Part II

Foam of the Sea
Peru and Bolivia


Chapter 4 - Flight of the Condor

I’m in southern Peru, flying over the Nazca lines.

Below me, after the whale and the monkey, the hummingbird comes into view, flutters and unfolds her wings, stretches forward her delicate beak towards some imaginary flower. Then we turn hard right, pursued by our own tiny shadow as we cross the bleak scar of the Pan-American highway, and follow a trajectory that brings us over the fabulous snake-necked ‘Alcatraz’: a heron 900 feet long conceived in the mind of a master geometer.


We circle around, cross the highway for a second time, pass an astonishing arrangement of fish and triangles laid out beside a pelican, turn left and find ourselves floating over the sublime image of a giant condor with feathers extended in stylized flight.

Just as I try to catch my breath, another condor almost close enough to touch materializes out of nowhere, a real condor this time, haughty as a fallen angel riding a thermal back to heaven. My pilot gasps and tries to follow him. For a moment I catch a glimpse of a bright, dispassionate eye that seems to weigh us up and find us wanting. Then, like a vision from some ancient myth, the creature banks and glides contemptuously backwards into the sun leaving our single-engine Cessna floundering in the lower air.

Below us now there’s a pair of parallel lines almost two miles long, arrow straight all the way to vanishing point. And there, off to the right, a series of abstract shapes on a scale so vast—and yet so precisely executed—that it seems inconceivable they could have been the work of men.

The people around here say that they were not the work of men, but of demigods, the Viracochas,1 who also left their fingerprints elsewhere in the Andean region many thousands of years ago.


1 Tony Morrison with Professor Gerald S. Hawkins, Pathways to the Gods, Book Club Associates, London, 1979, p. 21. See also The Atlas of Mysterious Places, (ed. Jennifer Westwood), Guild Publishing, London, 1987, p. 100.

The riddle of the lines
The Nazca plateau in southern Peru is a desolate place, sere and unwelcoming, barren and profitless. Human populations have never concentrated here, nor will they do so in the future: the surface of the moon seems hardly less hospitable.


If you happen to be an artist with grand designs, however, these high and daunting plains look like a very promising canvas, with 200 square miles of uninterrupted tableland and the certainty that your masterwork won’t be carried away on the desert breeze or covered by drifting sand.

It’s true that high winds do blow here, but by a happy accident of physics they are robbed of their sting at ground level: the pebbles that litter the pampa absorb and retain the sun’s heat, throwing up a protective force-field of warm air. In addition, the soil contains enough gypsum to glue small stones to the subsurface, an adhesive regularly renewed by the moistening effect of early morning dews. Once things are drawn here, therefore, they tend to stay drawn. There’s hardly any rain; indeed, with less than half an hour of miserly drizzle every decade, Nazca is among the driest places on earth.

If you are an artist, therefore, if you have something grand and important to express, and if you want it to be visible for ever, these strange and lonely flatlands could look like the answer to your prayers.

Experts have pronounced upon the antiquity of Nazca, basing their opinions on fragments of pottery found embedded in the lines and on radiocarbon results from various organic remains unearthed here. The dates conjectured range between 350 BC and AD 600.2


Realistically, they tell us nothing about the age of the lines themselves, which are inherently as undatable as the stones cleared to make them. All we can say for sure is that the most recent are at least 1400 years old, but it is theoretically possible that they could be far more ancient than that—for the simple reason that the artifacts from which such dates are derived could have been brought to Nazca by later peoples.

2 Pathways to the Gods, p. 21.

The principal figures of the Nazca plateau.

The majority of the designs are spread out across a clearly defined area of southern Peru bounded by the Rio Ingenio to the north and the Rio Nazca to the south, a roughly square canvas of dun-coloured desert with forty-six kilometers of the Pan-American highway running obliquely through it from top-centre to bottom right. Here, scattered apparently at random, are literally hundreds of different figures. Some depict animals and birds (a total of eighteen different birds).


But far more take the form of geometrical devices in the form of trapezoids, rectangles, triangles and straight lines. Viewed from above, these latter resemble to the modern eye a jumble of runways, as though some megalomaniac civil engineer had been licensed to act out his most flamboyant fantasies of airfield design.

It therefore comes as no surprise, since humans are not supposed to have been able to fly until the beginning of the twentieth century, that the Nazca lines have been identified by a number of observers as landing strips for alien spaceships. This is a seductive notion, but Nazca is perhaps not the best place to seek evidence for it. For example, it is difficult to understand why extra-terrestrials advanced enough to have crossed hundreds of light years of interstellar space should have needed landing strips at all. Surely such beings would have mastered the technology of setting their flying saucers down vertically?

Besides, there is really no question of the Nazca lines ever having been used as runwaysby flying saucers or anything else—although some of them look like that from above. Viewed at ground-level they are little more than grazes on the surface made by scraping away thousands of tons of black volcanic pebbles to expose the desert’s paler base of yellow sand and clay.


None of the cleared areas is more than a few inches deep and all are much too soft to have permitted the landing of wheeled flying vehicles. The German mathematician Maria Reiche, who devoted half a century to the study of the lines, was only being logical when she dismissed the extraterrestrial theory with a single pithy sentence a few years ago: ‘I’m afraid the spacemen would have gotten stuck.’

If not runways for the chariots of alien ‘gods’, therefore, what else might the Nazca lines be? The truth is that no one knows their purpose, just as no one really knows their age; they are a genuine mystery of the past. And the closer you look at them the more baffling they become.

It’s clear, for example, that the animals and birds antedate the geometry of the ‘runways’, because many of the trapezoids, rectangles and straight lines bisect (and thus partly obliterate) the more complex figures. The obvious deduction is that the final artwork of the desert as we view it today must have been produced in two phases.


Moreover, though it seems contrary to the normal laws of technical progress, we must concede that the earlier of the two phases was the more advanced. The execution of the zoomorphic figures called for far higher levels of skill and technology than the etching of the straight lines. But how widely separated in time were the earlier and later artists?

Scholars do not address themselves to this question. Instead they lump both cultures together as ‘the Nazcans’ and depict them as primitive tribesmen who unaccountably developed sophisticated techniques of artistic self-expression, and then vanished from the Peruvian scene, many hundreds of years before the appearance of their better-known successors, the Incas.

How sophisticated were these Nazcan ‘primitives’? What kind of knowledge must they have possessed to inscribe their gigantic signatures on the plateau? It seems, for a start, that they were pretty good observational astronomers—at least according to Dr Phillis Pitluga, an astronomer with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.


After making an intensive computer-aided study of stellar alignments at Nazca, she has concluded that the famous spider figure was devised as a terrestrial diagram of the giant constellation of Orion, and that the arrow-straight lines linked to the figure appear to have been set out to track through the ages the changing declinations of the three stars of Orion’s Belt.3


3 Personal communications with Dr Pitluga.

The real significance of Dr Pitluga’s discovery will become apparent in due course. Meanwhile, let us note that the Nazca spider also accurately depicts a member of a known spider genus—Ricinulei.4 This, as it happens, is one of the rarest spider genera in the world, so rare indeed that it has only been found in remote and inaccessible parts of the Amazon rainforest.5


How did the supposedly primitive Nazcan artists travel so far from their homeland, crossing the formidable barrier of the Andes, to obtain a specimen? More to the point, why should they have wanted to do such a thing and how were they able to duplicate minute details of Ricinulei’s anatomy normally visible only under a microscope,6 notably the reproductive organ positioned on the end of its extended right leg?


4 Firm identification of the Nazca spider with Ricinulei was first made by Professor Gerald S. Hawkins. See Gerald S. Hawkins, Beyond Stonehenge, Arrow Books, London, 1977, p. 143-4.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 144.

Such mysteries multiply at Nazca and none of the designs, except perhaps the condor, really seems quite at home here. The whale and the monkey are, after all, as out of place in this desert environment as the Amazonian spider. A curious figure of a man, his right arm raised as though in greeting, heavy boots on his feet and round eyes staring owlishly forward, cannot be said to belong to any known era or culture. And other drawings depicting the human form are equally peculiar: their heads enclosed in halos of radiance, they do indeed look like visitors from another planet.


Their sheer size is equally noteworthy and bizarre. The hummingbird is 165 feet long, the spider 150 feet long, the condor stretches nearly 400 feet from beak to tail-feathers (as does the pelican), and a lizard, whose tail is now divided by the Pan-American highway, is 617 feet in length. Almost every design is executed on the same cyclopean scale and in the same difficult manner, by the careful contouring of a single continuous line.

Similar attention to detail is to be found in the geometrical devices. Some of these take the form of straight lines more than five miles long, marching like Roman roads across the desert, dropping into dried-out river beds, surmounting rocky outcrops, and never once deviating from true.

This kind of precision is hard, but not impossible, to explain in conventional commonsense terms. More puzzling by far are the zoomorphic figures. How could they have been so perfectly made when, without aircraft, their creators could not have checked the progress of their work by viewing it in its proper perspective? None of the designs is small enough to be seen from ground level, where they appear merely as a series of shapeless ruts in the desert. They show their true form only when seen from an altitude of several hundred feet. There is no elevation nearby that provides such a vantage point.

Linemakers, map-makers
I’m flying over the lines, trying to make sense of it all.

My pilot is Rodolfo Arias, lately of the Peruvian Airforce. After a career in jet fighters he finds the little Cessna slow and uninspiring and treats it like a taxi with wings. Once already we’ve been back to the airstrip at Nazca to remove a window so that my partner Santha can point her cameras vertically down at the alluring glyphs. Now we’re experimenting with the view from different altitudes. At a couple of hundred feet above the plain Ricinulei, the Amazonian spider, looks like he’s going to rear up and snatch us in his jaws.


At 500 feet we can see several of the figures at once: a dog, a tree, a weird pair of hands, the condor, and some of the triangles and trapezoids. When we ascend to 1500 feet, the zoomorphs, hitherto predominant, are revealed merely as small scattered units surrounded by an astonishing scribble of vast geometric forms. These forms now look less like runways and more like pathways made by giants—pathways that crisscross the plateau in what seems at first a bewildering variety of shapes, angles and sizes.

As the ground continues to recede, however, and as the widening perspective on the lines permits more of an eagle’s-eye view, I begin to wonder whether there might not after all be some method to the cuneiform slashes and scratches spread out below me. I am reminded of an observation made by Maria Reiche, the mathematician who has lived at Nazca and studied the lines since 1946. In her view

The geometric drawings give the impression of a cipher-script in which the same words are sometimes written in huge letters, at another time in minute characters. There are line arrangements which appear in a great variety of size categories together with very similar shapes. All the drawings are composed of a certain number of basic elements ...7

As the Cessna bumps and heaves across the heavens, I also remember it is no accident that the Nazca lines were only properly identified in the twentieth century, after the era of flight had begun. In the late sixteenth century a magistrate named Luis de Monzon was the first Spanish traveller to bring back eyewitness reports concerning these mysterious ‘marks on the desert’ and to collect the strange local traditions that linked them to the Viracochas.8


However, until commercial airlines began to operate regularly between Lima and Arequipa in the 1930s no one seems to have grasped that the largest piece of graphic art in the world lay here in southern Peru. It was the development of aviation that made the difference, giving men and women the godlike ability to take to the skies and see beautiful and puzzling things that had hitherto been hidden from them.

7 Maria Reiche, Mystery on the Desert, Nazca, Peru, 1989, p. 58.
8 Luis de Monzon was the corregidor, or magistrate, of Rucanas and Soras, near Nazca, in 1586. Pathways to the Gods, p. 36; Atlas of Mysterious Places, p. 100.

Rodolfo is steering the Cessna in a gentle circle over the figure of the monkey—a big monkey tied in a riddle of geometric forms. It’s not easy to describe the eerie, hypnotic feeling this design gives me: it’s very complicated and absorbing to look at, and slightly sinister in an abstract, indefinable way.


The monkey’s body is defined by a continuous unbroken line. And, without ever being interrupted, this same line winds up stairs, over pyramids, into a series of zig-zags, through a spiral labyrinth (the tail), and then back around a number of star-like hairpin bends. It would be a real tour de force of draughtsmanship and artistic skill on a sheet of notepaper, but this is the Nazca desert (where they do things on a grand scale) and the monkey is at least 400 feet long and 300 feet wide ...

Were the linemakers map-makers too?

And why were they called the Viracochas?

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Chapter 5 - The Inca Trail to the Past

No artifacts or monuments, no cities or temples, have endured in recognizable form for longer than the most resilient religious traditions. Whether expressed in the Pyramid Texts of Ancient Egypt, or the Hebrew Bible, or the Vedas, such traditions are among the most imperishable of all human creations: they are vehicles of knowledge voyaging through time.

The last custodians of the ancient religious heritage of Peru were the Incas, whose beliefs and ‘idolatry’ were ‘extirpated’ and whose treasures were ransacked during the thirty terrible years that followed the Spanish conquest in AD 1532.1 Providentially, however, a number of early Spanish travellers made sincere efforts to document Inca traditions before they were entirely forgotten.

Though little attention was paid at the time, some of these traditions speak strikingly of a great civilization that was believed to have existed in Peru many thousands of years earlier.2 Powerful memories were preserved of this civilization, said to have been founded by the Viracochas, the same mysterious beings credited with the making of the Nazca lines.


1 See, for example, Father Pablo Joseph, The Extirpation of Idolatry in Peru (translated from the Spanish by L. Clark Keating), University of Kentucky Press, 1968.
2 This is the view of Fernando Montesinos, expressed in his Memorias Antiguas Historiales del Peru (written in the seventeenth century). English edition translated and edited by P. A. Means, Hakluyt Society, London, 1920.


‘Foam of the Sea’
When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, the Inca empire extended along the Pacific coast and Andean highlands of South America from the northern border of modern Ecuador, through the whole of Peru, and as far south as the Maule River in central Chile. Connecting the far-flung corners of this empire was a vast and sophisticated road system: two parallel north-south highways, for example, one running for 3600 kilometers along the coast and the other for a similar distance through the Andes.


Both these great thoroughfares were paved and connected by frequent links. In addition, they exhibited an interesting range of design and engineering features such as suspension bridges and tunnels cut through solid rock. They were clearly the work of an evolved, disciplined and ambitious society. Ironically, they played a significant part in its downfall: the Spanish forces, led by Francisco Pizarro, used them to great effect to speed up their ruthless advance into the Inca heartland.3

The capital of the Inca empire was the city of Cuzco, a name meaning ‘the earth’s navel’ in the local Quechua language.4 According to legend it was established by Manco Capac and Mama Occlo, two children of the Sun. Here, though the Incas worshipped the sun god, whom they knew as Inti, quite another deity was venerated as the Most Holy of all. This was Viracocha, whose namesakes were said to “have made the Nazca lines and whose own name meant ‘Foam of the Sea.’5

No doubt it is just a coincidence that the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was born of the sea, received her name because of ‘the foam [aphros] out of which she was formed’.6 Besides, Viracocha was always depicted uncompromisingly as a male by the peoples of the Andes. That much about him is known for certain. No historian, however, is able to say how ancient was the cult of this deity before the Spanish arrived to put a stop to it.


3 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1991, 6:276-7.
4 Paul Devereux, Secrets of Ancient and Sacred Places, Blandford Books, London, 1992, p. 76. See also Peru, Lonely Planet Publications, Hawthorne, Australia, 1991, p. 168.
5 The Facts on File Encyclopaedia of World Mythology and Legend, London and Oxford, 1988, p. 657.
6 Macrobius, cited in Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill, David R. Godine, Publisher, Boston, 1992, p. 134. See also A. R. Hope Moncreiff, The Illustrated Guide to Classical Mythology, BCA, London, 1992, p. 153.


This is because the cult seemed always to have been around; indeed, long before the Incas incorporated him into their cosmogony and built a magnificent temple for him at Cuzco, the evidence suggests that the high god Viracocha had been worshipped by all the civilizations that had ever existed in the long history of Peru.

Citadel of Viracocha
A few days after leaving Nazca, Santha and I arrived in Cuzco and made our way to the site of the Coricancha, the great temple dedicated to Viracocha in the pre-Colombian era. The Coricancha was of course long gone. Or, to be more exact, it was not so much gone as buried beneath layers of later architecture. The Spanish had kept its superb Inca foundations, and the lower parts of its fabulously strong walls, and had erected their own grandiose colonial cathedral on top.

Walking towards the front entrance of this cathedral, I remembered that the Inca temple that had once stood here had been covered with more than 700 sheets of pure gold (each weighing around two kilograms) and that its spacious courtyard had been planted with ‘fields’ of replica corn also fashioned out of gold.7


7 Peru, p. 181.


I could not help but be reminded of Solomon’s temple in far-off Jerusalem, also reputed to have been adorned with sheets of gold and a marvellous orchard of golden trees.8

Earthquakes in 1650 and again in 1950 had largely demolished the Spanish cathedral of Santo Domingo which stood on the site of the temple of Viracocha, and it had been necessary to rebuild it on both occasions. Its Inca foundations and lower walls survived these natural disasters intact, thanks to their characteristic design which made use of an elegant system of interlocking polygonal blocks.


These blocks, and the general layout of the place, were almost all that was now left of the original structure, apart from an octagonal grey stone platform at the centre of the vast rectangular courtyard which had once been covered with 55 kilograms of solid gold.9 On either side of the courtyard were ante-chambers, also from the Inca temple, with refined architectural features such as walls that tapered upwards and beautifully-carved niches hewn out of single pieces of granite.


8 Tan. Terumah, XI; also, with slight variations, Yoma 39b. Cited in The Jewish Encyclopaedia, Funk and Wagnell, New York, 1925, vol. II, p. 105.

9 Peru, p. 182.

We took a walk through the narrow, cobbled streets of Cuzco. Looking around, I realized it was not just the cathedral that reflected Spanish imposition on top of an earlier culture: the whole town was slightly schizophrenic. Spacious, balconied, pastel-shaded colonial homes and palaces towered above me but almost all of them stood on Inca foundations or incorporated complete Inca structures of the same beautiful polygonal architecture used in the Coricancha.


In one alleyway, known as Hatunrumiyoc, I paused to examine an intricate jigsaw puzzle of a wall made of countless drystone blocks all perfectly fitted together, all of different sizes and shapes, interlocking in a bewildering array of angles. The carving of the individual blocks, and their arrangement into so complicated a structure could only have been achieved by master craftsmen possessed of very high levels of skill, with untold centuries of architectural experimentation behind them.


On one block I counted twelve angles and sides in a single plane, and I could not slip even the edge of a piece of thin paper into the joints that connected it to the surrounding blocks.

The bearded stranger
It seemed that in the early sixteenth century, before the Spanish began to demolish Peruvian culture in earnest, an idol of Viracocha had stood in the Holy of Holies of the Coricancha. According to a contemporary text, the Relacion anonyma de los costumbres antiguos de los naturales del Piru, this idol took the form of a marble statue of the god—a statue described ‘as to the hair, complexion, features, raiment and sandals, just as painters represent the apostle Saint Bartholomew’.10


Other accounts of Viracocha likened his appearance to that of the Saint Thomas.11 I examined a number of illustrated ecclesiastical manuscripts in which these two saints appeared; both were routinely depicted as lean, bearded white men, past middle age, wearing sandals and dressed in long, flowing cloaks. As we shall see, the records confirmed this was exactly the appearance ascribed to Viracocha by those who worshipped him. Whoever he was, therefore, he could not have been an American Indian: they are relatively dark-skinned people with sparse facial hair.12 Viracocha’s bushy beard and pale complexion made him sound like a Caucasian.

Back in the sixteenth century the Incas had thought so too. Indeed their legends and religious beliefs made them so certain of his physical type that they initially mistook the white and bearded Spaniards who arrived on their shores for the returning Viracocha and his demigods,13 an event long prophesied and which Viracocha was said in all the legends to have promised. This happy coincidence gave Pizarro’s conquistadores the decisive strategic and psychological edge that they needed to overcome the numerically superior Inca forces in the battles that followed.

Who had provided the model for the Viracochas?

10 The Facts on File Encyclopaedia ..., p. 658.

11 See, for example, H. Osborne, South American Mythology, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1968, p. 81.
12 For further evidence and argument in this regard, see Constance Irwin, Fair Gods and Stone Faces, W. H. Allen, London, 1964, pp. 31-2.
13 J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, London, 1991, p. 135. See also Garcilaso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, Orion Press, New York, 1961, pp. 132-3, 147-8.


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Chapter 6 - He Came in a Time of Chaos

Through all the ancient legends of the peoples of the Andes stalked a tall, bearded, pale-skinned figure wrapped in a cloak of secrecy. And though he was known by many different names in many different places he was always recognizably the same figure: Viracocha, Foam of the Sea, a master of science and magic who wielded terrible weapons and who came in a time of chaos to set the world to rights.

The same basic story was shared in many variants by all the peoples of the Andean region. It began with a vivid description of a terrifying period when the earth had been inundated by a great flood and plunged into darkness by the disappearance of the sun. Society had fallen into disorder, and the people suffered much hardship. Then,

there suddenly appeared, coming from the south, a white man of large stature and authoritative demeanour. This man had such great power that he changed the hills into valleys and from the valleys made great hills, causing streams to flow from the living stone ...1

The early Spanish chronicler who recorded this tradition explained that it had been told to him by the Indians he had travelled among on his journeys in the Andes:

And they heard it from their fathers, who in their turn had it from the old songs which were handed down from very ancient times ... They say that this man travelled along the highland route to the north, working marvels as he went and that they never saw him again. They say that in many places he gave men instructions how they should live, speaking to them with great love and kindness and admonishing them to be good and to do no damage or injury one to another, but to love one another and show charity to all. In most places they name him Ticci Viracocha ...2

Other names applied to the same figure included Huaracocha, Con, Con Ticci or Kon Tiki, Thunupa, Taapac, Tupaca and Illa.3 He was a scientist, an architect of surpassing skills, a sculptor and an engineer:

‘He caused terraces and fields to be formed on the steep sides of ravines, and sustaining walls to rise up and support them. He also made irrigating channels to flow ... and he went in various directions, arranging many things.’4

1 South American Mythology, p. 74.

2 Ibid.
3 Arthur Cotterell, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Myths and Legends, Guild Publishing, London, 1989, p. 174. See also South American Mythology, p. 69-88.
4 Francisco de Avila, 'A Narrative of the Errors, False Gods, and Other Superstitions and Diabolical Rites in Which the Indians of the Province of Huarochiri Lived in Ancient Times', in Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Yncas (trans, and ed. Clemens R. Markhem), Hakluyt Society, London, 1873, vol. XLVIII, p. 124.

Viracocha was also a teacher and a healer and made himself helpful to people in need. It was said that ‘wherever he passed, he healed all that were sick and restored sight to the blind.’5

This gentle, civilizing, ‘superhuman’, Samaritan had another side to his nature, however. If his life were threatened, as it seems to have been on several occasions, he had the weapon of heavenly fire at his disposal:

Working great miracles by his words, he came to the district of the Canas and there, near a village called Cacha ... the people rose up against him and threatened to stone him. They saw him sink to his knees and raise his hands to heaven as if beseeching aid in the peril which beset him. The Indians declare that thereupon they saw fire in the sky which seemed all around them. Full of fear, they approached him whom they had intended to kill and besought him to forgive them ...


Presently they saw that the fire was extinguished at his command, though stones were consumed by fire in such wise that large blocks could be lifted by hand as if they were cork. They narrate further that, leaving the place where this occurred, he came to the coast and there, holding his mantle, he went forth amidst the waves and was seen no more. And as he went they gave him the name Viracocha, which means ‘Foam of the Sea’. 6

The legends were unanimous in their physical description of Viracocha. In his Suma y Narracion de los Incas, for example, Juan de Betanzos, a sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler, stated that according to the Indians, he had been ‘a bearded man of tall stature clothed in a white robe which came down to his feet and which he wore belted at the waist’.7

Other descriptions, collected from many different and widely separated Andean peoples, all seemed to identify the same enigmatic individual. According to one he was:

A bearded man of medium height dressed in a rather long cloak ... He was past his prime, with grey hair, and lean. He walked with a staff and addressed the natives with love, calling them his sons and daughters. As he traversed all the land he worked miracles. He healed the sick by touch. He spoke every tongue even better than the natives. They called him Thunupa or Tarpaca, Viracocha-rapacha or Pachaccan ...8

In one legend Thunupa-Viracocha was said to have been a ‘white man of large stature, whose air and person aroused great respect and veneration’.9 In another he was described as ‘a white man of august appearance, blue-eyed, bearded, without headgear and wearing a cusma, a jerkin or sleeveless shirt reaching to the knees’.


In yet another, which seemed to refer to a later phase of his life, he was revered as ‘a wise counsellor in matters of state’ and depicted as ‘an old man with a beard and long hair wearing a long tunic’.10

5 South American Mythology, p. 74.

6 Ibid., p. 74-6.
7 Ibid., p. 78.
8 Ibid., p. 81.
9 John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas, Macmillan, London, 1993, p. 97.

10 South American Mythology, p. 87.

Civilizing mission
Above all else, Viracocha was remembered in the legends as a teacher. Before his coming, it was said,

‘men lived in a condition of disorder, many went naked like savages; they had no houses or other dwellings than caves, and from these they went forth to gather whatever they could find to eat in the countryside.’11

Viracocha was credited with changing all this and with initiating the long-lost golden age which later generations looked back on with nostalgia. All the legends agreed, furthermore, that he had carried out his civilizing mission with great kindness and as far as possible had abjured the use of force: careful instruction and personal example had been the main methods used to equip the people with the techniques and knowledge necessary for a cultured and productive life.


In particular, he was remembered for bringing to Peru such varied skills as medicine, metallurgy, farming, animal husbandry, the art of writing (said by the Incas to have been introduced by Viracocha but later forgotten), and a sophisticated understanding of the principles of engineering and architecture.

I had already been impressed by the quality of Inca stonework in Cuzco. As my research in the old town continued, however, I was surprised to discover that by no means all the so-called Inca masonry could be attributed with any degree of archaeological certainty to the Incas. It was true that they had been masters in the manipulation of stone, and many monuments in the Cuzco area were indisputably their work. It seemed, however, that some of the more remarkable structures routinely attributed to them could have been erected by earlier civilizations; the evidence suggested that the Incas had often functioned as the restorers of these structures rather than their original builders.

The same appeared to be true of the highly developed system of roads connecting the far-flung parts of the Inca empire. The reader will recall that these roads took the form of parallel highways running north to south, one along the coast and the other through the Andes. All in all more than 15,000 miles of surfaced tracks had been in regular and efficient use before the time of the Spanish conquest, and I had assumed that the Incas had been responsible for all of them.


I now learned that it was much more likely that they had inherited the system. Their role had been to restore, maintain and unify a pre-existing network. Indeed, though it was not often admitted, no expert could safely estimate how old these incredible highways were or who had built them.12


11 Ibid., p. 72.
12 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1991, 26:42.

The mystery was deepened by local traditions which stated not only that the road system and the sophisticated architecture had been ‘ancient in the time of the Incas’, but that both ‘were the work of white, auburn haired men’ who had lived thousands of years earlier.13

One legend described Viracocha as being accompanied by ‘messengers’ of two kinds, ‘faithful soldiers’ (huaminca) and ‘shining ones’ (hayhuaypanti). Their role was to carry their lord’s message ‘to every part of the world’.14

Elsewhere there were phrases such as:

  • ‘Con Ticci returned ... with a number of attendants’

  • ‘Con Ticci then summoned his followers, who were called viracocha’

  • ‘Con Ticci commanded all but two of the viracocha to go east ...’ 15

  • ‘There came forth from a lake a Lord named Con Ticci Viracocha bringing with him a certain number of people ...’ 16

  • ‘Thus those viracochas went off to the various districts which Viracocha had indicated for them ...’ 17

13 -Ignatius Donnelly, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1882, p. 394.
14 -From the 'Relacion anonyma de los costumbres antiguos de los naturales del Piru', reported in The Facts on File Encyclopaedia ..., p. 657.
15 Pears Encyclopaedia of Myths and Legends: Oceania, Australia and the Americas, (ed. Sheila Savill), Pelham Books, London, 1978, pp. 179-80.

16 South American Mythology, p. 76.

17 Ibid.

The work of demons?
The ancient citadel of Sacsayhuaman lies just north of Cuzco. We reached it late one afternoon under a sky almost occluded by heavy clouds of tarnished silver. A cold grey breeze was blowing across the high-altitude tundra as I clambered up stairways, through lintelled stone gates built for giants, and walked along the mammoth rows of zig-zag walls.

I craned my neck and looked up at a big granite boulder that my route now passed under. Twelve feet high, seven feet across, and weighing considerably more than 100 tons, it was a work of man, not nature. It had been cut and shaped into a symphonic harmony of angles, manipulated with apparent ease (as though it were made of wax or putty) and stood on its end in a wall of other huge and problematic polygonal blocks, some of them positioned above it, some below it, some to each side, and all in perfectly balanced and well-ordered juxtaposition.

Since one of these astonishing pieces of carefully hewn stone had a height of twenty-eight feet and was calculated to weigh 361 tons18 (roughly the equivalent of five hundred family-sized automobiles), it seemed to me that a number of fundamental questions were crying out for answers.


18 The Conquest of the Incas, p. 191.

How had the Incas, or their predecessors, been able to work stone on such a gargantuan scale? How had they cut and shaped these Cyclopean boulders so precisely? How had they transported them tens of miles from distant quarries? By what means had they made walls of them, shuffling the individual blocks around and raising them high above the ground with such apparent ease? These people weren’t even supposed to have had the wheel, let alone machinery capable of lifting and manipulating dozens of irregularly shaped 100-ton blocks, and sorting them into three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles.

I knew that the chroniclers of the early colonial period had been as perplexed as I was by what they had seen. The respected Garcilaso de la Vega, for example, who came here in the sixteenth century, had spoken with awe about the fortress of Sacsayhuaman:

Its proportions are inconceivable when one has not actually seen it; and when one has looked at it closely and examined it attentively, they appear to be so extraordinary that it seems as though some magic had presided over its construction; that it must be the work of demons instead of human beings. It is made of such great stones, and in such great number, that one wonders simultaneously how the Indians were able to quarry them, how they transported them ... and how they hewed them and set them one on top of the other with such precision.


For they disposed of neither iron nor steel with which to penetrate the rock and cut and polish the stones; they had neither wagon nor oxen to transport them, and, in fact, there exist neither wagons nor oxen throughout the world that would have sufficed for this task, so enormous are these stones and so rude the mountain paths over which they were conveyed ...19

Garcilaso also reported something else interesting. In his Royal Commentaries of the Incas he gave an account of how, in historical times, an Inca king had tried to emulate the achievements of his predecessors who had built Sacsayhuaman. The attempt had involved bringing just one immense boulder from several miles away to add to the existing fortifications:

‘This boulder was hauled across the mountain by more than 20,000 Indians, going up and down very steep hills ... At a certain spot, it fell from their hands over a precipice crushing more than 3000 men.’20

19 Royal Commentaries of the Incas, p. 233.

20 Ibid., p. 237.


In all the histories I surveyed, this was the only report which described the Incas actually building, or trying to build, with huge blocks like those employed at Sacsayhuaman. The report suggested that they possessed no experience of the techniques involved and that their attempt had ended in disaster.

This, of course, proved nothing in itself. But Garcilaso’s story did intensify my doubts about the great fortifications which towered above me. As I looked at them I felt that they could, indeed, have been erected before the age of the Incas and by some infinitely older and more technically advanced race.

Not for the first time I was reminded of how difficult archaeologists found it to provide accurate dates for engineering works like roads and drystone walls which contained no organic compounds. Radiocarbon was redundant in such circumstances; thermo-luminescence, too, was useless.

And while promising new tests such as Chlorine-36 rock-exposure dating were now being developed their implementation was still some way off. Pending further advances in the latter field, therefore, ‘expert’ chronology was still largely the result of guesswork and subjective assumptions. Since it was known that the Incas had made intensive use of Sacsayhuaman I could easily understand why it had been assumed that they had built it. But there was no obvious or necessary connection between these two propositions. The Incas could just as well have found the structures already in place and moved into them.

If so, who had the original builders been?

The Viracochas, said the ancient myths, the bearded, white-skinned strangers, the ‘shining ones’, the ‘faithful soldiers.’

As we travelled I continued to study the accounts of the Spanish adventurers and ethnographers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who had faithfully recorded the ancient, pre-contact traditions of the Peruvian Indians. What was particularly noticeable about these traditions was the repeated emphasis that the coming of the Viracochas had been associated with a terrible deluge which had overwhelmed the earth and destroyed the greater part of humanity.


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