for many reasons. For ancient astronomers, who keenly observed the positions of the rising and setting sun, the solstices presented a remarkable phenomenon. The clue to this phenomenon is in the name solstice itself, which translates from Latin as ‘stop-sun’. Although we may casually talk about the sun´s rising in the East, it actually moves its rising point slightly throughout the year each day. The only exceptions to this are the solstices and the days immediately before and after them, when the sun appears in the same place on three consecutive days.
In the Andes, it seems, a stone that marked the position of the sun’s solstice sunrise was thought of as its ‘hitching post´, because it marked its rising position on those days when it appeared to stand still. This is why the stone circles at Sillustani were known as hitching posts of the sun. Just like Stonehenge in Britain – and numerous other stone circles around the world – many of their principal stones marked either the summer or winter solstices, or both.
Some readers may be familiar with the reasons archaeologists give for why solstices were important to many ancient cultures. These were to do with calendars and the need to mark the seasons for agriculture, hunting and gathering. What is not always appreciated is the importance of the solstices in the cosmology and spirituality of many ancient peoples. If we consider this at Sillustani, then we may gain a greater understanding of how the site – both its stone circles and towers – may have functioned as a whole.
I stated earlier that it is probably better to think of the Sillustani towers as ´houses for souls´ rather than funerary towers. After all, this was how the Kolla people saw them. It turns out that during the June (winter) solstice in the Andes, the towers were the scene of a particular shamanistic ceremony. Remember that the towers housed the mummies of the Hatun Kolla, who were the royal members of the tribe and who probably would have been the shamans of former times.
Every June 21st, the Kolla shaman would perform a ceremony that involved the taking of the San Pedro cactus and other sacred plants. The shaman would crawl into the tower through the small entrance at the bottom and would commune with the souls of the departed ancestors, whose mummified bodies were present there with him. My source for this information told me that this was how the shamans received guidance regarding the conduct and governance of the tribe over the months to come.
Curiously, there is a connection between the solstices and the return of the souls of the dead in many different cultures. The Incas – who later came to use Sillustani themselves – held a feast at the December solstice called Capac Raymi, when they ate, drank and made merry alongside the mummies of the departed. It was the solstice, however, that enabled the souls of the ancestors to return to the physical realm. There is a cosmic logic to these strange customs.
The Solstice Gateways
The solstices are also distinctive because they mark the two times in every year when the path of the sun through the sky (known as the ecliptic) crosses that of the Milky Way. Those who have studied ancient cosmologies from around the world have noted that, in numerous traditional systems, the solstices were when souls were thought, either depart the physical world, or to enter it. Indeed, this doctrine has been found to be so widespread that it has been named the Solstice Gateways.
The age-old question
As with so many other Andean megalithic sites, there is controversy over the age of Sillustani. My research has strengthened my opinion that parts of the Tiwanaku complex date back to the period immediately after the last Ice Age and I am coming round to the view that other megaliths may be even older. Equally, we should not fall into a bear-pit of materialist polemic here. Those of you who followed the link to John Major Jenkins’ technical paper on the Solstice Gateways above, may recognise that not only was this knowledge highly sophisticated and ancient, but it also pervaded many ancient cultures around the world. Perhaps the Lords of Hatun Colla were latter-day custodians of this ancient spiritual science?
If so, then the question of exactly when Sillustani’s megalithic towers were constructed is of secondary importance. Stones were fashioned, dressed and assembled into these ‘houses of souls’ in order to facilitate a very ancient spiritual technology. It might just be that the Hatun Kolla had preserved, what were to them, venerable and esoteric traditions of working megaliths in order to do just that. After all, why else would they have gone to all that trouble if these were just funerary towers?
Glyptodons, such as the one featured above, were monstrous mammals (technically known as megafauna) that lived in both North and South America during the last Ice Age. Distant relatives of modern armadillos, the species inthe picture was the size of a family saloon car. They may have enjoyed eating wild avocados; just like other American Ice Age megafauna did. If so, then itwas only the glyptodons that lived in North and Central America that enjoyed them. This obscure fact could change our thinking about Ice Age people altogether. (Image courtesy of Pavel Riha,CC-BY-SA-3.0).
A trip to the northern coast of Peru
The bus drops us off about twenty miles north of the city of Trujillo on the Pan American Highway, a strip of tarmac that runs like a black ribbon close to South America’s Pacific coast. I’m with Ivan, an amateur historian from Trujillo, who has made a study of the cultures that lived here before the arrival of the Spanish. We’ve come here to try to learn more about an archaeological site called Huaca Prieta, which may yet change our understanding of South America at the end of the last Ice Age.
Clovis first? Well, not really
In the last century, it all seemed so simple. During the Ice Age, so the story went, sea levels were much lower. This allowed people to cross the land bridge that then joined Siberia to Alaska, around 13,000 years ago. When the planet gradually heated up, the sea levels rose and people could no longer cross between the two continents. The immigrants slowly moved southwards down the coasts of the Americas, hunting and gathering as they went. The warming of the world at the end of the Ice Age was a rather a sedate affair – or so it was thought.
Dubbed the Clovis People by academics, these early Americans were hunter-gatherers and they made very effective stone tools. Indeed, they were such good hunters – it is still believed – these small bands of itinerants were personally responsible for wiping out all of the huge mammals, such as ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, glyptodons and toxodons that once roamed the Americas during the Ice Age.
So what about the peopling of South America?
The truth is that those who study the migration of humans into South America are already having to change their thinking about how this happened. This is because there is an increasing mass of evidence – genetic and archaeological – that is forcing them to.
Huaca Prieta is one of the burgeoning number of archaeological sites in all of the Americas that have given the lie to the Clovis first theory, if only because of its dating. In a recent archaeological dig at the site, the geologists present wanted to find out more about its underlying rock strata. When they dug down, they were surprised to find the remains of hearths, stone tools and plants. The archaeologists in the team radiocarbon dated the organic matter present to between 14 and 15,000 years old. Back then, quite obviously, there was no Pan American Highway hugging South America’s Pacific coast. The idea that the people who left those remains – or their ancestors – had wandered down the coast from Alaska, hunting and gathering as they went, was out of the question. The dates just did not stack up.
These were some of the questions swirling through my mind as we looked for a colectivo to take us towards the coast and, we hoped, towards Huaca Prieta. Eventually, we found a battered black Datsun, squeezed ourselves into the rear seats and waited until the driver had gathered enough passengers to make the trip worth his while. We did not have to wait long and soon we were racing along a road that divided a vast expanse of sugar cane that undulated in the scorching winds that race down the coast from the equatorial North. (This is the coast where the phenomenon we know as El Niño grows up, sprinting with all the vigour of a young boy from its birthplace across the Pacific.)
An archaeology of human conciousness
Already, amongst the colectivo’s passengers on our journey towards the coast, the conversation had turned to the peculiar energies present in the land around Huaca Prieta and of present-day shamanistic ceremonies conducted there. Huaca Prieta does not stand alone on this particular stretch of Peru’s Pacific coastline.
Wherever I looked, it seemed, there were mounds rising from the sandy landscape: El Brujo (literally, ‘the wizard’, but perhaps more accurately ‘the shaman’), and Huaca Cortada are but two of the mounds present in this archaeological complex that goes by the name of El Brujo. All, however, are regarded as huacas by the locals.The term is difficult to translate, because English lacks a word that grasps its full significance. (Perhaps ‘sacred place or object’ is as close as we can approach its meaning?) There are mounds that conceal pyramids too. Long after Huaca Prieta was abandoned, the Moche people built a seven-stepped pyramid here (also a huaca: Huaca Cao Vieja), at which they conducted numerous human sacrifices. Evidently, there is something about the intensity of an unseen presence in this particular part of the world that animates the human psyche – either for good or ill.
I hesitate to use the word ‘energy’, because of its New Age connotations, but it is difficult to find a substitute. Telluric currents, on the other hand, have been measured by physicists. They are mostly caused by solar winds, which bombard the Earth’s magnetic field with sub-atomic particles. Changes and fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field can affect our consciousness in ways that we hardly understand today. My research at several sites in South America has suggested strongly that the people who built them were capable of engineering those currents in complex and sophisticated ways. Perhaps these were what my companions in the colectivo were actually referring to, when they spoke of the potent ‘energies’ at Huaca Prieta and its companion huacas?
Huaca Prieta: El Brujo Complex’s most ancient sacred place
The construction of sacred places here did not stop with the coming of the Spanish to South America. The Complex contains the remains of one of Peru’s first Catholic churches, which was built over the site of a huaca in 1538. It is worth pondering for a moment as to why this complex of huacas should have been a place that has attracted people for 14,000 years. Is it all really just a matter of superstition. as those who embrace scientific orthodoxy would like us to believe? The sheer antiquity of the Complex makes it hard to explain why so many very different cultures have felt driven to embrace a sense of something other than the mundane here.
Equally, the archaeologists’ belief that El Brujo is a single complex comes from their excavations and from mapping its topography. All of the huacas sit within a defined geogrphical area. Curiously, its shape is a miniature version of the South American continent and is instantly recognisable as such when you look at a plan of El Brujo.
Archaeologists have put this down to mere coincidence, but after many years of studying South American ancient sites, I dare to differ. Geoglyphs – giant drawings that are scored across the landscape – were drawn by many ancient cultures on this continent. The most famous of these are the Nazca Lines, but there are many others. We may object to the idea that the site is a huge map, because there is no way that these ‘primitive’ peoples could have known the shape of their own continent. To say so may be to misunderstand the true nature of human consciousness. The physicist, Dr Hal Puthoff of the Stanford Research Institute would probably think so too. In the 1970s, he conducted a series of experiments into something known as remote viewing, in which he provided empirical evidence that such an undertaking is a reality. My own research into the shamanistic nature of many South American sacred sites indicates that one of their manifold functions was to enable very similar experiences to those of Dr Puthoff’s remote viewing subjects. Namely, of being able to perceive physical objects from distant perspectives – perhaps even outer space!
Evidence that challenges previous assumptions
The very early finds beneath the mound of Huaca Prieta have been a surprise to archaeologists, because they imply a high degree of cultural sophistication, especially as they are now known to be so old. On the other hand, some accounts of the excavations have been keen to stress the ‘primitive’ nature of the stone tools found in the lower levels of the site. After all, they suggest, this would seem to confirm the site’s antiquity, simply by those tools’ being ‘primitive’.
What if we consider these stone tools as simply ‘crude’, rather than ‘primitive’? Would this allow us to envisage a different scenario; perhaps one that is not necessarily shackled to the idea of perpetual progress? Imagine for a moment a series of catastrophes that took place over perhaps a few thousand years. This could have wiped out almost all human culture and most of humanity itself – just like the large mammals I referred to earlier. Might not this account for the crude nature of those tools? Interestingly, the very period from which these early Huaca Prieta finds have been dated – the end of the Ice Age – may well have been one in which successive catastrophes did take place.
From piles of megafauna dung to the fashionable restaurants of Islington
One piece of evidence found at Huaca Prieta is particularly difficult for mainstream archaeology to accommodate, because it calls into question the whole concept that humans progressed from being hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists.
Around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, Huaca Prieta’s earliest inhabitants were eating avocados. Yet the avocado has never grown in the wild near there – or in South America at all. Wild avocado trees grow only in Central America and Mexico. In any case, wild avocados are nearly all stone and very little flesh. More than this, the stone is poisonous to humans. They were, however, a very tasty snack for ground sloths – at least those species that lived in Central America. If avocados are a little too gentrified for your taste, then how about the humble potato? A recent genetic study has shown that potatoes were deliberately hybridised to produce edible tubers around 10,000 years ago.
All of this suggests to me that these Ice Age people were rather more like us than many in our contemporary Western culture would like to admit. It also hints at a world that was recovering from disaster, rather than groping towards civilisation. It may even imply that goods, such as potatoes and avocados, were traded by sea between Central and South America, as agricultural crops.
What really drove the changes assumed to be ‘progress’?
In one important respect, however, perhaps the early inhabitants of Huaca Prieta were very different from us. Until very recently, archaeologists had assumed that changes in material circumstances had driven greater cultural sophistication. Thus, in the Middle East, the great cities of Sumeria had arisen around 3,000 BC, because people stopped being hunter-gatherers and had started to take up farming. The story goes that, by farming, they produced more food and could therefore settle in urban centres, without having to go out hunting, or gathering food every day.
There is one massive archaeological complex in Mesopotamia (today’s Eastern Turkey) that is beginning to change the prevailing view of things. It is called Gobekle Tepe and, just like Huaca Prieta, it dates from long before the first known Sumerian cities; from that little understood transitional period at the end of the last Ice Age. It consists of a vast complex of stone circles, many with exquisite relief carvings, and it seems to have been an observational temple and centre for shamanistic ceremonies. Some of those who have studied Gobekle Tepe now think that it was not built because people started to settle in villages – astounding enough as that would be at such an early date. Quite the reverse, people started settling near to Gobekle Tepe because they required more sustained access to a place they regarded as sacred. In other words, we may have been putting the material cart before the spiritual horse in our interpretations of the changes that happened in ancient human societies.
My mind drifts back to that brief conversation in the colectivo on our way to Huaca Prieta. What was it that really brought those early people to this particular stretch of coast all those millennia ago? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t the presence of any wild avocados.
Above, the Spanish legend of El Dorado (The Golden One) originated in stories the Spanish heard concerning the initiation rite of the Zipa. This was the name given to the hereditary ruler of the southern confederation of Muisca tribes, which occupied territories corresponding to part of present-day Colombia. The Zipa’s body was covered in gold dust prior to submerging himself in Lake Guatavita, while his attendants threw gold and jewels in to the Lake as votiveofferings to the gods. (Photograph by Andrew Bertram, CC BY-SA 1.0).
Alchemy, Gold and the Temple of Solomon
A hunger for gold provided the impetus for the Spanish adventurers to seek out the temples and lofty holy places of the native peoples. Stories of cities and kings lavished with gold enticed them to press beyond the Eastern Cordilleras, deep into the bosky lands surrounding the many headwaters of the Amazon. Their actions are often characterised as simple greed, but many of them were in severe debt at home. While this does not excuse their rapaciousness, it does perhaps explain their motives a little more completely. The Americas provided the possibility of an escape from poverty for at least some of these secular adventurers.
The Catholic clergy also possessed an acute hunger, but theirs was for the conversion of those, whom they saw as indigenous savage souls, to the Church of Rome. Hence, not long after the fall of the Tawantinsuyo – and the removal of its gold – the clergy quickly got to work on the conversion of the peoples of the former Inca lands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Jesuits who were in the vanguard of this process on behalf of the Pope, to whom they had pledged their utmost allegiance. Founded by the Basque soldier, Ignatius Loyola in 1534, the Jesuits combined intellectual rigour with military discipline in carrying out their appointed duties.
The Jesuits set about the task of eradicating every visible feature of the Andean religion in something known as the Extirpation, which was carried out with characteristic meticulousness. The Jesuit priest Pablo José de Arriaga published a training manual called The Extirpation of Idolatry, which set out the methodology to be adopted. It included, as a priority when entering a village or settlement for the first time, the destruction of its lineage huaca. The reader will recall that huacas were arranged across the land in lines, called cesques. As a result, it became common practice amongst the indigenous people to destroy any visible signs of the cesques. Where possible, the native peoples removed the huacas from their alignments in an attempt to conceal their spiritual and cultural heritage from the encroaching Jesuit clergy.
So it was that the beliefs, lore and practices of the many tribes that inhabited the Tawantinsuyo became submerged beneath the baptismal waters of Roman Catholicism. The old beliefs did remain as undercurrents, however; and undercurrents are potent. They often move in barely perceptible ways that alter the nature of the more visible waters nearer to the surface.
There are countless examples across the Andean regions of where ostensibly Christian festivals thinly veil local ancient myths, customs and beliefs. Around the shores of Lake Titikaka, and centred on the small Bolivian town of Copacabana, the local people celebrate the Festival of Our Lady of the Candelaria in early February. This is one of the most important saints’ days in the towns and villages that surround Lake Titikaka, regardless of whether they may be in Peru of Bolivia. In early February 2010, I was staying in the Peruvian city of Puno. Throughout the whole day, its streets were thronged with thousands of people dressed in all manner of costumes, ranging from traditional tribal ponchos and chullos to the lassos and leather trousers of gauchos.
Those in the procession were members of the numerous folk societies that had come from the small towns and villages dotted around Puno’s altiplano hinterland. The members of each folk society moved in formations along the streets in their costumes; each group dancing in to the rhythms of its own band. The parade went on all day and well into the night, amidst much drinking and the setting off of fireworks as the day’s festivities drew to a close.
The Virgin of the Candelaria is also the Patron Saint of Bolivia and the story goes that her adoption in the region arose out of a dispute between those who venerated the Virgin Mary and those who venerated San Sebastian in Copacabana. The people on each side in the dispute were descended from the either Aymara speaking inhabitants, or the Quechua speaking ‘newcomers.’ It is most likely that the different ‘Saints’ worshipped by the two grooups represented Christianised versions of their respective traditional local tribal deities.
The need for the dispute to be resolved became more pressing, we are told, because of a series of bad harvests. The much needed favours of heaven could not be bestowed upon the people of Copacabana if they were undecided as to whom they should pray. Eventually, through a series of miraculous events and involving paintings and statues of the Blessed Virgin, the copacabeños adopted the Blessed Virgin and Copacabana became the home of one of the oldest shrines to Mary in the Americas.
Significantly, according to the social scientist Mario Montaño Aragón, the name Copacabana probably derives from Kotakawana, an Andean fertility god, who was androgynous. What is interesting is that the Christian story of the adoption of the Blessed Virgin contains all of the essential elements of the more ancient myth of Kotakawana. The need to resolve the dispute as to which saint to venerate, the Blessed Virgin or San Sebastian, being made more pressing because of a failed harvest is a clear relic of Kotakawana’s role as a fertility deity.
Just as in many of Europe’s mediaeval churches and cathedrals, stonemasons carved representations of people, spirits and legends that were not strictly Christian, so in South America indigenous craftsmen included carvings of their traditions into the decoration of the new churches. Around Lake Titikaka for example, it is common to see carvings of creatures that resemble mermaids in many churches. These are, in fact, Umantuus aquatic members of the court of the fertility god Kotakawana. Such indigenous representations, along with others, were commonplace in the style of architecture that came to be known as Andean-Baroque.
The Christian Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was built on the exact spot where Kotakawana’s temple had once stood. Clearly, the Catholic Church was seeking to stamp its mark on the spirituality of the local people, just as it had done at the Coricancha in Cusco. I am left to ponder, however, if such superimposition of Catholic buildings, legends and iconography has converted the root and branch of the Andean psyche even today, almost half a millennium after the Pizarro brothers first arrived in Peru from Spain.
The accepted view of Spain in the sixteenth-century is that it was a fanatically Catholic country. It was, after all, one of the two European powers (the other being Portugal) that sought to convert on behalf of the See of Rome, the heathen masses of South America to the Catholic faith. Yet, residing beneath its staunch evangelism there were undercurrents of other traditions, beliefs and forms of spiritual expression. Moreover, these were not simply confined to the peasant classes as remnants of earlier pagan times. Rich and powerful aristocratic families, even royalty, entertained different and heretical notions, which they kept hidden from the eager scrutiny of the Inquisition.
There was perhaps something in the vehemence of Spain’s Catholicism at this time that betrayed a certain insecurity of belief and identity. It was only in 1492 that the Emirate of Granada had been defeated and the Iberian Peninsula was once more entirely under Christian rule. This put to an end to nearly 800 years of Muslim political occupation that stretched back into Europe’s dark ages. Especially during the earlier times, the Islamic scholars of Al-Andalus – as southern Spain was then called – were the custodians of learning from across the known world. This included classical Greek and Latin, as well as Arabic and Persian texts on astronomy, mathematics and alchemy amongst other subjects.
Islamic scholars, such as Ibn Rusjd, were not only examples of a great florescence of learning in Islamic Spain, they also came to exert a strong influence on contemporary Jewish and Christian thinking. Islam perhaps reached its apogee in Spain in the 9th century, with the rise to prominence of Córdoba as a cultural and political centre. The Al-Andalus city had what was probably Europe’s greatest library and arguably its first university.
Within certain limits, this was largely a tolerant society. Christians, Jews and Muslims each lived in their own quarters in Spanish towns, but there was much in the way of exchange of ideas as well as commerce between them.
Until 1492, Spain was also the home to a large and influential Jewish population, amongst some of whose members the practice of Kabbalah featured prominently. In all of Western Europe up until the 16th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the most exposed to the rich and diverse cultural traditions that emanated from outside of Christendom. Significant components of those traditions were esoteric in nature and ranged from the Kabbalism of Sephardic Jews to the Hermetic, Neo-Platonic and alchemical texts studied by Islamic scholars.
Alchemical and other secrets
By the time that Ferdinand and Isabella had united the kingdoms of Castile and Leon in the 1470s to form what was eventually to become the modern nation-state of Spain, the new realm had become a repository for esoteric learning. Figures such as the Majorcan, Ramon Lull (1232-1315/6) were a major influence on esoteric thinking across Europe. It was even said that the reputed alchemist Nicholas Flamel had learned the secrets of transmutation from a book that had originated in Spain, written by a Jewish conversio (convert) to Christianity.
Certainly, the Spanish royalty, whilst fiercely proclaiming the Catholic Faith in the New World and in Europe, was not averse to incorporating alchemical and Hermetic symbolism into the architecture it commissioned and built. There is perhaps no greater example of this than Félipe II of Spain (1527-1598), who despite his staunch Catholicism, was also deeply interested in alchemy. Félipe was responsible for the construction of the part-monastery part-palace of the Escorial. When the original architect for the project died, Félipe appointed the Hermetic architect, Juan de Herrera to complete the building. In the event, Herrera, with the King’s approval, changed the building’s design to accord with their mutual esoteric interests.
Having accepted Herrera’s changes to the building’s design, Félipe supervised the construction and embellishment of the Escorial in every detail. The edifice was devised and built in rigorous conformity to principles of geometric harmony and proportion. Its various stages of construction were computed and inaugurated in accordance with astrologically propitious dates.
It is evident, from Félipe’s personal oversight of the construction of the Escorial, that he took the inclusion of Hermetic symbolism and esoteric lore into the building’s construction very seriously indeed. The Escorial was no mere fad, folly, or fashion statement for him.
From the Knights Templar to the Knights of Christ
Other undercurrents had been bubbling beneath the surface European culture in the late middle ages that originated from slightly different sources. The Royal Order of the Knights of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Real Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo), popularly known as the Knights of Christ, was a Portuguese and largely maritime chivalric order . It was to play a pivotal role in the exploration of the New World. The Knights of Christ originally were Knights Templar who had fled to Portugal after the Order had been suppressed in 1307 by Pope Clement V in collusion with the French King Philippe IV.
When the south-bound flotilla of the Templar fleet left La Rochelle in France in 1307 and arrived at Nazaré in Portugal, it was given refuge by King Denis I. Denis had reluctantly obeyed the Papal decree to confiscate all Templar properties in his realm. However, he negotiated with Clement’s successor to found a new chivalric order, the members of which were all former Templars. These Knights of Christ became the recipients of all of the Templars’ former properties in Portugal. It was hardly surprising that Denis should support this group of refugee Templars. He needed their expertise in rebuilding his country after the Muslim occupation and he may have wished to have a counterbalance to the increasing power and influence wielded by the Knights Hospitaller in his realm.
There were other deeper reasons as well. The Portuguese monarchy at this time was a cadet branch of the House of Burgundy. The same Royal House, in the person of André de Montbard, had been one of the founders of the Knights Templar, nearly two hundred years previously. Whatever the dynastic allegiances between the Templars and the House of Burgundy, it is certainly true that the Burgundian Kings of Portugal were enthusiastic in their support of the Knights of Christ.
It was during the reign of Denis’ son, King Alfonso IV (the Brave), that the Portuguese Age of Discovery really began. This was an age that included the exploration of the Atlantic even from the onset. Indeed, Alfonso was said to have been a Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Christ. Alfonso set in train expeditions to the Canary Islands during the first quarter of the 14th century. Later on, the famous seafarer Vasco de Gama was a Knight of Christ and the renowned Prince Henry the Navigator was a Grand Master of the Order.
Christopher Columbus: a secret Knight of Christ?
Another significant fact is that Christopher Columbus, although sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was married to the daughter of a Knight of Christ. It is said that Columbus gained access to his father-in-law’s sea charts. Some writers even claim that Columbus was himself a Knight of Christ and that he had studied cartography and navigation at the school founded by Henry the Navigator. Whatever the truth of this claim, on Columbus’ first expedition, the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria all crossed the Atlantic under sails emblazoned with the cross pattée of the Knights of Christ. That same emblem once had symbolised the power and enterprise of the Knights Templar throughout Europe for two hundred years.
Templar knowledge and doctrines
It is not within the scope of this short account to give a full history of the Knights Templar. However, it is perhaps worth reminding the reader of their origins during the crusades and especially of their association with the Temple of Solomon. The Templar Order rose to prominence in Europe during the middle ages. Their founders and principal members came from the elite European families. The Templars became great landowners and wealthy bankers. They were also excellent soldiers and, as we have seen, they seem to have developed into highly skilled and knowledgeable seafarers. Significantly, they also appear to have been instrumental in the introduction of Gothic architecture into Europe shortly after the Second Crusade.
It is little wonder then that some thought the Templars to be too powerful and too influential. Many writers have argued that the Pope and Philippe of France sought to persecute and suppress the Templars in order to gain access to their fortunes, especially their gold. Hence, it is argued, the charges of heresy and of other occult practices against them were fabricated.
On the other hand, the Templars do appear to have entertained unorthodox doctrines and ritual practices that may have arisen through their contacts with some Islamic groups (including the Assassins) and other religious traditions in the Middle-East during the crusades. They were claimed to have discovered certain writings during their excavations in Jerusalem, under the Temple Mount. They may even have discovered secrets encoded in the geometry of the Temple Mount itself. Whatever their exact source, several authors have contended that the Templars were in possession of information that called into question the accepted story of Christ’s life, and therefore of Christian doctrine, as promulgated by the Roman Church.
Others have pointed out the possible connection between Templar beliefs and a sect called the Mandaeans, who may have inherited their traditions from the Essenes. The Mandaeans, who exist even today, venerate John the Baptist, rather than Jesus as their principal prophet. According to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, their Gnosticism and Hermeticism seem to have influenced the Templars through direct contacts of some sort. Interestingly, the Mandaeans entertain a belief in a land across the ocean called Merica, which some have gone so far as to connect with the name America.
There has been much written about the relationship between the Knights Templar in Europe and the later Freemasons. Again, it is not within the scope of this short account to examine this in detail. As far as South America was concerned, former Templars as Knights of Christ, played a large part in opening up South America to European influence and colonization. However, did they also help in the transfer of esoteric knowledge? In order to determine if there is any truth to this, we need to understand a little more about the Templars knew, or may have known.
The Templars, Gothic Architecture and the Notre Dame Cathedrals
What is certain is that the Templars were associated with the construction of many of the great European Gothic cathedrals, as much as they have been credited with the introduction of Gothic style of architecture itself. Moreover, these same early Gothic cathedrals, called Notre Dame Cathedrals, also happened to exhibit a great deal of alchemical symbolism in their decoration. The earliest of the Notre Dame cathedrals is at Chartres, just to the West of Paris. Apart from its breath-taking Gothic architecture, part of the Cathedral’s tiled floor displays a labyrinth.
The French researcher and writer Louis Charpentier described the transformational spiritual workings of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral thus:
It is likely that the ritual progress had to be made above all at times when the telluric current was in strong pulsation, which should coincide with the times of pilgrimage. In the spring certainly, as the “Easter rounds”, led by the bishop, suggest.
The man who reaches the centre of the labyrinth, having made the ritual progress through it and having “danced”, is changed and for all I know in the sense that there has been an opening of the intuition to natural laws and harmonies; to laws and harmonies that he will perhaps not understand but which he will experience for himself, with which he will feel in tune…….
Cathedrals such as Chartres were built on pagan sites that appear to be at the confluence of strong telluric currents, called wouivres. (The word wouivre is derived from the ancient Gaulish word for snake, or serpent). Its famous labyrinth may have served as a means of focusing the telluric currents in the earth to affect the consciousness of the initiate who ‘danced’ barefoot within the labyrinth situated on the Cathedral’s floor.
The Labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral
Another Cathedral said to have Templar associations is at Amiens in Picardy. Sadly, the original labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral was destroyed in the 19th century, although it has now been reconstructed. It differed from the one at Chartres in that it was octagonal, which is suggestive of an axis mundi. It is also worth noting that Cologne Cathedral, the design of which was based on Amiens, also has an octagonal labyrinth. We shall return in a later article in this series to these two cathedrals, and their connection to the Cathedral of La Plata, Argentina.
The exoteric explanation for placing labyrinths in churches was that it was some kind of symbolic representation of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on which the devout person would wander before reaching the axis at the centre. Hence, they were given the generic title of Road to Jerusalem; but does this name hint at a more esoteric connection to Solomon’s Temple? Perhaps revealingly, labyrinths were also believed to have alchemical and Kabbalistic meanings, representing the Road to Solomon and the Great Work (of alchemy) and the triumph of spirit over matter.
Chartres and Amiens cathedrals are said to be located on particular points on the ground, along with other the Notre Dame cathedrals of Reims, Evreux and Bayeux, in a formation that reflects the arrangement of the stars in the constellation of Virgo. If this is so, it is curiously similar to the writings of Cornelius Agrippa, some three hundred years or so later, on geomancy. It may also be an example of the Hermetic dictum, As above, so below.
After the suppression of the Templars in 1307, the extensive lands that they owned were confiscated by the Church. Curiously, many of these places became centres of alchemy. Given their proclivity for adorning cathedrals with alchemical symbolism, it is not stretching the powers of conjecture too much to suppose that the Templars may have fostered the practice of alchemy on their lands before their banishment in 1307.
Noble Families and Esoteric Lore
Of course, the Templars did not exist in a vacuum socially, or politically. Many of their most prominent figures were members of some of the best-connected and most powerful European aristocratic families.
Those same families provided the wealth for the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. More often than not, these cathedrals venerated the Divine Feminine through their stone masonry and devotional art. This was especially the case with the Notre Dame Cathedrals. It is a tradition which ultimately stems, according to John Major Jenkins, from the worship of the Egyptian Virgin Mother, Isis. The same author notes that the early Christian cathedrals of Colonial South America continued this tradition and that their construction was sponsored by the aristocratic families of Spain and Portugal.
Divine proportions, what we would refer to today as earth energies, celestial correspondences and alchemical symbolism were all part and parcel of the construction of great religious buildings in the Mediaeval and early modern periods in Spain, France and across Europe.
The royal and and aristocratic sponsors of these enterprises had the political will and financial power to ensure that esoteric principles and symbolism were woven into the very fabric of monumental architecture; albeit covertly. The Knights Templar were a repository for Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical lore in mediaeval Europe and their expertise had guided the construction of the great Gothic cathedrals, especially the French Notre Dame cathedrals.
The transformation of members of the Templars into the maritime Knights of Christ in Portugal had stimulated to the exploration of the Atlantic. What was more, the stimulus to learning of the crafts of navigation and seafaring also seems to have exerted a considerable influence on Spain at the end of the Middle Ages. In the following parts of this history I will show how esoteric lore informed the construction of sacred and municipal architecture and the landscape of South America in the years that followed.
The Incas did not originate in Cusco, but established it as the centre of what would become their extensive empire, or more correctly the Tawatinsuyo (Quechua for ‘four parts together’). At its height, the Tawantinsuyo stretched from present day Colombia through Ecuador in the north, through Peru, western Bolivia, North-West Argentina and as far south as Santiago de Chile.
There are several different traditional accounts of where the Incas originated, although most historians say that they inhabited the high grasslands of the Andes. One tradition tells of their origin at Lake Titikaka, whether or not this is historically true.
The Royal Measuring Rod
The mythos of Inca origins at Titikaka certainly serves to establish a degree of continuity between the cultures of Tiwanaku and their Inca successors. This may have been rather more than a matter of simple political expediency, as some commentators have suggested. The Incas saw themselves as re-establishing order and civil society after an era of bloodshed and warfare that had existed since the demise of Tiwanaku, which is said to have taken place at around 1000 AD. At Tiwanaku, according to the early seventeenth century chronicler Pachakuti Yamqui, Wiracocha (in his version of the story called Tunupa), gave the father of the first Inca a staff that was called Tupayauri (The word is said to derive, fittingly from a combination of the Quechua tupa, ‘royal’ and the Aymara yauri ‘copper’). Historically, the Inca Priest-King carried the Tupayauri as a symbol of his authority, power and invincibility, but it had many other connotations as well.
Interestingly, the Quechua word tupa (royal), shares its origin in the language with the verb tupay, which means ‘to measure with a staff’. Here we have the words for measure, measuring-rod and royal all closely associated with each other. This is, of course, not unique to South American languages. The English words: ‘rule’, ‘regal’, ‘royal’, ‘ruler’ and ‘regulate’ all derive from the Latin regula and rego, meaning to keep straight and to rule. (Equally, the English word real, comes from the closely related Latin regalis, meaning royal). Could it be that, from very ancient times, it was the responsibility of shaman priest-kings to establish and maintain the measure of the known universe? As we shall see, the first Inca Manco Cápac drove his Tupayauri into the ground, in what was to become Cusco, in order to establish the new axis mundi there.
There is yet more that we can say about the associations between measurement and royalty. The title of the first Inca, Manco Cápac, means ‘Royal Manco’ in Quechua. (I shall just focus on the meaning of Cápac here, for the sake simplicity). According to William Sullivan, the name Cápac originates in the Quechua verb capay, meaning to measure with the palms of the hand. Aymara also has the word capa, meaning palm and capatha, meaning to measure by palms. Measurement by means of the palms of the hands is said to have been an extremely ancient technique and examples of it are found in many cultures. It is possibly the basis for various units of measurement in ancient cultures around the world, including the Pacific Islands, where it may have contributed towards the Polynesians’ system of navigation across the vast tracts of the Pacific.
Cusco: the new stone in the centre
In several versions of the Inca foundation myth, Manco Cápac and his brothers and sisters left Tiwanaku and Titikaka to travel to the north to find a place to settle. In the version of the founding of Cusco told by the Spanish chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa the story goes thus:
Let it be by one way or the other, for all agree that they went trying the land with a pole or staff until they arrived at this Huanay-pata, when they were satisfied. They were sure of its fertility, because after sowing perpetually, it always yielded abundantly, giving more the more it was sown. They determined to usurp that land by force, in spite of the natural owners, and todo with it as they chose. So they returned to Matahua.
From that place Manco Ccapac saw a heap of stones near the site of the present monastery of Santo Domingo at Cuzco. Pointing it out to his brother Ayar Auca, he said, “Brother! you remember how it was arranged between us, that you should go to take possession of the land where we are to settle. Well! look at that stone.” Pointing out the stone he continued, “Go thither flying,” forthey say that Ayar Auca had developed some wings, “and seating yourself there, take possession of land seen from that heap of stones”.
This would indeed seem to be a propitious place, given that the heap of stones must have reminded Manco Cápac of Tiwanaku, or taypicala, as ‘the stone in the centre’. There were also practical considerations in that Manco Cápac and his siblings used the staff (Tupayauri) to test the land in order to see if it was fertile. Doubtless such practical considerations also included the supply of fresh water and this location just happened to lie within two rivers, the Huatanay and Tullumayu, that join further south to form the river of the Sacred Valley, the Vilcamayu-Urubamba.
John Major-Jenkins has observed that this division of rivers at Cusco resembles the dark rift of the Milky Way, close to the constellation of Sagittarius:
The unusual geological bifurcation of rivers that surrounds Cuzco most closely conforms to the part of the Milky Way that is bifurcated by the dark rift north of Sagittarius. In that sense, if we map the sky onto Peru, Cuzco is in the dark rift.
To Manco Cápac and his party, this must have been a propitious place indeed. It is little wonder therefore that the name Cusco was chosen as the name for their new axis mundi. The name comes from the Quechua q’osqo, which means in English ‘navel’. The imagery should be familiar to anyone who has studied geomancy, as Cusco was indeed the navel of the world, or the physical centre in the new pacha (epoch) established by Manco Cápac and his family.
The geomantic plan of Cusco
Cusco eventually would become the political, economic and cultural axis of the Tawantinsuyo as the Incas expanded their territory to take in those of other South American tribes, either by conquest or negotiation. The tribes brought within the compass of the Tawantinsuyo sent certain numbers of their people to live at Cusco, where they were allocated particular quarters within the city’s boundaries, according to their ethnic and geographical origins. Cusco thus became a sort of ethnic microcosm of the whole Tawantinsuyo, with its geometric topography manifesting the unity in diversity of the entire realm.
The reader will recall that the Chakana became closely associated with Cusco in Inca times. One reason for this was the four-fold division of the City, which reflected that of the division of the whole Tawantinsuyo into four provinces. The Chakana, it should also be remembered, encompassed celestial correspondences, especially in relation to the Southern Cross.
Prior to its division into four, however, celestial space had been reflected in the two-fold division of Cusco’s terrain. The line that cut the City in half had been established by observing the sun’s rising over a mountain called Pachatusan during equinoxes. The mountain’s name in English is ‘support pillar of space-time’, or ‘support pillar of the world’. This line marked the division between upper and lower Cusco. Upper Cusco (Hanan Cusco) was the abode of those members of the City who were warriors or administrators, whereas the inhabitants of Lower Cusco (Hurin Cusco) worked in religion and agriculture.
The Temple of the Sun
The sheer sophistication of geomancy used at Cusco is best appreciated when we come to consider the use of huacas and cesques there. Again, the reader will remember that cesques consisted of straight alignments of huacas across the landscape. All of the cesques in the entire Tawantinsuyo originated in the Temple of the Sun in Cusco, which was built next to the very pile of stones where Manco Cápac had thrust his Tupayauri (staff).
From the Temple of the Sun, 40 (some say 42) cesques radiated in straight lines over the mountain tops to different points on the horizon. Positioned along each cesque were 8 or so huacas, making some 328 huacas in total. This complex arrangement worked on multiple levels. Each huaca was associated with its own day and certain rites were performed at particular huacas on particular days. As the Inca calendar consisted of 328 days, there was one huaca for each day of the year. The remaining 37 days were excluded from the calendar, because they were the days when the Pleiades were not visible above the horizon.
Stars and ancestors
The number 40 was highly important in the Inca world view for other reasons. The 40 cesques also signified the idealised number of tribes that had been brought together to form the Tawantinsuyo. Each cesque therefore formed a straight line that led towards the geographical origin of each tribe. Priests were amongst the members of the 40 tribes who had been brought to Cusco, and the responsibilities of each included the maintenance of the huacas along the tribal cesque and for conducting rituals on the appropriate days. Each cesque also pointed towards the rising of a significant star, or constellation. Each star or constellation that aligned in this way with a cesque was important because it was thought to be the ancestor of that tribe.
Here, in Inca Cusco, we had the embodiment of order on the human, spiritual, geographic and cosmic scales. This was the counterpoint par excellence to the periodic cataclysms, or pachakutis, that had arrived during the many cycles of time that the Incas understood to be history. At the centre of the Tawantinsuyo was Cusco, and at the centre of Cusco was the Temple of the Sun. In writing of the ancient science, of which he believed Pythagoras and Plato to have been the inheritors, John Michell observed something that was equally true of the Inca conception of Cusco:
Thus human nature and the order of the universe were seen as products of the one archetype, the pattern that the Creator had in mind when he set about his work. On that perception rested the entire fabric of ancient philosophy and science. The Temple was placed between the two scales, human and cosmic, and the energies it transmitted were two-way; for it was believed not only that the heavens influenced affairs on earth, but that the order of humansociety affected the entire world of nature. Ceremonies throughout the year at the Temple were meant to initiate, and so procure, the fruitful union of all mutually corresponding elements, those above with those below.
The arrival of the conquistadores
Although it was geographically extensive, the Tawantinsuyo flourished for around only a hundred years before the Spanish, under the command of Francisco Pizarro, subjugated it in 1533. The fact that Pizarro, with only a small force of fewer than 200 Spaniards at his disposal, overcame this vast realm is one of the great riddles of history. Most historians attribute this to the effects of smallpox, which the Spanish inadvertently introduced into South America, and its devastating effect on the indigenous population. It was smallpox that claimed as its victim the Sapa Inca (King) immediately prior to Pizarro’s campaign in Peru. Huayana Capac died of the disease, leaving two of his sons, the half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, to conduct a bitter civil war for the Tawantinsuyo, which left it divided into a northern and southern portion. It was no longer ‘the four parts together’, a sign indeed of ill omen.
There were further signs that the pacha of the Incas was about to come to an end. Andean priest-astronomers knew about precession, and from this understanding, they realised that the current world pacha was about to be turned upside down in a pachakuti, after which a new pacha would come into existence. Furthermore, according to the chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega – who was Huayana Capac’s great nephew – the Sapa Inca had told of an ancient prophecy just before he had died of smallpox. This spoke of a future time when the Incas would lose their religion and the Tawantinsuyo would be no more.
The dying Sapa Inca was also said to have associated the coming of the Spaniards with the return of Wiracocha, heralding the advent of a new pacha. This information was said to have been kept as a secret amongst the Inca royalty for many years, according to Garcilaso.
Whilst many historians have explained the prophecy away as an excuse that the Inca royalty had made for not resisting the Spanish incursion more vigorously, it may have been that the Incas genuinely believed that their time had come to an end. To them, the signs were everywhere.
Whatever the causes, the Spanish soon established the new dispensation. The Temple of the Sun was stripped of its gold and a Dominican convent was built on the site. This was an act of no small significance to the conquered peoples of the Tawantinsuyo, as much as it was for the conquerors. There followed a period called the extirpation, in which the Catholic Church attempted to remove all signs of indigenous religious symbology from the landscape, and which especially included the deliberate destruction of huacas. Many of the menfolk were forced to work in silver and gold mines to feed the insatiable appetite of the Spanish Crown for precious metals. Others were simply slaughtered. Perhaps ironically, Inca resistance grew after the demise of Cusco and the death of Atahualpa.
Yet for all this, the history of geomancy in South America did not come to an end. Amongst the native population, some fragments of the ancient beliefs were kept alive clandestinely.
You will see them in the carvings made by indigenous craftsmen in the churches erected by the Conquistadores; you will find them if you look beneath surface of the many religious festivals celebrated in this part of the world. The Spanish too employed their own traditions of geomancy that came from esoteric European sources. It is said, for example, that families withTemplar and Hermetic connections provided many of the resources to build early colonial churches. Later, during the era of liberation from Spanish colonialism, Freemasonry was a major influence on the ideas of liberators, such as Simon Bolivar, Juan San Martin and Bernado O’Higgins to name but a few. That influence can also be seen in the architecture and layout of modern cities such as Buenos Aires, or Montevideo. In South America, it would seem that constructing an image of the cosmos across the landscape is something that is inextricably bound to establishing and maintaining political and social order.
Above, a colour-composite image of the Pleiades from the Digitised Sky Survey. (Image in the public domain courtesy of NASA).
The number 7
There are some other elements of the story of Amaru Muru that could equally derive from ancient Andean traditions. The Monastery of the Seven Rays is clearly indicative of the colours of the rainbow. Today, you will see rainbow flags in all of the Andean regions populated by the Aymara and Quechua speaking peoples, regardless of whether you happen to be in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, or Chile. The number seven certainly held significance in ancient times, equally as much as today, and more widely across South America.
The eminent German mathematician Maria Reiche, who spent most of her life studying the Nazca Lines in Southern Peru, found that some of the lines and triangles marked onto the surface of the desert aligned with the rising and setting points of particular constellations, including the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.
The Pleiades were observed also by the Incas as a way of determining the abundance or otherwise of forthcoming harvests. This was done by judging the clarity of the seven stars in the sky, at the point at which they first became visible above the horizon without being outshone by the brilliance of the Sun (in technical language this is known as their heliacal rising). The technique employed was, in fact, a very disciplined form of observation, since atmospheric conditions governed how clearly the Pleiades shone, they provided an indication of the optimum planting time for crops such as potatoes. It is hardly surprising then that the number 7 features so prominently and persistently in Andean lore, if for no other reasons than the security of the next harvest.
The mind of the paq’o is more all-encompassing than this though, and somehow I think that an Andean might agree with Philo of Alexandria when the latter wrote, “Nature delights in the number 7”. Andean lore is no stranger to sacred number, geometry and geomancy. The number 7 is indeed abundant in the Andean cosmovision, not least also because it is the sum of 3 and 4, which are the numbers of of the three pachas and the traditional quarterly division of Andean villages and cities. Settlements were crossed by four pathways that ran to the four rising and setting points of the solstice suns on the horizon. We shall explore this characteristic of dividing space into four in due course.
The Axis Mundi and the three vertical pachas of Andean cosmology
The word pacha is often loosely translated into English as ‘world’ of which there are three of the spatial variety, the Hanaq Pacha (the world above/land of the gods/condor), Kay Pacha (the earth/puma) and Ukhu Pacha (the world below/of the dead/serpent).
Here again we meet the limitation of the Western rational mind in grasping the concept of the pacha and one which likewise confused the Spanish, who frequently equated the three pachas with the heaven, earth and hell of Catholic theology. It is not my purpose to give a full account of the concept of pacha here, or to list the many variations in nomenclature and nuance that exist. Suffice it to say that a pacha incorporates what we conceive of as both time and space. Hence, a pacha can also be thought of as a particular era, or of time. Pachas could replace one another over time and each might have its own characteristics. The arrival of a new pacha was heralded by a pachakuti (turning of the world upside down) and would be marked by changes in heavenly configurations, perhaps earthquakes and the possible overturning of an existing social order. Again, it is perhaps better to think in terms of a holographic conception. Those who are familiar with fractals and holograms will come closer to an understanding of the pacha and other ‘parts’ of the Andean cosmovision than those who are accustomed to thinking in a linear fashion.
The serpent and the Ukhu Pacha
Let us now return briefly to Amaru Muru, which means the Gateway of Amaru in both the Quechua and Aymara languages. We know something of the Gateway, or doorway, but who, or what, then is Amaru? The Amaru is the mythical water serpent of the Andes, which is associated with great changes and upheavals at the end of one era, or cycle, to clear the way for the start of the next one.
The serpent is associated with the underworld (Ukhu Pacha) and, not surprisingly therefore, also correlates to the occurrence of earthquakes, of which there are many in this corner of the globe. Celestially, the serpent corresponds to the shape of a particular ‘dark cloud’, within the band of the Milky Way, above the southern tropic (ie in the ‘lower’, or underworld). In nature, serpents live under the ground also. The cycles that end in a period of destruction may be social, political, architectural, celestial, climatic, or natural. Usually, they are some combination of some, or all of the same.
Amaru, the serpent of the underworld, has a mythological pedigree that stretches back a very long way indeed. However, you do not need agree with me about the extreme antiquity of some of the most intriguing Andean archaeology to appreciate the powerful connections that exist between the Andean underworld and the Amaru. The use of serpent imagery in association with earth energies has parallels in many other ancient cultures across the globe and should be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of these subjects. Now it is time to leave the Bosque de las Piedras and return south, across Lake Titicaca, to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where we will discover another serpent connection.
Much has been written about the Isla del Sol, and much more will doubtless be written, but here I want simply to draw your attention to something that Paul Coon claims to have discovered, when he described the Rainbow Serpent and the Plumed Serpent as lines of male and female energy that weave their way around the Michael and Mary Lines as they encircle the globe. The imagery is, of course, very similar to what we have just been discussing and is part of his work on the Planetary Chakras, of which Lake Titikaka is one of the 52 Planetary Gateways to Immortal life. The masculine – feminine dynamic is a persistent theme in the mythology of Lake Titikaka and especially of the Isla del Sol and its close companion, the Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon).
Tiwanaku: the Stone in the Centre
In his book Galactic Alignment, John Major Jenkins makes an interesting observation about the correspondence between the path of the Milky Way above and the topography of the Andes, as well as that of other mountain chains, on the Earth below.
Jenkins concludes that the Galactic Centre and solstice-galaxy alignments have played a significant part in Incan and pre-Incan traditions. Moreover, he singles out two locations that are the strongest candidates for the terrestrial counterpart to the Galactic Centre in South America: Tiwanaku, which at 16° south of the Equator passes directly underneath the Galactic Centre at its zenith, and Cusco, of which we shall learn more in due course.
Without a topographical globe in hand, it’s hard to picture this, but no one can deny that a circular chain of mountains runs crosswise around the globe, at roughly a 60°angle to the equator. If we imagine this mega-chain to be the terrestrial counterpart to the Milky Way, then two locations present themselves for being the Galactic Center on Earth: Tibet and Peru. This is the biggest mapping of sky onto Earth that we could imagine. This is “as above, so below” in a big way.
The complexes at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku lie in close proximity to each other at about 12 miles south of the current shoreline of Lake Titikaka. The dating of the sites is hotly disputed between academics and ‘alternative’ archaeologists, with the latter generally arguing for an earlier one and perhaps going back as far as 15,000 BC. Puma Punku has been said by many to pre-date Tiwanaku; but it is not just its dating that presents an enigma.
At Puma Punku collossal blocks of red sandstone and grey andesite are strewn across this corner of the altiplano as if they had been dashed to the ground in some titanic fit of pique. There have, thankfully, been no sustained attempts to reconstruct Puma Punku from this almost random array of blocks, but that is hardly surprising. The stones of Puma Punku defy any attempts to do so. The sheer size of some of the largest ones would make them difficult to manoeuvre. Above all, many of them have been worked with such precision and intricacy that it is more than conjecture to imagine that we are looking at the scattered fragments of some kind of colossal ancient machine. If so, what was its function? What was the technology?
We can imagine a little more easily what the neighbouring Tiwanaku site once looked like, although the ‘walls’ of the Kalasasaya complex are a modern reconstruction that give a false impression of how it must have been originally. Until comparatively recently here, you would have seen a series of megaliths arranged in a large rectangle.
The Akapana Pyramid
As you walk away from Puma Punku, you will see today, on your right, a large rather nondescript mound with a flattened top. This is the Akapana Pyramid and fortunately we do know something rather more reliable about how it may have looked originally. What appears to today’s modern visitor as a rather large – almost amorphous – earth work, was once a stepped and truncated pyramid. For reasons that are far from clear, at some point in the Akapana’s history, it became covered in soil and mud. Beneath the accumulated dirt, excavations have revealed the remains of precisely worked masonry. The ravages of time and treasure hunters have made it impossible to obtain the Pyramid’s exact dimensions, but it has been estimated to have been about 780 feet (257 metres) at its widest point and over 50 feet (16.5 metres) tall.
The Akapana once would have appeared as a series of seven large steps, or tiers, that taper towards the platform on the top. I have previously discussed the significance of the number seven in ancient Andean cosmology, so I shall not labour the point here.
Suffice it to say that seven tiers were built here for a particular reason. We know from elsewhere that the numbers of tiers of the Mayan Pyramids all had numerological, celestial and calendrical significance. Perhaps this is just a coincidence? On the other hand, there is good evidence that there were trade and cultural contacts between Central and South America in ancient times. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility therefore to consider that both Central and South American cultures shared the habit of including numbers that were significant to them in their architecture. Above all at Tiwanaku, you are left with the distinct impression that every angle and every number are there to convey a meaning.
There was once a sunken court on the top of the Akapana that was originally, before being covered in earth and vandalised, in the the shape of a Chakana that faced upwards towards the heavens. The symbolism and geometry of the Chakana are highly significant, especially at this location. Even today, you will see Chakanas throughout South America, not just in the Andean region. I have even seen Chakanas adorning the belt buckles of mate drinking gauchos in the Rio Sul in Brazil. In the Andes you will see the Chakana everywhere: from rainbow coloured flags fluttering in the Plazas de Armas, to painted signs advertising restaurants and hotels.
In most literature it is referred to as an Inca Cross, but its provenance as a symbol is much more ancient. As with other symbols of great antiquity, the multiple meanings associated with Chakana are the result of accretions over time. Its etymology seems to stem from the Quechua and Aymara word(s) chaka, meaning bridge and it may have been associated, in some astronomical contexts, with the three stars of Orion’s belt. (The three were thought to have been “linked” in some way, rather like a ladder, or rope bridge). However, the overriding sense of the concept of chaka (bridge), and therefore of the Chakana, is rather more generic, as William Sullivan points out:
In Andean culture……the concept of a “bridge’ (or stairway) had uses as a cosmological metaphor: in myth it stood for a point of contact between this world and the supernatural worlds, while in purely astronomical uses it referred to abstract “junctions’ on the celestial sphere, that is, to locations whose significance lay in marking areas of the sky critical for grasping the essential geometry of the fixed sphere of stars.
Now, we all already know that the significance of Tiwanaku’s location is that it lies beneath the path of the Galactic Centre when it is at its zenith as it seems to move along the band of the Milky Way. This then, would be an entirely fitting and congruent location for a terrestrial axis point, since it is indeed a place “critical for grasping the geometry of the fixed sphere of stars.”
Did the ancient builders of the Akapana have a sense of ‘As above, so below’ that they expressed in the physical world about them? Several writers have noted that the name Tiwanaku may derive from the Aymara term taypicala ‘the stone in the centre’. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s account of the founding of myth of Tiwanaku by the Andean creator god Wiracocha seems to confirm this tradition:
He [Wiracocha] went to a place now called Tiahuanacu in the province of Collasuyu, and in this place he sculptured and designed on a great piece of stone, all the nations that he intended to create. This done, he ordered his two servants to charge their memories with the names of all tribes that he had depicted, and of the valleys and provinces where they were to come forth, which were those of thewhole land.
Earlier in this version of the Wiracocha creation myth, the sun, moon and stars all originate at place called Titikaka (literally ‘Lion Cliff’), a name that anciently referred to a black cliff that cascaded water, rather than to the whole of the Lake now called Titikaka. Significantly, the sunken courtyard on top of the Akapana included a particular drainage feature. Thanks to the ample seasonal Altiplano rainfall, and to the ingenious design of the drainage feature, the pyramid did indeed cascade water in what must have have been a spectacular fashion.
Was the Akapana Pyramid then some kind or reproduction, or perhaps more accurately some kind of fractal, of the creation point of the cosmos? Was it the point at which that which is above translates into that which is below? It is certainly true that Tiwanaku, at least in terms of the accepted academic chronology, was the centre of an extensive empire covering what is today western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile. Moreover, its cultural and economic influence spread further still. In this very corporeal sense, the Tiwanaku culture became the centre of trade, ritual, power and influence in South America between about 600 AD and 1000 AD.
Today, the Chakana is most frequently associated with the Southern Cross in the popular mind. This may be because the azimuth rise of the Southern Cross was used by the later Incas to mark out the four quarters of the Tawanstinsuyu, or the extent and bounds of the Inca dominion, from its location in Cusco. For this reason, the Chakana was said by the Incas to ‘reside’ in Cusco. In addition, a Cusco foundation myth tells us that the ‘rock in the centre’ was deliberately re-located in some way from Tiwanaku to Cusco. We shall find out why and how later.
The Chakana and sacred number
The Chakana contains multiple levels of symbolism and meaning. The three rectangular blocks in each quarter of the cross are said to represent the three vertical ‘worlds’ of the Hanaq Pacha, Kay Pacha and Ukhu Pacha (see above). At the same time, the Chakana has four arms, which represent the four cardinal directions and the four seasons. In this respect, it is used today to mark the cycle of festivals throughout the Andean year, with the upright of the cross denoting the solstice points and its horizontal arm marking the equinoxes. It also has 12 rectangular corners, which are said to represent each month of the year. At this point in the description, I shall ask you to take note of some simple numerology:
3 pachas + 4 directions = 7 steps on the Akapana
3 pachas x 4 directions = 12 corners on the Chakana, 12 months in the year
The circle in the centre of the Chakana is actually considered to be a hole and is commonly referred to as the axis point. The central axis of the Chakana is the means through which the shaman moves between the three different pachas, on earth, above and below.
Chakana as Axis Mundi
Here we find some of the most striking parallels between the imagery employed by shamans in Pre-Columbian South America and those in numerous other cultures and mythologies. You will find similar allusions to the central axis in the myths of the Scandinavian Yggdrasil, (or World Tree), and in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist accounts of Mount Meru, to name but two. Perhaps some of the most notable parallels are found in the Finnish Kalevala, a collection of verses that tell of the theft of the Sampo. This was a magical mill that scholars have shown was connected with imagery for the North Pole.
Yet another significant feature the symbolism associated with the central axis is that it is often also the connecting point between the male and female principles. Frequently this manifests as the masculine sky touching the feminine earth, expressed in some or other way. The mythology of the Andes shares this characteristic, as we shall see further in due course. Comparative mythology is a vast and fascinating area for study, which involves understanding the technical language of myth, precession and ethnography amongst many other things. It is too vast and intricate a subject to do anything other than to touch on here.
Before we leave the Chakana, it is worth making a couple of more comparisons with other cultural traditions around the world. Little research has been done to date on the relationship between the geometry of the Chakana and that of sacred symbols in the Old World. While eloquently describing the the qualities of certain Canonical Numbers. in The Dimensions of Paradise, John Michell writes:
The Earth Spirit, 1080, corresponds to the Chinese ch’i or life-breath of nature, which accumulates in the folds and cavities of the earth……….It  is the number of magic, imagination and madness and, above all, of that Mystery that lies at the heart of things and is not to be comprehended by any system of morality or rationalism.
Squaring the circle of Andean sacred geometry
Interestingly, Michell goes on to note that the number 1080 was sacred to the Gnostics and was associated by them with the Serpent of Wisdom. In the ancient tradition of Sacred Geometry, the Earth Spirit (number 1080) was represented as a circle and the squaring of the circle in this tradition expressed the joining of masculine and feminine. (The square being the geometric representation of the masculine principle). Each of the corners of the Chakana is a 90° right-angle and there are 12 of them, so 12 x 90 = 1080: the number of the feminine Earth Spirit. Right-angles are, by their inherent quality “squares”, in that you need to use only right-angles and nothing else to make a square, and the geometry of the square is masculine. Are we seeing here the Andean version of the squared circle? The numerology and geometry of the Chakana would seem to be woven together in an intricate and sophisticated way to describe just that.
Of course, this would require the Pre-Columbians of South America to divide the circle into 360° for the arithmetic to work. Is that such a preposterous idea? Not if you can accept that there was, perhaps in very ancient times, some kind of contact between cultures, or a common heritage.
The Dark Rift of the Milky Way is one of the most prominent dark cloud constellations. These have been venerated by numerous South American cultures stretching back into the remotest antiquity. The Dark Rift stands between our solar system and the Galactic Centre. The picture above was taken in 2012, when our solar system aligned most closely with the Galactic Core. (Public domain courtesy of NASA).
The Andean world-view
I need to begin my brief account with something of an explanation. I came to the insights I am about to share during several extensive trips to the South American Continent, where I have been investigating evidence for the existence of an advanced civilisation of extreme antiquity, specifically during the Pleistocene era.
This is a subject that I find absorbing and fascinating, but it is not the subject of this article. So on reading further, please forgive me if any of my enthusiasm for this possibility may colour the observations I make. The following narrative is essentially about the Inca civilisation and its predecessor, the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) culture, and it takes place between about 300 AD and approximately 1533 AD. It is about how each culture established an axis for its territory and the cosmology, mythology, numerology, geometry and symbolism each employed to do so.
I say ‘axis for its territory’, but that is misleading. The axis, in the world-view of these cultures, was much more than a central point of a given parcel of land. It was the axis of everything they understood themselves to be. There was no civilisation without the axis; there was no creation without the axis.
The Incas saw themselves as the inheritors of the wisdom of Tiwanaku. and there is much to suggest that such wisdom was highly sophisticated and included a knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes and even of the Galactic Centre. A culture does not attain an appreciation of precession overnight. It takes thousands of years of meticulous observation of the heavens. It also takes a culture that is able to pass information down over thousands of years.
This was done through myth, in a quite specific and technical way. Contrary to what we have been taught, myths are not the naïve mental ramblings of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples, who were too stupid to make sense of the world around them. Neither are they untruths, as in the colloquial meaning of the word today.
It is the modern mind that has set up mythos and logos almost as opposites. In the original Greek, their meanings were much closer together and both words referred in some way to an account, or something that was said. Trace the meaning of mythos further back – to its Proto-Indo-European roots in the verb mewd (to care about something) – and we are getting closer to how we should really think about myth: an account of something of importance.
Precession was important to the Inca and Tiwanaku cultures because they perceived that there were synchronicities between the celestial world and the mundane world of nature below. Time moved in cycles. Events and changes in the world could be mapped against movements in the heavens, both for longer and shorter cycles of time. Star lore was thus based upon precise observations.
The Andean sages did not use a zodiac of twelve constellations, circling the earth in what is called the plane of the ecliptic, with which we are familiar. Instead, they studied the Milky Way as it traversed the heavens. Although certain constellations were important to them, their zodiac consisted of various ‘dark clouds’ within the band of the Milky Way, to which they ascribed the names of animals: the llama, the fox, the toad, serpent, partridge, etc.
These animals also feature in Andean myths and we begin to appreciate the technical meaning of those myths when we start to realise that their myths of animals are telling us something about the heavens and about the times in which they lived.
I shall give an example of how complex inter-relationships were thought of and used to illustrate something of how the Andean mind works. November and December mark the season when the rain comes to the altiplano and the sun moves into constellation we call Scorpio. To the Inca, this constellation was associated with a plough and storehouse – both images of the season’s abundance. This is not surprising, given the importance of rain to securing the forthcoming harvest. Scorpio also happens to point towards the Galactic Centre and to those ‘dark cloud’ constellations in the Milky Way closest to the Centre, the mother and baby llamas. They are the zodiacal animals emblematic of the nurturing of new life.
We therefore have a whole complex of associations and relationships, involving the seasonal cycle, birth, renewal, fecundity, abundance etc. This complex embraces the celestial, natural, human and political spheres of Andean knowledge and culture.
It is one that also embraces the axis, manifested here as the Galactic Centre, as the source of all existence. It was no coincidence that rituals to ensure the abundance of the forthcoming harvest were enacted, at this time of year, both in Cusco and Tiwanaku, as the temporal and political centres of their respective cultures. Neither is it arbitrary that both cities happened to lie beneath the band of the Milky Way as it crosses the ecliptic.
This is a fundamentally different way of conceiving of the world than most of us, in our western post-enlightenment culture, have been taught. We naturally divide things up into separate and discrete parts; into neat categories.
We are not encouraged to see the patterns and inter-relationships between the phenomena around us, be they celestial, political, natural or physical. For the Andean shaman, (called a paqo), the world is much more like a hologram of inter-connectedness. Perhaps it is more akin to how Michael Talbot wrote about the physicist David Bohm’s theory of implicate order:
The idea that consciousness and life (and indeed all things) are ensembles enfolded throughout the universe had an equally dazzling flip side. Just as every portion of a hologram contains an image of the whole, every portion of the universe enfolds the whole. This means if we knew how to access it we could find the Andromeda galaxy in thethumbnail of our left hand. We could also find Cleopatra meeting Caesar for the first time , for in principle the whole past and implications for the whole future are enfolded in each small region of space and time.
Could it be that the Andean shaman knows something more than we do? Where Talbot makes theoretical associations and speculations, the shaman has an established canon of correspondences that he can draw upon. The shaman knows that the axis defines his universe and that the axis is the centre of the city, world and galaxy. The world around is one that is replete with meaningful patterns, as is the world within. It is my contention that this knowledge is very ancient indeed and that it can be traced back in time to equally ancient origins. It can be seen in geometry, number and proportion, as we are about to find out.
Geographically speaking, we shall take a journey northwards, along the line of the Andes mountain range, from Lake Titikaka on the borders of Peru and Bolivia to Cusco. This was the journey that many of the Inca foundation myths say was made by the dynasty that became the greatest political and social state in Pre-Columbian South America. It is also a journey through a mythical, celestial and geomantic landscape.
Lake Titikaka as the terrestrial source of creation
Let us begin our journey with what I consider to be one the most ancient locations on the Continent; Lake Titikaka and its surrounds, which as we have seen, was once much larger than today. For those unfamiliar with Lake Titikaka, I should explain that it lies on the altiplano (high plateau) at around 12,000 feet above sea level, between the twin spines of the Andes. It straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia today, but in more ancient times Lake Titikaka and its environs have been part of various political domains, including Incan, Spanish and Tiwanakan to name but a few.
The altitude and the lack of trees lend the sparse altiplano an air of starkness, whilst newcomers to such heights can often struggle breathing and with the many rapid changes in weather and temperature. One does not have to be interested in subtle earth energies, or sacred geometry to encounter mysteries in this landscape: it is a mystery of itself. All along the altiplano, in Bolivia and as far south as northern Argentina and Chile, you will find salt lakes and salt flats.
Titikaka, the largest lake on the altiplano and one of the world’s highest, can barely be considered a freshwater lake at all, on account of the high salt content of its waters. Its native fauna’s closest relatives are all oceanic species. It boast its unique species of sea horse and is home to world’s only inland species of gull. It is almost as if part of the Pacific Ocean had suddenly been thrust upward of 12,000 feet into the air, bedrock and all, by some Titan. This is a fitting place indeed for legends of creation and emergence.
However the salt water may have arrived on the altiplano – and there are various theories – we can be fairly certain that the Lake was once much larger than it currently is. The Andean legend of the god Tunupa, who is often seen as the same as the creator god Wiracocha, seems to go back to a time when its water level was much higher than today. The ruins at Tiwanaku, and Amaru Muru, would have both at one time have been on the borders of the Lake. More mysteriously still, Tiwanaku style archaeological finds have been recovered from under the existing Lake, suggesting that perhaps there had been settlements on the altiplano before the seawater arrived – however it may have arrived.. This intriguing possibility has been given a boost in recent years by aerial photographs from Google Earth of what appear to be structures underneath the surface of several Andean lakes. As ever, speculations and theories abound.
Wiracocha, the Andean creator god, has long been associated with Lake Titikaka in Andean myth. In primeval times, he was said to have brought into being the very first peoples, by fashioning them from clay, only to turn the first of them to into stones. Other myths speak of Wiracocha’s turning the earliest human ancestors into foxes, condors and other animals and birds. This was said to be the origin of the huaca, (plural huacas). It is difficult to define a huaca in any functional or logical way. In some senses it translates as ‘shrine’ in English, but that would be way off the mark. It is really a concept that ties a human lineage to certain sacred places, to a particular animal, to a particular constellation, or even to a particular ‘dark cloud’ shaped like the same animal within the band of the Milky Way overhead. There are many huacas, but each has its own specific set of correspondences and associations.
Lines across the landscape
Geographically speaking, huacas were arranged in straight lines called cesques across the countryside. Often they were piles of stones, but they could be other objects, or natural features in the landscape. In later Inca times, they were an important feature of the geomancy of Cusco, as well as the whole of the Inca realm. I came across what can only have been a convergence of cesques and huacas close to the shores of Lake Titikaka. It is somewhere that is charged with a particular, almost palpable, presence, which contains a huaca called Amaru Muru.
Amaru Muru: portal to a different reality?
At a place called Bosque de las Piedras, (Forest of Stones) that lies between the Peruvian city of Puno and the Bolivian border, you will see the shapes of lizards, grotesque fairytale giants and whales all sculpted from the red sandstone. It is as if whatever formed these cyclopean stones had wanted to play a trick on you, to disorientate you and to challenge all of your preconceptions about how the world is and how it came about. The boundary between what is natural and what has been created by humankind seems to have become blurred here. The very shapes of the stones speak of times when living creatures were rocks and rocks were living creatures. Above all else, you feel the sheer antiquity of the place.
From your first glance, Amaru Muru defies categorisation by the rational mind and amplifies your sense of disorientation. Nestled underneath huge folds of sandstone stands a sheer wall on the side of which is etched a square groove, some 23 feet high and wide. Inside the square is a niche, which being about 6 or more feet high, seems to be some kind of doorway. A doorway that leads nowhere other than into the rock itself. So speaks the rational mind, which also wonders why and how the niche was carved, or even if it was carved at all, because it appears to have been melted, or dissolved, away from the stone façade somehow. There are even stone outcrops nearby that display similar signs of melting, or dissolving. That particular mystery is not unique to Amaru Muru and you will find similar signs of stones, including the hard and granite-like andesite, having seemingly been worked in this way on numerous sites in the Andes. Some sites even show signs of stones’ having been vitrified somehow.
In Peru, legends and superstitions inhabit the aether. When I visited Amaru Muru, I was told of how a couple of newly-weds had disappeared through the doorway, never to return to this world. That is a common motif in many of the stories associated with the site, Most accounts of Amaru Muru include the notion of passing through this portal, or ‘doorway’, into another realm of reality. In recent years, the site has become popular with North American and European tourists, who are seeking to experience something of the spiritual reality that lies behind appearances. I encountered just such a group during my visit there. They participated in a ceremony, under the guidance of two Andean paq’os, which included each person’s kneeling in front of the ‘doorway’ for a while. Several of them reported having passed through the ‘doorway’ into somewhere else.
The shamanistic ceremony certainly seemed to have engendered some kind of effect on the subtle energies around the ‘doorway’ as I discovered when I took a few photographs with my digital camera using an Oldfield Filter®. Some pictures showed that light seemed to be bent in a curve around the ‘doorway’ and the surrounding façade. Although the pictures taken before the ceremony had shown vivid colours, there was no curvature of light beforehand.
In some strands of contemporary Andean culture, Amaru Muru is associated with Lemuria and with a golden Solar Disc that was taken to the site from Lemuria (or sometimes Mu) at a time of great earth changes, in order to preserve the spiritual wisdom of civilisation. Here, according to one version of the legend, was founded the Monastery of the Seven Rays, which was instrumental in guiding and forming the nascent Tiwanaku culture, after the great cataclysm that had destroyed the continent of Lemuria. There then follows an account how the early Tiwanaku culture turned away from the spiritual principles taught to them by the Lemurians and of its being destroyed, interestingly enough, in a great flood.
This is not the place to recount all of the many and colourful contemporary versions of stories associated with Amaru Muru, some of which contain probable influences from the Bible and from popular accounts of Atlantis. Even the story of the Golden Disc may originate in the removal of a great solardisc of made of gold from the walls of the Coricancha – the great Inca Temple of the Sun in Cusco – so that it could not be looted by the invading Spaniards. On the other hand, the flooding of the Twanaku villages could be a genuine memory of sunken cities beneath the lakes of the Altiplano, as mentioned previously.
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa wrote a History of the Incas in the sixteenth century, not long after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Today, his work is mostly dismissed as outright propaganda employed to justify the conquest of South America. A deeper understanding of the man, his motives and the times in which he lived, reveals rather more nuances to his History than just political spin.
Even for those tumultuous Renaissance times, the life of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa was eventful. Little is known of his childhood, except that he was born to María de Gamboa and Bartolomé Sarmiento sometime between 1530 and 1532. His mother was most probably from a Basque family, and his father’s was Gallician. Perhaps it was the combination of genes from these two great seafaring peoples of northern Spain – the Basques and the Celts – that gave the young Pedro his first yearnings to explore the oceans’ expanses.
A university town in Renaissance Spain
In fact, we know even less about the circumstances of Pedro’s parents than we do about their son. They may have spent some time in the Castilian city of Alcalá de Henares in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula – and there is a suggestion that Pedro may have been born there. Alcalá was a seat of learning that was the birthplace to the great Spanish pioneer of the novel, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).
University towns throughout Europe were hotbeds for the germination of new thinking in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and Alcalá was no exception. It is possible that Pedro’s father, if not the the young Pedro himself, may have participated in the intellectual life that blossomed at this time in the city. Whatever the truth of this, Pedro’s family – even if well-educated – was most probably not rich. Instead of inheriting any wealth, the young Pedro had to set about seeking his fortune in a piquaresque manner.
Pedro meets the Holy Inquisition
At the age of 18, Pedro became a soldier in the army of Charles I, King of Castile, who also happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It was not long, however, before Pedro turned to the sea in search of adventure and new horizons. In his early twenties, he crossed the Atlantic for the first of many times, bound for what is now Mexico. We know little of Pedro’s life during his two year sojourn there, except that it was brought to a sudden end by his first encounter with the Holy Inquisition.
It is far from certain, but Pedro may have been appointed as tutor to two nephews of the Bishop of Tlaxcala whilst in Mexico. At some point, he decided to stage a play for their amusement, which lampooned the Inquisition’s censoriousness and pomposity. Needless to say, the representatives of the Holy Inquisition in Tlaxcala, who were not generally known for their sense of humour, did not see the funny side of the parody that Pedro had staged. The rash and irreverent young satirist was put on trial, received a public flogging and then promptly left Mexico for Peru; probably as a result of exile. He was fortunate not to have been burned alive.
The Iberian Peninsula’s shifting political landscape
It is worth remembering that, in Pedro Sarmineto de Gamboa’s lifetime, the political map of the Iberian Peninsula was still very much in a state of flux. It was only some forty years before Pedro’s birth that the Peninsula’s last Muslim territories had been reconquered by Christendom’s forces. This was one of many events that led to the formation of the Kingdom of Castile, which eventually would become known as Spain. By the time that Pedro was born. Castile had established itself as the dominant power on the Iberian Peninsula, but it was by no means its only political power.
In particular, Portugal had been recognised as a kingdom as far back as the twelfth century, when it had freed itself from Muslim control. Some hoped that Portugal and Castile would unite to form a single Christian kingdom. This did happen in 1580, in the latter part of Pedro’s lifetime, but the union was short-lived.
Political uncertainties did not help to dampen the intense rivalries that had started to grow between Castile and Portugal in the fifteenth century. Both kingdoms had started to invest in building ships that enabled them to explore and to exploit the lands beyond Europe. The rivalry reached a peak after 1492, with the opening-up of the Americas to conquest and colonisation. This was a consequence of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, which had been sponsored by Castile.
Cosmography: a new science for the New World
The exploration of the New World would not have been possible without a disciplined knowledge of oceans, stars, sea currents and coastlines. As well as building ocean-going ships, both Castile and Portugal were keen to develop expertise in all of these subjects, which came to be known collectively as the science of cosmography. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the importance of cosmography grew to become essential; not just to economic success, but to the extension of the political and commercial powers of the two Iberian states.
Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) of Portugal had championed learning in cosmography, which led to an take up in those studying the new science in his realm. Not to be outdone, Castile founded the Real Casa de Contratación de Indias (Royal House of Trade of the Indias) in Seville in 1503. Its curriculum was largely devoted the applied study of mathematics and astronomy for navigation, as well as to cartogragraphy.
The use of the old Spanish name for the Americas (Las Indias) in the title of that new institution gives an idea of cosmography’s emerging importance at the time. In essence, it was considered the key to the successful colonisation of the New World.
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa: cosmographer
By the time that Pedro arrived in Peru, the city of Lima was a bustling metropolis that had become the Capital of the new Castilian-Spanish colony. (Known as the Viceroyalty of Peru). Significantly for Pedro, Lima was rapidly establishing itself as one of the main centres for the study of cosmography in all of the Spanish Americas.
It was only thirty or so years since the defeat of the Incas. Castile’s burgeoning imperial aspirations were coming to rely increasingly on the possession of detailed knowledge of the Pacific Ocean and its South American coastline. As a consequence, the skills of cosmographers were highly sought after by those looking to exploit the continent and the great ocean that lay to its west. It is far from certain, but this must have played a major part in Pedro’s decision to take up cosmography, as he realised he needed to make his way in that New World.
What is certain is that Peru, where Pedro spent more than twenty of the following years, proved to be a watershed in his life. By redefining himself as a cosmographer, he sought to transform his social standing and economic security; but even such an astute move on his part was not without its share of controversy.
In a world that was charged with so much intense political and commercial rivalry, it was hardly surprising that cosmographers guarded the secrets of their science carefully. They understood the intricacies of the heavens’ movements and the rhythmic sway that the moon held over the tides. They knew that the Earth was a sphere – not flat, as the Roman Catholic Church then taught.
In addition, cosmographers drew on sources of knowledge that hinted at heresy. Many of the maps they made that had used Muslim – even heathen – sources. In this environment, it did not take much for the suspicions of the Holy Inquisition to be aroused. Those few ideas that cosmographers professed publicly must have raised many an inquisitorial eyebrow prior to warranting further scrutiny.
We do know that when cosmographers drew maps and charts they made use of much older ones called Portolans. These had been employed by ancient seafarers and were extremely accurate; certainly more so than those drawn by many of the academic geographers at that time.
More encounters with the Holy Inquisition
These were dangerous times for anyone, whether cosmographer, or simply of an enquiring disposition. Just about anyone who lived in Portugal, Castile – or their respective colonies – might be subject to the scrutiny of Auto de Fé – as the Holy Inquisition was known in the Castilian tongue – at any time.
Pedro suffered two further brushes with the Auto de Fé. On both occasions he was brought before its tribunal in Lima, variously accused of astrology, necromancy, of possessing two magic rings, of using magic ink and of following the teachings of Moses. It is impossible to know if there was substance to any of these allegations.
It may have been just that his clandestine study of maps and stars was enough to arouse the suspicions of the Auto de Fé. The Catholic Church still distrusted many aspects of the new learning engendered by the Renaissance and would seize on any rumours and misinformation that were bound to arise when any such knowledge was kept secret.
Equally, this was a time before there were clear-cut distinctions between science and the occult that we take for granted today. Anyone familiar with the play Dr Faustus, by Pedro’s younger English contemporary Christopher Marlowe, will appreciate this. Heretical occult studies and early science were thought of as two of a kind. It really was an Age of Discovery in every sense of the phrase.
Once again, Pedro was considered for exile, but the Archbishop of Lima decided to commute his sentence to that of making an exploratory voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
Pedro’s trial coincided with much talk in Lima of islands across the great ocean to the West that were replete with gold. The rising tide of speculation had been prompted by stories that had emanated ultimately from Inca sources. Rumour, however, has a habit of propagating itself once it reaches a certain intensity; especially when it concerns gold.
There is no way of knowing for certain, but I do wonder if the Incas may have cultivated these stories deliberately. Perhaps they sought to divert the Spaniards’ attention away from seeking out the remainder of their own royal gold. After all, a similar strategy had been highly effective just a few decades earlier, when Pizarro’s band of conquistadores had overthrown the Incas.
For Pedro, the good news was that instead of receiving a flogging – or worse – at the hands of the Inquisition, his knowledge of the Pacific would be essential to the search for any gold. The bad news was that the acting Viceroy of Peru, Lope Garcia de Castro, appointed his twenty-two year old nephew as the expedition’s leader. Pedro was given the subordinate jobs of captain of one of its two ships, as well as the cartographer for the venture.
Exploration of the Pacific
The Pacific expedition’s aim was both to find gold and to colonise any lands that may be discovered. In truth, the Viceroy’s young nephew, whose name was Álvaro de Mendaña, probably was interested only in the gold, whereas Pedro saw things differently. He seems to have gained the trust of some Inca mariners, who had told him about a great land that lay far to the South-West of Peru’s Pacific coast. His ambitions lay in the discovery of this new land for Castile and in the acclaim it would bring.
Inevitably, the differences between the two men came to the surface once the voyage had set off. Pedro had charted a course that would take them to the great land of which the Incas had spoken.
The immature and arrogant de Mendaña would have nothing of it. As the expedition’s leader, he overruled Pedro and instead ordered that they should head for the islands he believed were full of gold. Had the expedition followed Pedro’s course, then Australia most probably would have been a Spanish speaking country today.
Whilst it is certainly true that the expedition did manage to visit several Pacific archipelagos, and discovered Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands for Castile, the expedition was hardly a success. Above all, there had been little gold to speak of on the islands where they had landed.
The relationship between Pedro and de Mendaña took a turn for the worse when it became apparent that the latter was not really interested in establishing any colonies. The dearth of gold on the islands prompted him to return to Lima at the earliest opportunity. It seems that the animosity between the two men grew so intense that de Mendaña threw Pedro’s charts overboard during one particularly fractious argument between them.
The enmity between the two men must have been intense because, we are told, Pedro was left to find his own way back to Peru when the expedition’s two ships called in at Mexico on the return voyage to Lima. Eventually, and after little more than a year, the ships sailed into Lima’s port, Callao, minus Pedro. When the two vessels docked they were still loaded with nearly all of the provisions intended for colonisation largely untouched.
A respect for the Incas’ knowledge of the Pacific
Pedro’s willingness to learn the secrets of the Pacific from the Incas marks a respect for their culture that is evident in the work that he was to write later, TheHistory of the Incas. In commenting on this voyage in his book Early Man and the Ocean, Thor Heyerdhal observed that:
……the Inca historians recounted [to the Spanish] that islands inhabited by different people were to be found two months voyage westwards from their own empire,,,,,,,,,,,,[T]hey gave correctsailing directions to some of them, includingEaster Island, which the Mendaña mission missed by sheer misfortune due to quarrels on board that led to a last minute change of course.
Ironically, the expert mariner Heyerdahl did not seem to know any of the back story that took place between Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa and Álvaro de Mendaña. Had he understood this, I feel sure that his sympathies would have been with Pedro rather than with the dilettante de Mendaña.
When Pedro finally made his own way back to Lima, the dispute between the two men resumed in a very bitter and public manner. Recriminations were hurled one way and another in the city’s colonial houses and public places.
A new Viceroy arrives in Peru
By now there was a new Viceroy in town, Francisco Álvarez de Toledo, who seems to have been rather more astute, and rather less prone to nepotism, than his predecessor. De Toledo called the two men before a public audience in the city, so that they could settle their differences about the failed expedition once and for all.
De Mendaña was no match in debate for the erudite and skilful Pedro, who put in a masterful performance; displaying considerable powers of logic and rhetoric in the process. In the end, not only was Pedro absolved of all responsibility for the expedition’s failure, but the new Viceroy was so impressed by his display of intellect and knowledge that he soon afterwards made him the Cosmographer General for the Dominions of Peru.
Castile consolidates its presence in South America
Francisco de Toledo had been appointed by the successor to Charles I, King Félipe II. Known to the Spanish speaking world as Philip the Prudent (Félipe el prudente), the new king set about prioritising the realisation of his kingdom’s considerable imperial potential. Félipe’s appointment of Francisco de Toledo as his Viceroy in Peru played a major part in doing just that.
The early 1570s proved to be a turning point for Castile and its dominions in South America. It had been almost forty years since Pizarro and a small band of fewer than two hundred conquistadores had largely tricked their way into overthrowing the Inca rulers of the vast lands under their dominion.
Even after forty years in Peru, Castile’s forces were relatively few for such vast possessions. What was more, the Incas had never been defeated entirely. After the fall of Cusco in 1533, some of the Inca Royal Clan had fled into the cloud forests that surround the Amazon’s headwaters and had established what became known as the Neo-Inca State there. In the decades that followed, Inca forces had harried Castilian troops persistently, mostly through guerilla tactics. The situation continued until 1572, when de Toledo contrived an opportunity to try to put an end to the problem. He used the pretext of a technical infringement of European rules of diplomacy to launch a campaign against the Neo-Inca State. Eventually – and partly through a stroke of luck – his troops captured the Neo-Incan King, Túpac Amaru I . De Toledo wasted no time in giving him a very public execution in Cusco’s main square. Some say that King Félipe had disapproved of the execution, but if nothing else it was a demonstration of de Toledo’s skill in political expediency, as well as his sheer ruthlessness.
Apart from lacking any pity, de Toledo was a supreme strategist. He knew that even the public execution of the Incas’ Sacred King would not be enough to eradicate the considerable cultural and political influence that Inca civilisation continued to exert on the native population. The conquistadores were destroying the old order, but de Toledo recognised the importance of establishing new one in its stead.
De Toledo needed the King’s continued support to achieve his aim. That had been called into question after what was most probably Túpac Amaru’s illegal execution. More than ever, he needed something that would demonstrate to King Félipe that in reality the Incas had been the oppressors of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Above all, he wanted to prove to the King of Castile that he, Francisco de Toledo, had been morally right to execute the last representative of the Inca hegemony.
De Gamboa’s History of the Incas
The fact of the matter was that de Toledo had decided to commission the writing of a History of the Incas some two years before Túpac Amaru’s very public decapitation. Indeed earlier, he had even assisted Pedro at times in gathering information from people throughout the length and breadth of Peru. De Toledo had always seen the History as an important part of his strategy to replace the authority of the Incas with those of the Crown of Castile and the Holy Catholic Church.
If anything, Túpac Amaru’s execution, and King Félipe’s subsequent disapproval, had brought matters to a head. Now, more than ever, he needed to convince the King that his means would justify the end that both of them ultimately served. Hence, it was all the more important that Pedro should employ his rhetorical skills and his deep knowledge of the native Andean peoples to complete his task. De Toledo ordered Pedro’s History to be sent to King Félipe as a gift.
You may be forgiven for concluding from the story so far that Pedro’s History was merely some exercise in propaganda, carefully crafted to justify Spain’s imperialist rapaciousness and to save Francisco de Toledo’s career. Indeed, it is far from lacking in such elements.
Pedro, however, had set about his task over the two years diligently. He had travelled the length of Peru gathering information from numerous sources. He had interviewed high-ranking members of the colonial administration in Lima. He had sought eyewitness accounts from the last of Pizarro’s original expedition, who were still living in South America.
Most importantly of all, Pedro had questioned the indigenous wise-men, or amautas, and the surviving members of the Inca Royal Clan. After he had produced the first draft, he even convened a sort of editorial board of forty-two indigenous amautas, in order to comment on and to correct his work.
The resultant History of the Incas is a curious mixture of what could be thought of today as political spin and genuine historical information that otherwise would have been lost to posterity. Although its overall purpose was one of propaganda, within its many stories can be found glimpses of genuine and extremely ancient Andean traditions.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between what may have been propaganda and what may contain a germ of truth. It is easy to assume, for instance, that one of the History’s fundamental theses – that the Inca were descended from foreigners who conquered and oppressed the native Andean peoples – would seem to be simple propaganda. After all, it was certainly central to the message that de Toledo wanted to send to King Félipe.
Mysterious origins of the Incas
Yet, in another early chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega – who was partly of Inca Royal descent – we find that same information. What is more, Garcilaso tells us that he consulted the older members of his own family when he compiled his Royal Commentaries of the Incas.
Garcilaso, as we might expect, portrays his maternal ancestors as great civilisers, rather than oppressors; but could there be some truth to the notion that the Incas had originated somewhere other than the Andes? Curiously, my own investigations indicate that the Incas indeed may have been remotely and partially descended from forbears who had come from across the ocean.
An unexpected trip to England
Pedro’s later years were just as crammed with incidents and controversy as his early life. He was called upon to hunt the English corsair Francis Drake in the 1580s, when England was seeking to establish a presence on South America’s Pacific coast. At that time, the Straits of Magellan – where Pedro had founded a colony – were witness to several flash points between the two European sea powers. A few years later, Pedro was captured by an English fleet commanded by Walter Raleigh and was incarcerated in England.
Even in such dire circumstances, he managed to turn the situation to his advantage by breaking with the conventions of the time in his own inimitable manner. Pedro obtained an audience with Queen Elizabeth I and, conversing in Latin, sought her agreement that she write to King Félipe with a view to securing a lasting peace between their two realms. During the meeting Pedro, it seems, had defied Castilian naval policy by disclosing certain navigational information to the English Queen. Elizabeth agreed to his request and tasked Pedro with delivering her letter to Félipe, which of course meant that he was set free. On his journey from London to Madrid, he was taken prisoner by French Huguenot Protestants. In the event, Pedro did not arrive in Madrid until after Félipe had given the order for his ill-fated Armada to set sail towards the British Isles in 1588.
I am left to wonder about the subsequent chain of events had Pedro managed to deliver Elizabeth’s letter before the launch of the Armada. Both this, and his argument with Álvaro de Mendaña over setting course for Australia, constitute two of the great historical ‘what ifs’ of Pedro’s life.
Soldier, sailor, satirist, cosmographer, mathematician, astronomer, historian and now diplomat; if anything, the gamut of Pedro’s endeavours widened further still during his later years. As someone who always had to operate on the fringes of Castilian nobility, he needed to rely upon his considerable and resourceful intellect, rather than privilege, in order to survive and prosper. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s final years were largely devoted to writing and editing poetry. Fittingly, he passed from this world on board the flagship of a fleet he was about to command that was bound for the Americas.