Posts Tagged ‘Peru’

The new Peru Show at the British Museum is a Triumph. But…

November 13th, 2021 No comments

A big new show about Peru has just opened at the British Museum to showcase the almost four millennia of Peruvian civilisation that preceded the destructive arrival of the Spanish.

It’s the first at the museum since almost the Second World War, so quite a moment to have a look at the Incas and their predecessors.

I’m pleased to report that thanks to energetic and intelligent curatorship from Jago Cooper (known to TV audiences for his work on presenting Latin American archaeology) and Cecilia Pardo, this is a triumphant success.

That said, the curators have their work cut out. Although using some of the central main space in the British Museum, it’s a smaller show than others have been, so needs to be concentrated.

And I know only too well from my Cochineal Red book – being sold alongside the exhibition –  the challenges already involved in trying to present the huge span of Peruvian prehistory to an audience who may be unfamiliar with the route map of the rise and fall of its civilisations. Read more…

Inca Land

August 14th, 2017 No comments

Like everybody else I’ve been reading Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Harari- and I was brought up short by one excellent point Harari makes when talking about the first agricultural revolution, the one when we stopped being hunter gatherers:

“Until the late modern era, more than 90% of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites – kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artists and thinkers – who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m in rural Peru, where you can still see hand ploughs used and where the maize is about to be planted. The Sacred Valley, despite the fact that it is so close to both Cusco and Machu Picchu, remains a place made up of smallholdings:  campesinos left with tiny plots of less than a hectare since the rather more recent agricultural revolution experienced in Peru in the 1970s when the big Hacienda estates were broken up by a left-wing military government. Read more…

The White Stuff: How bird-shit can change your life

April 27th, 2010 No comments

I’m coming into port at Pisco, past the Paracas Peninsula. It’s  home to a culture who created some of the finest of all pre-Columbian weavings, but I’m more interested in the bird-shit: in the guano islands that are dotted over the sea as one approaches, with frigate-birds and pelicans flying between them, over a fishing ground that even now, after the depredations of Chinese fishing tankers, is still one of the richest in the world.

It was the Incas who introduced the world to the idea of guano as a fertiliser – ‘guano’ is a Quechua word.  By the 19th century it had become a huge industry, with fortunes being made;  the Gibbs family of Tyntesfield being the most famous British example.  As with any commodity in the New World, the rights of natives were trampled in the rush to lay hands on the money.  At one point, the entire population of Easter Island was transplanted by force to work the guano fields.

Over time, the use of guano came to be replaced by the nitrates mined in neighbouring Chile – a new trade the British supported, backing Chile in the ” War of the Pacific” against Peru and Bolivia to secure their interest in the nitrate holdings.

But it is now enjoying a revival, as an organically approved fertiliser.  Every six or seven years, depending on the frequency of el Niño, the locals “harvest” their crop on three islands off the Paracas Coast, La Chincha, Ballestas and Isla Blanca, and get some 40,000 tonnes of the white stuff.  It sells at two dollars a kilo, a good commodity price, although the work needed to extract it is backbreaking and often dangerous, with ‘guano-slides’ when stacks collapse;  they bring tough miners down from the mountains to help.

It’s the guano that helps make the Pisco valley so green:  as I leave the boat and drive into the desert, an oasis appears of cotton and maize fields, with orange groves and palms dotted throughout — a vision of what organic farming can achieve.  There’s a satisfaction in feeling that something so intrinsically useless as bird-shit should yet be so useful.