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Inca History - Early Peruvian Sites - Peru Book Review

Where does an explorer go these days?

Upon hearing a story about a lost Inca Fortress:

"I had nothing to lose. So I went."

~ Hugh Thomson in his captivating book reviewed on this page, White Rock Exploration - Inca Heartland

There is no more "terra incognita" on the maps.

Ballooning, sailing, or crossing Antarctica are often reduced to webcasted stunts.  If you long to go through jungle, battling snakes and mosquitoes, to find previously undiscovered ancient sites, Hugh Thomson can tell you were to go: Peru. 

In fact, twenty years ago, he was working in a pub, and a drinker there told him a story involving an Inca fortress that had been discovered, but was so poorly documented, it had gotten lost again.  "Not only was it a glamorous idea, it was, unlike most of those told in the pub, a true story." 

White Rock Exploration_inca_heartland.jpg

Finding that ruin seemed more attractive than continuing to tend bar.

This is the start of the story of Thomson's The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland (Overlook Press).

It is no surprise that in this lively and intelligent exploration memoir, Thomson does re-discover the re-lost archeological site, Llactapata, but it is surprising that this is only the first part of the book, not the climax. 

By the time the book has finished, he has hiked to many lost cities in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and reviewed the remarkably complicated Inca era of early Peruvian history all along the way.

Of course the book is full of recountings of mistakes and scares...

...from embarrassingly split pants to humorous misunderstandings between the gringos and the natives (including a young girl who precipitously falls in love with the author). 

"No one has ever needed any qualifications to be a South American explorer other than an instinct for stubbornness and survival." 

~ Hugh Thomson in his book White Rock Exploration - Inca Heartland

Much of the book sounds something amiably like Three Men in a Boat; Of one of his companions, Thomson writes, "While not speaking any Spanish, he felt certain that if he spoke slowly and deliberately in French any Peruvian would be able to understand him.  Irritatingly, this sometimes worked." 

This is not a how-to manual, but those preparing to explore the area would do well to heed Thomson's words on snakes, guinea pigs, gnats, pack mules, and especially, guides.

Inca History - Llactapata.jpg

Time and again he reminds us that explorers from the outside, including himself, have only had success on their expeditions proportional to the skill of the indigenous people directing them.

Much of the book is not just an early Peruvian history review of the Incas, but a history of exploration of Inca sites.  

Portraits of Colorful Peru Explorers of Inca History

There are fine summary portraits here of an assortment of strange characters who have trekked some of these paths before Thomson. 

Victor von Hagen, for example

  • Traveled in 1952 from Lake Titicaca to Quito
  • Wrote his memoir which began with the dedication, "In all humility - to myself." 

The memoir of Tobias Schneebaum

  • Exploring a little later, recounted homosexual and cannibalistic adventures within a within a Peruvian jungle tribe. 

Gene Savoy

  • in 1964 made the biggest discoveries since Machu Picchu was found, and then went to Reno, Nevada, to start his own church.
  • Called the International Community of Christ, it was a cult centered around his explorations. 
  • He intimated the secret of immortality: stare at the sun to absorb God as raw energy, and it got him plenty of young female devotees. 

The discoverer of Machu Picchu (and of Llactapata, the site that was eventually lost for Thomson to find again) was Hiram Bingham

  • Like so many others, Bingham was no slouch at self-publicity; his success propelled him to become a professor, Air Force hero, and senator. 

  • His view of the history of Machu Picchu became the standard one; he saw it as a religious monument to the Virgins of the Sun. 

  • Bingham, however, was an explorer, not an archeologist, and the distinction is stressed many times in this book. 

Concerning Machu Picchu and Inca History

Archeological evaluation of the beautiful, elevated Machu Picchu site has revealed that, among early Peruvian sites, it was probably more an administrative center along a trade route, and the winter quarters of the Inca court. 

This is the archeological view, but it isn't much fun for tourists, who are more interested in religious virgins, or religious visions. 

Machu Picchu has become a prime site for New Age ideas about sacred Inca geography and some sort of lost spirituality, and the "lost crystal city" that lies below the real site. 

Thomson's own view of the exalted position of Machu Picchu in early Peruvian history is simply that the Incas had a fondness, just as we do, for magnificent mountain views.

Understanding Inca History

Some of the attempts to understand the Incas in this way are a natural tendency to impose our own views upon a lack of information. 

The Incas are always confused with the Aztecs, but unlike the Aztecs, they had no writing or hieroglyphics.  We know that they had poetic epics and plays, but fragments barely remain of them. 

There was a system of knots that was used as a token for inventories, and recent scholars have shown them possibly to be an aid for story-telling, but most Inca history is recorded by those Spaniards who chased the empire out of existence. 

The Incas themselves were ruthless conquerors (as well as slavers and desecrators of architecture that went before them), but according to Thomson, their successes were less from might of arms than from wise administration of their lands. 

They had, for instance, an excellent road system that permitted easy agricultural exchange from the mountains to the plains.  The roads were not built in the way we ourselves would do, as they often functioned as boundary lines, and sometimes went up dizzying heights by stone steps that llamas could easily negotiate. 

Thomson has an appreciation for the Inca stones as abstract sculptures.  Archeologists and architects studying Inca history have, for instance, tried to find the "use" of the bosses, dramatic protrusions from the flat surface of the huge stones found in so many Inca sites.  No such practical use is convincing, and Thomson speculates that they are sheer decoration, calling attention to the skill of the granite carvers. 

Not Just Inca History

Thomson's exhilarating and self-deprecatingly humorous account of his own travels vies with the ancient history and modern history revealed here. 

All Thomson's stories are expertly told: 

  • Thomson follows a trail of Inca history to the almost forgotten site of Vilcabamba, still unexcavated and obscured by thick vegetation.  It was the last remnant of the great Inca Empire.  

  • Digressions of descriptions of the modern towns he goes through, and a welcome appreciation of the great Cuzco photographer Martin Chambi, are easy bypaths on the way.  

  • The book has excellent maps, a glossary of terms from the Spanish and the local Quechua language, and an genealogical chart of the Inca emperors. 

Peru History Book Review - Summary:

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book to put our currently fashionable fascination with Inca sites in a realistic context.

Buy this book now! The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland

This very complete review was kindly provided by Rob Hardy.

Rob is a psychiatrist who writes book reviews as a hobby. Among his environmental influences he counts his "wife, three dogs, numerous cats, and lots of books."

See these related pages:

Go to Peru History from this Book Review on Inca Rediscoveries

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