National Geographic : 2011 Apr
Still standing after five and a half centuries of earth- quakes, this stone wall in Ollantaytambo was once part of an estate owned by ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui. The Inca had no iron tools or wheeled vehicles, yet they managed to quarry and move stones that weighed more than a hundred tons. Today, on a ne summer a ernoon, I watch from the sidelines as they celebrate the esta of Santiago, or St. James. In Inca times this would have been the festival of Illapa, the Inca god of lightning. As the prayers draw to a close, four men dressed in black raise a rustic wooden litter holding a painted statue of Santiago. Walking behind the priest in a small procession, the bear- ers carry the saint for all in the plaza to see, just as the Inca once shouldered the mummies of their revered kings. e names of those Inca rulers still resonate with power and ambition centuries a er their demise: Viracocha Inca (meaning Creator God Ruler), Huascar Inca (Golden Chain Ruler), and Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (He Who Remakes the World). And remake the world they did. Ris- ing from obscurity in Peru's Cusco Valley during the 13th century, a royal Inca dynasty charmed, bribed, intimidated, or conquered its rivals to create the largest pre-Columbian empire in the New World. Scholars long possessed few clues about the lives of Inca kings, apart from attering histories that Inca nobles told soon a er the arrival of Spanish conquistadores. e Inca had no system of hieroglyphic writing, as the Maya did, and any portraits that Inca artists may have made of their rulers were lost. e royal palaces of Cusco, the Inca capital, fell swi ly to the European con- querors, and a new Spanish colonial city rose on their ruins, burying or obliterating the Inca past. In more recent times, civil unrest broke out in the Peruvian Andes in the early 1980s, and few archaeologists ventured into the Inca heartland for more than a decade. Now archaeologists are making up for lost time. Combing rugged mountain slopes near Cusco, they are discovering thousands of previ- ously unknown sites, shedding new light on the origins of the Inca dynasty. Gleaning clues from colonial documents, they are relocating the lost estates of Inca rulers and examining the complex Vancouver-based author Heather Pringle specializes in archaeological subjects. Photographer Robert Clark is a regular contributor to the Geographic.