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Loving Nature in Peru

written by Marsha Seidelman, M.D.
on Saturday, 6th May ,2017

My husband and I just returned from a fabulous trip to Peru. I'm in awe of the Incan respect for the earth and how they worked within their natural environment, which happens to be magnificent.  

There had been many indigenous cultures prior to the Incas, but they were the most sophisticated and left the most to view of any cultures, especially regarding architecture. A tour of Peru today, therefore, focuses on their accomplishments. For the time they were in power, about 1200 - 1530’s , there were only 13 Incan kings, the 9th of whom was Pachacutec. During his reign, the Incan empire was expanded and united from the Andes to the coast, and from southern Chile to northern Ecuador. Machu Picchu, one of the Wonders of the World was believed to be constructed for him. 

Unfortunately, there were no written records, so much of the Incan history is uncertain. They used quipas, a system of knots in a group of strings, but it’s not yet clear how to interpret them. Information was gleaned from their pottery, architecture and from myths and legends among the natives. When the Spaniards came in the 1530’s, they started keeping written records.

The overarching aspect that our guides kept coming back to is the Incan understanding of cycles of the solstices, seasons, sun and waterfall.  They worshipped the mountains for providing shelter and glacier melt. They understood that their agriculture was totally dependent on these, and they saw Inti, the sun god, as the protector of the people. At first I was confused by different structures being called ‘Temple of the Sun’, until I realized there were many. They worshipped the sun, mountains, water and Mother Earth. I love their word for Mother Earth - Pachamama - which is represented by a spiralized circle. And the spirit of the mountains was Apu, which they worshipped for sustaining them. Being in the Andes, each farming area had its Apu nearby, watching over the crops. At some sites, including Machu Picchu, they created rock sculptures that mimicked the shape of the mountains behind them; perhaps these were used for sacrifices at one time.

The symbol of their religion was a southern cross, or chakana. Its basis is a cross, perhaps representing north, east, south and west; between any two ends are 3 steps (photo). There are many triads that might be represented. At first, I thought I was confused about the meaning of the 3 steps, but then realized that there are many possibilities. Their mantra of don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t be lazy is one often quoted. Love, learn and work hard is used as well. Related to nature, there’s the upper layer ( superior gods), the human earth layer, and the underworld. Sometimes these are represented by condor, puma and snake, with the condor carrying mummies to the afterworld to be reborn, puma being strength or life on earth, and the snake being clever and in the underworld, representing the spirits of the dead. They preserved their mummies in the fetal position, likely so they would be ready to be re-born. Another triad would be the physical being, the spirit (knowledge and understanding acquired) and the soul (the unique characteristic of the individual). 

One indisputable achievement was their architecture. By borrowing the best from other civilizations, they were able to construct many buildings with interlocking stones, perfectly aligned like puzzle pieces, requiring no mortar. The stones each weighed many tons and in some cases were transported across valleys and up hills without any technology. They were not even using wheels at the time. The most advanced transport that has been found were groups of logs upon which the stones could be rolled. It is still not clear how they were able to shape the stones so precisely.  They had experienced earthquakes and made sure their buildings were stable enough to withstand them. Ironically, with the major earthquakes, the Incan structures remained intact while the newer adobe structures added by the Spaniards did not. The Incans paid full attention to natural events and worked to be in harmony with them. They respected and worshipped nature.  One of the reasons the Spaniards met with resistance when they tried to convert the Incans to Christianity was that the Incans could SEE their gods - the sun, mountains and water. They could not see the god of the Spaniards.

To maximize their area for planting in the Andes, they built terraces into the hillsides and installed irrigation systems to make use of the water flowing from nearby glaciers. They understood that different levels of terraces were subjected to different temperatures, that they needed to coordinate planting with the season and solstices, and that they could combine crops for genetic modification. They learned to rest the soil at times as we do now, so they could be more productive in the long run.

I was surprised to learn that at one time, the Andes were under water. For centuries, Peruvians have been mining salt, very carefully, with different layers used for cooking, bathing or for animals. Our visit to the salt mines was fascinating. In the dry season, farmers who have no crops to harvest can work carefully on removing salt from the mines. 

Finally, we realized the significance of altitude.  As we live at sea level, we noticed marked limitations in our ability to hike when we first arrived in Cuzco at 9,800 feet. Even walking in the airport was challenging.  Fortunately we were advised to immediately descend to Machu Picchu (~7700 feet), before going back to Cuzco and then to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world at 12,000 feet.  We briefly stopped at La Raya at the border of Cuzco and Puno, the highest point at 14,000 feet.

Before we left on vacation, I happened to have started reading George Orwell’s 1984. I didn’t recall reading it in high school and I wanted to see why it had become a best seller all over again. As you may know, it is about a fictionalized society in which Big Brother watches your every move and protests against anyone having any thought or individuality. As opposed to the community-building efforts of the Incans, which was necessary for their building of terraces and temples, 1984 pits neighbor against neighbor and child against parent. Each person is encouraged to report ‘illegal’ behavior to the authorities. Not only is history not important, it is actually erased and edited to support Big Brother’s thoughts at the time. Humanity is absent. Emotions and reasoning are suppressed. Preservation of nature is unheard of. Concern is for staying out of trouble and having respect for some nebulous figure, Big Brother. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Even before I left for vacation, I regretted not being able to March for Science on Earth Day to express my concern for Mother Earth - for our climate, our environment and survival of scientific research. Now, having been immersed in the Inca culture and having finished 1984 on Earth Day, I’m more disturbed than ever at the current lack of priority regarding preserving our Pachamama. The mountains, water and earth, the people around us and those who came before us, deserve the respect that the Incas gave them. As the saying goes, we can never go back, but we CAN support policies that have preservation of both humanity and natural resources as goals. I hope we can understand our dependence on Mother Earth, understand we are just one of many generations borrowing her resources for our own good, and leave her intact for many more generations to come.

Stay tuned for more about Peruvian edible delights!

Tags: Peru, machu picchu, 1984

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