Documentary filmmaker and pre-Colombian historian Thomson (The White Rock, 2003, etc.) journeys to ancient archeological sites in Peru.
The author proves an adept and diligent tour guide in this scholarly work, though he’s less successful at bringing the extinct Andean civilizations to life. As he picks through the vine-covered ruins and desert arroyos, readers may feel like visitors to a dusty museum who never quite grasp just what they’re looking at. Because the Incas and the civilizations that preceded them left behind no written texts, many things about these master builders, skilled artists and resourceful survivors must be inferred by educated guesswork that doesn’t always satisfy. Mind you, the sites Thomson introduces often compensate. He and his team find extensive undiscovered ruins at Llactapata, sister city to Peru’s most famous archeological site, Machu Picchu. They visit the infamous Nasca lines: giant, elaborate designs carved into the landscape 500 years before the Incas arrived. Originally thought to be purely astronomical markings, the lines may have been followed by processions during ancient rituals, Thomson suggests. Indeed, some of those ancient rituals still exist. At the Festival of Qoyllurit’i, he joins thousands of costumed pilgrims in a bone-chilling all-night ascent of glacial mountains. At Sechin, he finds great pyramids rising nine stories tall, built as early as 1500 B.C.E. Along the way, he introduces us to colorful Peruvian locals and heroic unsung archeologists like Gordon McEwan, who has labored for 25 years in remote desert ruins. Among the eye-opening information Thomson imparts is the revelation that some pre-Inca civilizations were victims of ancient climate change, most likely fomented by El Niño; human sacrifice and gory mutilation may have been their groping attempts to halt the droughts and floods that eventually destroyed them.
A diligent but disorienting work, best suited for readers with a healthy appetite for all things archeological and Andean.