‘It’s gen­uinely a marvel’: the last cap­i­tal of Inca re­sis­tance is re­vealed

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Lau­rence Blair

There are lots of build­ings left to dis­cover in the for­est. And be­yond, in the moun­tains: who knows

Jorge Co­bos fol­lows the rem­nants of an Inca road down the east­ern slopes of Peru’s An­des, through cloud for­est and over sway­ing plank bridges, edg­ing along nar­row paths be­side sheer drops.

Fi­nally, after a four-day trek, he clears a patch of un­der­growth with his ma­chete, re­veal­ing a moss-cov­ered wall. Thick roots are en­twined around fallen lin­tels. Else­where, the stonework is still daubed with or­ange plas­ter.

“Imag­ine – there are lots of build­ings left to dis­cover in the for­est,” he said. “And be­yond, in the moun­tains: who knows?”

The sprawl­ing ru­ins are, schol­ars agree, the last cap­i­tal of Vil­cabamba: a hold­out Inca state that re­sisted for decades after the con­quis­ta­dors landed in Peru in 1532, ex­e­cuted the em­peror Atahualpa and oc­cu­pied the Inca cap­i­tal of Cusco.

For­got­ten for cen­turies, the city of Espíritu Pampa – also known as Old Vil­cabamba – has only been cleared, and ex­ca­va­tions be­gun in earnest, in re­cent decades. And the lat­est find­ings, a new site mu­seum and field­work both sched­uled for 2019 – along with the pend­ing com­ple­tion of a road through Vil­cabamba – are bring­ing at­ten­tion to the last strong­hold of the In­cas once more.

Ar­chi­tect and ex­plorer Vin­cent Lee first mapped out Espíritu Pampa in de­tail in the 1980s, when the re­gion was un­der the con­trol of bru­tal Shin­ing Path guer­ril­las.

“It was a step back into the 19th cen­tury just to go there – and a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous one,” he said. The jun­gle “was so thick one could hardly see one build­ing from the next. It was hard work, but a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence,” Lee added.

To­day, three govern­ment work­ers use ma­chetes to keep the fo­liage at bay from a palace com­pound, the re­mains of a huge hall with 26 door­ways, and a labyrinth of rooms, streets and stair­ways.

“The area is fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause it still hasn’t been dis­turbed or looted. The in­for­ma­tion is first­hand,” said Javier Fon­seca, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist with Peru’s min­istry of cul­ture.

“It’s the last cap­i­tal of Inca re­sis­tance,” he added. “It has his­tory, it has ar­chae­ol­ogy, it has ev­ery­thing. It’s gen­uinely a marvel to work in this place.”

Four suc­ces­sive In­cas ruled in Vil­cabamba, ven­er­at­ing the sun, en­gag­ing in di­plo­macy and guer­rilla war­fare with the Span­ish – and in­spir­ing re­bel­lions be­yond their moun­tain refuge.

Fac­ing an over­whelm­ing in­va­sion in 1572, the In­cas set the city ablaze and fled into the for­est. The Span­ish cap­tured Peru’s last indige­nous monarch Tú­pac Amaru I and ex­e­cuted him in Cusco, bring­ing the Inca em­pire to an end. Espíritu Pampa was swal­lowed up by the jun­gle. Yet re­cent re­search points to a far older ori­gin for the site – and con­nec­tions link­ing Vil­cabamba with its Euro­pean and indige­nous neigh­bours.

In one sec­tor of Espir­itú Pampa – dom­i­nated by tow­er­ing mat­a­palo (stran­gler fig) trees that grip the ru­ins – Fon­seca pieced to­gether a unique ce­ramic ves­sel de­pict­ing An­dean and Ama­zo­nian peo­ples, backed up by jaguars, united in bat­tling the mounted con­quis­ta­dors.

Per­haps the most in­trigu­ing dis­cov­er­ies at Espíritu Pampa con­cern the Wari – a cul­ture that ruled swaths of Peru be­tween 600 and 1100AD. In 2010, Fon­seca iden­ti­fied a sump­tu­ous Wari burial com­plex near the main site. One oc­cu­pant – dubbed the Lord of Wari – was found with a sil­ver mask, breast­plate, axe blades and or­na­ments, golden bracelets and dozens of finely crafted ves­sels. And late in 2017, Fon­seca iden­ti­fied a Wari tem­ple nearby, con­tain­ing both Inca and Wari gold and sil­ver­work.

“This so­ci­ety doesn’t dis­ap­pear overnight – there’s a co­ex­is­tence. Part of the Wari in­her­i­tance sur­vives, thanks to the In­cas,” he says.

These cross-cul­tural finds are cur­rently di­vided be­tween mi­nor ex­hibits and stor­age units, Fon­seca lamented, but a mu­seum in Vil­cabamba is planned for 2019.

The Co­bos fam­ily would like to see it es­tab­lished in Huan­ca­calle, the small vil­lage near Vit­cos where they run a hos­tel from where ex­plor­ers have long set out on foot for Espíritu Pampa. But this ad­ven­tur­ous tra­di­tion may be com­ing to a close as a new high­way is due to be ex­tended into the val­ley be­low.

Even if it be­comes more ac­ces­si­ble, the last city of the In­cas will still in­spire won­der, and new tech­niques such as Li­dar map­ping may soon re­veal the true ex­tent of the city be­neath the for­est canopy.

Ben­jamín Co­bos, 90, says there is more to dis­cover. As a boy, the Machiguenga peo­ples that lived at Espíritu Pampa told him of yet an­other city, deeper in the for­est.

“They said you have to walk for five days, along a wide Inca road,” he added. He once fol­lowed a bare­foot indige­nous guide, scram­bling up densely wooded slopes for hours. “But, be­cause I didn’t care about ru­ins then, I turned back.”

Finds in the Inca ru­ins at Espíritu Pampa sug­gest links with other An­dean and Ama­zo­nian peo­ples Lau­rence Blair

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