Of the dozens major national museums in Paris, one of my personal favorites is the Musée du Quai Branly. Located in a lush garden environment a mere five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, it is unique for its collection of over 350,000 works dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.
Since only one percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time in its permanent and thematic temporary exhibits, each visit is a journey of discovery to remote corners of the planet and the long ago cultures that thrived there.
On a recent late fall afternoon, after enjoying a peaceful stroll around the lush wilderness created by noted French botanist and landscape artist Gilles Clement, I made my way toward the enigmatic building rising bridge-like above the gilded autumn foliage of the tree tops. I was on my way to pre-Columbian Peru.
Peru before the Incas
Doubtless because they had the misfortune of playing hosts to their uninvited Spanish visitors in the mid-15th century, the Incas and their Cuzco Empire have long been held as the crucible of pre-Hispanic Andean culture. While there were traces of previous pre-Columbian cultures going back as far as 1500 BC, these had long been eclipsed in the collective imagination by the powerful Inca narrative. But over the past three decades, extensive archeological excavations on the northern coast of Peru, especially at the Huaca site near Trujillo and at the royal tombs of Sipán, have provided a new insight into these ancient cultures, revealing how they, and most notably the Mochicas, first laid the foundations for pre-Hispanic civilization over 1500 years ago.
These revelations are the basis for the current exhibition, curated by archeologist Santiago Uceda Castillo, who has been directing the site excavations since 1991. “Peru before the Incas” takes visitors on an archaeological investigation into the origins and evolution of power and political systems within these ancient societies. Who held power? The celestial gods, the kings, the urban elite, the warriors, the priests and priestesses? And how did it manifest itself?
A Journey of Discovery
The exhibition spans time from the 8th century BC to the conquests of the Chimú by the Incas in 1470 AD. During that time, in the absence of a written language, successive civilizations left us a rich heritage of remarkable potteries and sculptures, gold, copper and silver ornaments, and funeral furnishings that illustrate their way of life and evolution.
The journey begins with a focus on the natural environment and everyday life of the area. Wedged at the foot of the Andes, the northern coast of Peru is one of the most arid deserts in the world. Owing to the combined presence of the cold Humboldt Current and the mountains, it virtually never rains. For the populations that settled in this inhospitable land, water took a central part in their rites and beliefs, as is represented in a stunning collection of ornate ceramic bottles that document the flora and fauna of their food supply, and their divinities. Theses works speak of a strong connection between the animal and human worlds. As man seeks to acquire the strength, reflexes or speed of specific animals, he deifies them or turns them into the totems of his community.
As the community develops and organizes into a state, totemism evolves into a more formal concept of the existence of superior beings, endowed with powers over the human condition. Temples are created, where the presence of these divinities can materialize. The main god, which will endure under various forms until the Inca period, is the God of the Mountain. An anthropomorphic figure with feline fangs, clawed hands and feet, and carrying a double specter, it represents the sun, fire and water that come from the mountain. It requires human sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests and the prosperity of the community.
Much power is also attributed to ancestral divinities. These more personal gods worshiped at the family or clan level are the link between men and the gods. Especially at the time of funerals, they are recipients of food, drink and metal objects offerings.
Earthly power is bestowed by the gods to the king, who controls the armies and the state.Through a rich array of Huacos (portraits realized in ceramic), statues, emblems of function or power and personal ornaments, the exhibition document the various powers that support this theocracy: the priests and priestesses, the warriors, the shamans and healers.
And surprisingly, the final part of the exhibition reveals the power held by an elite of women. At the time of the conquest, Spaniards had documented coming across some villages (called Capullanas) that were under the authority of women. But recent excavations at major Andes sites show that, in the pre-Columbian past, some women achieved much greater power, as proven by the presence in their funeral monuments of the emblems of their functions (including crowns and specters) and iconographic representations.
Even for the most casual “archeophile,” Peru before the Incas is a fascinating exhibit. The almost 300 artifacts on display cast a new light on the development of the early Andean cultures and demonstrate that in South America, the Incas are only the end point of an elaborate social evolution of native culture before the Spanish conquest.