Faculty Focus

Pyramids and Politics: Exploring Peru’s Prehispanic Past

       A conversation with Dr. Robyn E. Cutright
       Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies

 February 23, 2012
       View slideshow of her CentreTerm course in Peru.

Robyn Cutright
Q: You just returned from a CentreTerm trip to Peru, and I understand that your first study abroad experience as an undergraduate was to this same country. Do you think much about your student experience in Peru now that you’re a faculty member taking your own students there?

A: I thought about my first experience in Peru a lot during this trip, partly because I had the chance to return to some of the places I visited then for the first time. When I was a sophomore, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Cuzco, Peru, for a semester and to live with a host family. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily planning to be a Spanish major and wasn’t really sure what career I would pursue, but I fell in love with the country and the experience of traveling abroad.

Later that same year, I had the chance to return to Peru and participate in my first archaeological dig, and I was hooked and started looking for graduate programs in Latin American archaeology. So I definitely thought about how formative that time abroad was during this trip. I think studying abroad can be very powerful in a lot of ways, and one of my goals as a professor is to try to create for my students the same kind of transformative opportunities that I had as an undergraduate.

Q: Your CentreTerm course was called “Pyramids and Politics: Exploring Peru’s Prehispanic Past.” Why was such a research topic on “politics” ultimately archeological? What was the teachable moment you hoped to create for the students?

A: Ancient Andean cultures never developed writing, so we rely on archaeological evidence such as art and architecture to learn about how they were organized. During the course, we compared three complex societies—the Moche, the Chimú, and the Inka [this is now the official modern spelling]—by visiting some of their important political centers. I wanted students to be able to observe the temples and political complexes at these sites and combine their field observations with readings to understand the differences in the bases of political power in these three societies.

One thing both scholars and visitors to Peru comment on is the variety of harsh environments, from coastal deserts to high altitudes, in which Andean societies developed and flourished. I wanted students to experience these environments firsthand and think about how these different societies chose different ways of solving these environmental challenges and developed different political strategies to expand and control their empires. I also wanted them to practice archaeological skills such as field observations and deductive reasoning, by trying to reconstruct these political strategies on the basis of evidence like religious temples, administrative centers, food storage facilities, royal burials, and elite estates (including Machu Picchu!). And, of course, a constant subtext to the class was how modern Peruvian society interacts with these archaeological sites and occupies the same environments these ancient cultures did.

Q: What kind of important distinctions can be found between the three different societies you explored?

A: There are quite a few. The Moche and the Chimú both lived on the north coast of Peru, which is a series of irrigated river valleys separated by stretches of desert. The Moche came first, between around AD 200-750. We visited a number of Moche political centers, which are focused around large, tiered adobe pyramids decorated with brightly painted friezes depicting dancers, warriors, and supernatural creatures such as decapitator spiders. Moche leaders wore elaborate costumes and officiated at rituals at these sites—Moche politics involved a lot of pageantry and theatricality, and was closely linked to religion. Moche political centers were not politically united but can be compared to Greek city-states that shared elite culture but operated independently.

The Chimú (the focus of my research) emerged around AD 900, less than two centuries after the Moche collapse. After consolidating control of their heartland, they began to conquer neighboring valleys and by AD 1450 ruled a large empire. Their political focus was on administration, not pageantry. They reorganized conquered provinces to produce staples like corn and cotton for textiles, and they stored these goods in hundreds of storerooms within their massive adobe royal compounds.

The Chimu were conquered by the Inka, who had emerged in the 13th century in the Cuzco region. The Inka combined ideological control with a strong military and a system of storehouses and state-run farms to control an empire that stretched from Ecuador to Argentina, but this empire fell after only 100 years when the Spanish arrived.

Q: How does the modern Peruvian society co-exist with its ancient past? Or, perhaps I should ask, its ancient pasts (plural), since the Moche, Chimu, and Inka are each unique?

A: For one thing, modern Peruvian society occupies the same landscape as these ancient societies. Archaeological sites are impacted by urban expansion, and it’s not unusual to be driving through a suburban neighborhood in the capital, Lima, and see the ruins of an adobe pyramid. For this reason, looting and site destruction are big problems in modern Peru. During our trip, we visited a wide range of archaeological sites—some that were located in isolated stretches of desert, some that had been reconstructed for tourism, and others that were under excavation by Peruvian or foreign archaeologists—and we discussed different approaches to balancing tourism as an economic enterprise with scientific inquiry and site preservation.

Another way that the ancient past is still present in modern Peruvian society is in national identity—Peru is understandably proud of its prehispanic heritage, and especially in the highlands indigenous people still speak Quechua, the language of the Inkas, and maintain a lot of Inka traditions even as they engage with the modern world.

Q: What specific questions about the Chimu do you pursue in your research, and how have you been able to involve students in this work?

A: I am interested in how Chimu conquest was experienced by people living in the provinces. My dissertation research looked at life in a small farming village in the Jequetepeque Valley, which was conquered by the Chimu in the early 14th century. I found that production of key agricultural staples like corn and cotton intensified during Chimu rule, but overall daily life continued relatively unaffected—suggesting that conquest was a process that happened at the upper levels of the political hierarchy but didn’t necessarily reorganize the lives of rural villagers.

My current research continues to investigate life in the provinces, but it shifts focus to a political center in the Andean foothills that was established by the pre-Chimu Lambayeque civilization and probably functioned as a border outpost for the Lambayeque and Chimu states. Over the next five to seven years, I plan to investigate what life was like in this multiethnic community and to see what it can tell us about the political strategies of coastal states.

This past summer, I took two Centre students with me to Peru, where we conducted a preliminary season of mapping and some small excavations. They worked with me to analyze the data as part of independent studies this fall, and they are also co-authors with me and a Peruvian scholar on a poster that will be presented this spring at a national archaeological conference.

I envision creating similar opportunities for students in future seasons—archaeology is collaborative by nature, and there are plenty of opportunities for students to get involved and also have the chance to spend two months experiencing archaeological fieldwork and life in a rural Peruvian community.

Q: What languages have you learned in connection with your research?

A: On the coast, where I work, people no longer speak indigenous languages, so I can get away with just Spanish. I was a Spanish and anthropology major as an undergraduate, and I lived abroad in Costa Rica in addition to the time I’ve spent in Peru. This time abroad was instrumental in learning Spanish.

Q: When do you hope to return and will students be involved?

A: This summer, I won’t be traveling to Peru—instead, I’m teaching anthropology courses in Costa Rica with the KIIS [Kentucky Institute for International Studies] program. I plan to return to Peru next summer (2013) and am planning another season of fieldwork to continue to investigate Ventanillas. I plan to bring with me two students, just like last time, as my field and lab assistants.

Interviewed by Michael P. Strysick, Director of Communications

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail michael.strysick@centre.edu with your feedback.

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