Pukara Grande, Bolivia: The Half-forgotten Treasure that Hints at a Remote Past Most Strange

At first sight, Pukara Grande appears to be simply another of  the many natural hills lying to the South of the Bolivian town of Huanuni. Ask the locals, however, and you will hear a very different story. Known also as Inka Pucara, this archaeological curiosity is many thousands of years old. (Picture © Luis Gutierrez).

An Andean mining town

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.

Tin mine Huanuni.
Spoil from the tin mine at Huanuni clings to the side of the valley. (© Dave Truman).

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?

Mud interspersed with rocks.
Like many places in the Andes, the soil here contains both rough stones and smoother ones. Some have taken this as evidence of a super-flood consisting of water, mud and rocks that were swept along from numerous locations. (© Dave Truman).

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.

Cloud formation
Cloud formation on the Altiplano, between Huanuni and Oruro. Notice that at the bottom centre of the formation, the cloud is beginning to reach towards the ground. If there were to be a greater difference between the hot and cold air here, it would begin to form the central vortex of a tornado. (© Dave Truman).
The electric landscape
Inside Pukara Grande
One of the very few expeditions to penetrate the intrior of Pukara Grande has revealed a half-collapsed megalithic structure. If John Burke’s research into the electromagnetic properties of ancient sites is correct (see below), then the presence of  spots of light  in this picture may be significant. Known as ‘orbs,’  they may be more than specks of dust caught in headlamps and flashlights. (Picture © Luis Gutierrez)

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?

Fault line sign
Sign on the road from Huanuni,  indicating that Pukara Grande borders a geological fault line (© Dave Truman).

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.

Inside Pukara Grande (Pictures © Luis Gutierrez). 

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.

Alignment on map.
By extending Sholten d’Ebneth’s alignment to the South-east from Tiwanaku I found it crossed Oruro and Pukara Grande in Bolivia. (© Dave Truman).

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.

The vaulted roof (Pictures © Luis Gutierrez)

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.

© Dave Truman

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.

Picture galleries (© Luis Gutierrez and Dave Truman).


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. 


© Dave Truman

Huaca Prieta, Peru: A Tale of Monstrous Mammals, Avocados and Why We Need to Re-think the Peopling of the Americas

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 in the 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 it was 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
Bering Strait satellite
Satellite picture of the Bering Strait, which lies between present-day Siberia (Russia) and Alaska (U.S.A.). In the last Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, a land-bridge existed where there is now water. Up until a few years ago, it was thought that the ancestors of all indigenous Americans crossed this bridge in order to populate both of the Americas. (Public domain)

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.

Mammoth and Mastodon
Two North American relatives of modern elephants that died out at the end of the last Ice Age: the woolly mammoth (left) and the mastodon (right). Most palaeontologists still insist that they were all hunted to extinction by the Clovis people. That skeletons and carcasses of large numbers of these creatures have been found, their tusks pitted with meteoric iron shot, called spherules, suggests differently. Were most of these creatures actually killed by thousands  of cometary impacts and explosions that took place at this time? (Image: Dantheman9758).
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.)

Huaca Prieta as seen from Cao Viejo
Today, Huaca Prieta appears as a rather unspectacular mound near to a headland within the El Brujo Archaeological Complex. Currently, nobody is allowed anywhere near to this paradigm-changing place, as Ivan and I discovered when we tried to get close enough to it to take some pictures. (Photograph: Véronique Debord-Lazaro).
An archaeology of human conciousness
Gourd Vessel
Huaca Prieta was used as a sacred site for nearly 10,000 years. This pre-ceramic drinking vessel is made from a gourd and is in a style that has been linked to the Valdivia culture in Ecuador (2, 300 BC), which some have linked in turn to the Jomon culture of Japan. It is just one of many finds there suggestive of sustained links across the Pacific, as well as through time, at Huaca Prieta. The figure represents a person’s being transformed from a human to a feline. Human to cat transformations  are common in the art and sculpture of many ancient cultures in the Andes, including Chavin (Peru) and Tiwanaku (Bolivia). This is almost certainly a motif that is linked to the practice of shamanism. (Image available under Share Alike).

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.

Polychrome relief from Cao Viejo
Polychrome relief from the seven stepped pyramid of Huaca Cao Vieja constructed by the Moche culture (c. 100-700 AD) within the El Brujo Complex. Note the beard and moustache. The surrounding undulating serpent/dragon figures may symbolise the presence of strong telluric fluctuations present in the local environment. (© Dave Truman)

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.

Archaeological surveys undertaken using drone technology have revealed that the shape of the El Brujo Complex corresponds in many respects to the that of the South American continent. Is this a coincidence, or does it result from paleo and Pre-Columbian remote viewing undertaken by shamans over many years? (Image courtesy of Xanga). 

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.

Ground Sloth
Ground sloths were a group of large mammal species living in the Americas, which became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age. This example, magatarium, was over 20 ft (6m) tall when it stood on its hind legs. Around 80% of South America’s largest mammals died off at the end of this period, supposedly through being hunted by humans who possessed ‘primitive’ stone tools like those found at Huaca Prieta. Is the real reason for this mass die-off a series of environmental disasters? (Public domain).
From piles of  megafauna dung to the fashionable restaurants of Islington
Botanists are puzzled by the survival of avocados into the modern era, since they co-evolved alongside the giant mammals that died out at the end of the last Ice Age. When the ground sloths and mastodons disappeared, so should have they. It is still believed that avocados were first cultivated 5,000 years ago in Mexico, but might they have been cultivated during the last Ice Age? The presence of a 14,000 year old avocado stone at Huaca Prieta suggests this may be so, especially as the avocado tree is not native to South America. (Photo by B. Navez).

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.

Gobekle Tepe
T’ shaped column from Gobekle Tepe (11,000 – 9,000 BC) showing a superbly carved relief of a predatory animal. (CC BYSA 4.0).

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.









A Geomantic History of South America: 4

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 votive offerings 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 Extirpation

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.

Matteo Ricci and Guangqi
Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci and Chinese scholar Xu Guangqi in the early 17th century. Ricci was a fierce opponent of traditional Chinese geomancy, known as Feng Shui. The story goes that his opposition had been prompted by the placing of the first Jesuit mission in China next to a pagoda. However, from their experiences in the Andes, did the Jesuits understand the strategic importance of geomancy to maintaining an independent cultural identity? (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Indigenous undercurrents 

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.

Members of one of the many folk societies participating in the Puno Festival of the Virgin of the Candelaria in 2010. (© Dave Truman).

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.

Francisco Tito Yupanquii
Statue of the sculptor Francisco Tito Yupanqui (1550-1616) in the courtyard of the Basilica of the Virgin of the Candelaria, Copacabana.  His sculpture of the Blessed Virgin was said to have been instrumental in securing the allegiance of those native copacabeños loyal to St Sebastian in venerating Mary. This was a feat that must have been  helped considerably by the fact that Francisco was a direct descendent of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac. How better for the old religion endorse the new one?(© Dave Truman).

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.

Representation of the three crosses of Calvary, situated in the courtyard of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana. The Basilica was built on the site of the Pre-Columbian Temple of Kotakawana. (© Dave Truman).

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.

Transatlantic undercurrents

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.

Ibn Rusjd
The Islamic scholar Ibn Rusjd, or Averroes (1126-1198), who was born in Córdoba in Al-Andalus. Like many Spanish Muslim scholars from this period, his writings reintroduced the works of Aristotle, amongst others, to European readers. Along with other early Muslim scholars, he may be thought of as a progenitor of the European Renaissance. (Public domain).

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
Alchemist's Laboratory
Engraving of an alchemist’s laboratory from the Ampetheatre of Eternal Wisdom, by Heinrich Khunrath 1595. (Public domain).

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.

El Escorial
El Escorial is a royal palace, monastery, pantheon, cathedral and library combined into one complex. Many Spanish researchers consider that its design incorporated esoteric geometry derived from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. (Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Detail from Alberto Moro’s portrait of Félipe II from 1557. (Public domain).

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
Insignia of the Knights of Christ
Insignia of the Knights of Christ. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Cross pattée of the Knights Templar
Cross pattée of the Knights Templar. (Public domain).

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.

Coat of Arms of André de Montbard
The Coat of Arms of André de Montbard, member of the powerful Burgundian family and one of the founders of the Knights Templar. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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?
Columbus' Santa Maria
Model of Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria with the red equal-armed cross of the Knights of Christ/Knights Templar emblazoned on its sails. (Public domain).

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.

The Temple Mount
A recent picture of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is the site of Soloman’s Temple. Not only did the Templars excavate here, but the site was also the Templar’s headquarters during the Crusades. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Modern-day Mandaeans engaging in a ritual at Alvaz in Iran. (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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.

Chartres Labyrinth
The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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…….

The wyvern as depicted on the standard of the old Kingdom of the West Saxons (Wessex). The word ‘wyvern’ shares the same origin as the Gaulish word ‘woivre’, Germanicwurm’ and the Latin ‘viper’.  The wyvern is probably related to the Welsh dragon and is thought to represent telluric energy. Its reptilian nature is a curious parallel with the Andean Ukhu Pacha – see Part 2. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral
The reconstructed octagonal labyrinth set into the floor of Amiens Cathedral. (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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.

Lucas Jennis’ engraving of an ouroboros from the alchemical treatise ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ of 1625. Note its similarity to the wyvern. (Public domain).

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.

Amiens Cathedral
The western entrance to Amiens  Cathedral. The late mediaeval Cathedral of Cologne and the neo-gothic Cathedral of La Plata (Argentina) were both based on its design. (CC BY-SA 2.5).

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.

2nd century Roman interpretation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Note the black garb. The worship of Isis was adopted by many peoples in imperial Rome, including by the Romans themselves. (Public domain).

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.

To be continued …….

Read part 3

© Dave Truman

The Interesting Times of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa


Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa
Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (Issued under CC 3.0 licence by Raimundo Pastor).

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).

Alcalá de Henares
Painting of Alcalá de Henares in 1565 by Anton Van den Wyngaerde (Public domain).

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.

Franciscan Friary Tlaxcala
The Franciscan Friary of Tlaxcala, Mexico, where the Inquisition’s case against Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa would have been prepared. (Octavio Alonso Maya Castro – Trabajo propio, CC BY-SA 3.0), 

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.

Scene from the Inquisition
Francisco de Goya’s painting of a scene from the Inquisition. Those accused by the Holy Inquisition are depicted wearing conical caps and white smocks. (Public domain).
The Iberian Peninsula’s shifting political landscape
Crown of Castile
Lands under the dominion of the Crown of Castile in the sixteenth century, before the conquest of Peru. (CC Licence 3.0)

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.

Portugal’s copy of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). The Treaty effectively divided up South America between Spain and Portugal and still forms the basis for the Continent’s modern political map. (Public domain).

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.

Henry the Navigator.
Prince Henry the Navigator  (1394 – 1460) Pioneer of the science of cosmography in Portugal. (Public domain).

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.

Plaque commemorating the life of the Spanish cosmogrpher, Martín Cortés de Albacar (1510–1582). In 1551 he published the Arte de navigar (Art of Navigation). His work almost certainly would have been read by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (CC Licence 3.0).

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.

Piri Re'is Map
Surviving fragment of the Piri Re’is Map. Probably compiled from much older originals, the Map provided an accurate representation of South America’s coastline and even the Andes. (See the bottom left of the map). It dates from 1513, which is before the mountain range was supposed to have been charted – at least by Europeans. (Public domain).

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.

The Auto de Fe in Lima
Illustration of a trial conducted by the Holy Inquisition in Lima’s Main Plaza (Image in the public domain, courtesy of the Museum of the Inquisition, Lima, Peru). 

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.

Dr Faustus
Frontispiece from the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). As an Englishman, Marlowe was  writing for an ostensibly Protestant audience. His portrayal of Faustus as a  man of learning, who had strayed into the practice of the black arts was characteristic of the popular fear that gripped both Catholic and Protestant Europe. In the play Faustus practises necromancy; a charge that Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa had to face in real life from the Inquisition in Lima. (Public domain).

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.

Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira
Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira, with whom Pedro quarrelled bitterly during their expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean. (Public domain). 

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.

Map of Peru, 1568
Map of Peru’s Pacific Coast from 1568 by the Portuguese cartographer Fernando Vaz Dourado. (Public domain).

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, The History of the Incas. In commenting on this voyage in his book Early Man and the Ocean, Thor Heyerdhal  observed  that:

Thor Heyerdahl
Thor Heyerdahl., navigator and archaeologist.  Heyerdahl was one of the few Europeans, apart from Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, who has acknowledged the Incas’ detailed technical knowledge of the Pacific, as well as their expertise in sailing (Public domain).

……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 correct sailing directions to some of them, including Easter 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.

Francisco de Toledo
Francisco de Toledo dressed in the regalia of the military-religious Order of Alcántara of which he was a member. (Public domain).

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
Portrait of Félipe with his wife Mary I of England, painted in 1558 by Hans Eworth. (Public domain).

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.

Túpac Amaru I
Painting of Sapa Inca Túpac Amaru I by an unknown artist of the Cusco School. Túpac Amaru I was just 26 or 27 when he was captured and had reigned only for a year. His capture was facilitated because his wife was giving birth at the time. (Image in the public domain)

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.

Tupaq Amaru I Captured
The Capture of the Sapa  Inca Túpac Amaru I  by forces under the command of Francisco de Toledo. The image is an illustration of the event made by the indigenous chronicler Huamán Poma, who was Pedro’s contemporary. The woodcut dates from the early seventeenth century. (Image in the public domain).

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.

Death of Tupac Amaru I
Huamán Poma’s woodcut of the public decapitation of Túpac Amaru I, with crucifix in hand. Note the crowd gathered to witness the event. The tears streaming down their faces are indicative of the acute trauma that the execution of their Sacred King would have caused. (Public domain).
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.

Woodcut of the notorious ‘Mountain of Silver’ at Potosí  in present-day Bolivia. Potosí’s silver mine gained an infamy under the imperial stewardship of Francisco de Toledo that lasts even to the present day. To work in the mine was tantamount to a death sentence for the thousands of  indigenous and African de facto slaves who were unfortunate enough to have been sent there. Such was the human price of filling Castile’s royal coffers with silver (Public domain).

 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.

Frontispiece from Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa's History of the Incas
Frontispiece from The History of the Incas by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. (Image in the public domain).

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
Coat of arms of garcilaso
The Coat of Arms of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The sun, moon, rainbow and serpents on the right hand side of the shield are insignia of the Inca Royal Clan. (Issued under CC 3.0).

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.

Elizabeth I of England
The ‘Armada Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Painted to commemorate the English victory over the Armada in 1588, Elizabeth is depicted with her right hand on the globe, symbolising the global naval dominance that England believed it had then won. (Image in the public domain).

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.

Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.
 Modern portrait of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa  by Guillermo Muñoz Vera, imagined as a man of letters, science and philosophy in his later life .(Share alike 4.0)

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.

© Dave Truman