Foam of the Sea
Peru and Bolivia
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 runways—by 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
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
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
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?
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.
6 Ibid., p.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Were the linemakers map-makers too?
And why were they called the Viracochas?
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
The Facts on File Encyclopaedia of World Mythology and Legend,
London and Oxford, 1988, p. 657.
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
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
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
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.
Tan. Terumah, XI; also, with slight variations, Yoma 39b. Cited in
The Jewish Encyclopaedia, Funk and Wagnell, New York, 1925, vol. II,
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.
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
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
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,
For further evidence and argument in this regard, see Constance
Irwin, Fair Gods and Stone Faces, W. H. Allen, London, 1964, pp.
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.
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,
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.
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
‘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.
Arthur Cotterell, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Myths and
Legends, Guild Publishing, London, 1989, p. 174. See also South
American Mythology, p. 69-88.
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’.
The legends were unanimous in their physical description of
Viracocha. In his Suma y Narracion de los Incas, for example,
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
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’.
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,
10 South American Mythology, p. 87.
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
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
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
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.
Pears Encyclopaedia of Myths and Legends: Oceania, Australia and the
Americas, (ed. Sheila Savill), Pelham Books, London, 1978, pp.
16 South American Mythology, p. 76.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Continue to Chapter 7