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Andes Empires



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On Assignment
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From Author
Virginia Morell




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From Photographer

Kenneth Garrett



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Kenneth Garrett
 

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Andes Empires

Field Notes From Author
Virginia Morell
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Ken Garrett and I went with archaeologists Sergio and Karen Chavez to visit an early Andean religious site on the shores of Lake Titicaca. All that remained was a small sunken courtyard that faced the lake, and across the lake’s blue waters rose the white peaks of the Andes. As the sun set and a sharp wind blew over us, Sergio and Karen told us about the people who built this place of worship, how they revered the mountains as places where their gods dwelled, and how those early people had constructed similar temples around the lake more than 2,000 years ago. Throughout those years people made pilgrimages to the temples, and they still do so today. Near the courtyard recent visitors had built several little stone houses, miniature haciendas, decorated with ribbons and bits of greenery as a way of asking the gods to bless their real homes. As we looked at these, we heard the sound of a flute, its notes rising and falling on the wind. Although we looked for the flute player, we never saw him. We simply heard the sound of his ghost-like music, floating over us and the waters of Lake Titicaca. It sent chills down my spine.



When the first Spanish explorers and Roman Catholic fathers came to the Andes, many of the Wari and Tiwanaku sites were still somewhat intact. Some early visitors record that the temples at Tiwanaku–although damaged from earthquakes and neglect–were still more or less standing. Only later, during a period of religious fervor, did the early Spanish settlers destroy them, knocking down the walls that remained standing and taking blocks of stone for their own homes and churches. Walking around Tiwanaku, I tried to imagine what it must have looked like when those first explorers arrived—before the temples were intentionally razed or the remaining stones scarred with crosses and peoples’ names. For me, the tumbled blocks were heavy and sad—great black stones that in their fallen state spoke of intolerance and fear, of oppressive regimes and war.



The foreman of Alexei Vranich’s excavation at Tiwanaku in Bolivia had died a few weeks before we arrived at the site. Apparently, he had been murdered, and his wife and the other workers worried that his spirit was wandering among them. To put him to rest, they told Alexei they needed to perform a special ceremony at his dig. They brought a llama to the site, tied its legs together, then laid it on its side and slit its throat. One of the workers was a shaman, and he caught the llama’s blood in a basin, then scooped it up in a beaded cup and tossed it in the four directions. He asked Alexei and some of the other workers to do the same. The shaman next extracted the llama’s liver and “read” it, announcing with relief that no one else would die in the near future. They then dug a deep rectangular pit and placed the llama’s head in the middle and a leg at each of the four corners. An offering of a dried llama fetus, seashells, candies, and coca leaves was burned close by, the smoke carrying the shaman’s prayers to the gods. And then the workers’ wives produced a feast of roasted meat, bread, and beer. Very likely, similar ceremonies had been held here when Tiwanaku was thriving—and although the temples lay in ruins all around us, the local people still knew exactly what to do to appease an unhappy spirit.





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