What’s New in Peru?

By Jheri St. James

The Inca Empire in the western region of South America occupied what is now Peru, parts of Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It extended some 3,000 miles from north to south, stretching back between 150 and 250 miles from the narrow Pacific coastal plain into the high Andes. The name “Inca” refers to the people of the empire and is also the title of the ruler. Communications were maintained along brilliantly engineered and extensive roads, carried over the sheer Andean gorges by fiber cable suspension bridges. Trained relay runners carried messages 150 miles a day and the army had quick access to trouble spots. Restive subject tribes were resettled near Cuzco, the capital of the Incan Empire. Detailed surveys of new conquests were recorded by quipo, a mnemonic device using knotted cords, but writing, like draft animals and wheeled transport, was unknown; so too was monetary currency. Taxation and tribute were levied in the form of labor services. In other respects the culture was highly advanced. At sites such as Machu Picchu (discovered in 1911), Inca architects raised some of the world’s finest stone structures; precious metals from government-controlled mines were worked by skilled goldsmiths and bronze was also used; ceramic and textile design was outstanding. Agriculture was based on elaborate irrigation and hillside terracing. Why was the city built in a remote mountain location? What was its precise function? How did it remain a secret during 300 years of Spanish rule? The Incas, who claimed to be direct descendants of the sun, represented the final, splendid phase of a 3000-year-old culture.

The Spanish domination of the Incas began with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro (1532), who executed the Incan emperor and conquered their cities. At first, Pizzaro was held in awe by the natives as a White God. But within months, lured by the wealth of gold, Inca cities were ransacked and razed and on the ruins of ancient temples rose elaborate churches. Spanish rule, based in Lima, continued until the revolution led by Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin from 1920 to 1924, when Spanish forces were defeated.

Attempts to redress inequalities or retrench privilege have dominated Peru’s politics since its independence and throughout the 20th century. After a dozen years of military rule, Peru returned to democratic leadership in 1980, but still experienced economic problems and the growth of a violent insurgency. President Alberto Fujimori’s election in 1990 ushered in a decade that saw a dramatic turnaround in the economy and significant progress in curtailing guerrilla activity. Nevertheless, the president’s increasing reliance on authoritarian measures and an economic slump in the late 1990’s generated mounting dissatisfaction with his regime. Fujimori won reelection to a third term in the spring of 2000, but international pressure and corruption scandals led to his ouster by Congress in November of that year. A caretaker government oversaw new elections in the spring of 2001, which ushered in Alejandro Toledo as the new head of government; his presidency has been hampered by allegations of corruption.

What’s new in Peru? Most of our soil here at Common Ground 191 comes from countries with vast histories of warfare—domination, revolution and bloodshed—the story on most of the terra firma of our planet. Fortunately, 70 percent is composed of water, so the conflicts of mankind do not dominate the entire globe, yet. And of course, below this surface conflict lies Common Ground, the place where peace always exists, that quiet place below the turmoil, a new concept perhaps for some.

Peru, the third largest country in South America, is bordered on the north by Ecuador and Colombia; on the east by Brazil and Bolivia; on the south by Chile; and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The 1,400-mile long coastal strip, a central mountain region, and the eastern Amazonian plains are the country’s main regions. The coastal zone is mainly desert, but the sands are very fertile when irrigated and the region supports agriculture and contains about 35% of the population. Most of Peru’s important cities are also located on the coast. The mountainous region consists of parallel ranges of the Andes with intervening deep valleys and mountain bases. Among the lofty peaks in this part of Peru is Huascaran (22,500 ft.). Straddling the border with Bolivia is Lake Titicaca at 12,500 ft. above sea level, the highest navigable body of water in the world. The lush eastern slopes of the Andes with their heavy rainfall give way to the dense tropical forests of the eastern plans draining into the Amazon River, the world’s second-longest river (3,900 miles).

The Amazon rises in Andean Peru near the Pacific Ocean and flows east through the world’s largest equatorial rain forest to the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the world’s largest river in volume and drainage area. Its basin drains 40% of South America, and it has hundreds of tributaries. The rainforests around the Amazon River are known as the “green lungs” of South America, and deforestation continues to be the tuberculosis of human history. We are losing Earth’s greatest biological treasures just as we are beginning to appreciate their true value. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth’s land surface; now they cover a mere 6%. Most medicine men and shamans remaining in the rainforests today are 70 years old or more. Each time a rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down. When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants.

What’s new in Peru? Deforestation? Hardly. Destruction of the rainforests is a global activity, hardly singular to Peru. But a real solution to saving the rainforest is to make its inhabitants see the forest and the trees by creating a consumer demand and consumer markets for sustainable rainforest products, markets that are larger and louder than today’s tropical timber market, markets that will put as much money in their pockets and government coffers as the timber companies do, markets that will give them the economic incentive to protect their sustainable resources for long-term profits, rather than short-term gain. This new approach can make a real difference. If every person on the planet helps create this consumer market and demand for sustainable rainforest products and resources and demands sustainable harvesting of these resources using local communities and indigenous tribes, we can all be part of the solution, and the rainforests of the world and their people can be saved (see

At least 80 percent of the developed world’s diet originated in the tropical rainforest. Its bountiful gifts to the world include: fruits—avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and tomatoes; vegetables—corn, potatoes, rice, winter squash and yams; spices—black pepper, cayenne, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, tumeric, coffee, vanilla; and nuts—Brazil nuts and cashews. The beauty, majesty and timelessness of a primary rainforest are indescribable. It is impossible to capture on film, to describe in words, or to explain to those who have never had the awe-inspiring experience of standing in the heart of a primary rainforest. Rainforests have evolved over millions of years to become the incredibly complex environments they are today.

A single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than are found in the entire United States. The number of species of fish in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean. Scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than they have of how many species there are on Earth. Estimates vary from two million to 100 million species, with a best estimate of somewhere near 10 million; only 1.4 million of these species have actually been named. Today, rainforests occupy only two percent of the entire earth’s surface and six percent of the world’s land surface, yet these remaining lush rainforests support over half of our planet’s wild plants and trees and one-half of the world’s wildlife.

“The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapses, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for” (Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard biologist).

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Our collector in Peru was Elizabeth Vexelman, who lives in Lima. Her soil came from Huaca Huallamarca, an historical site. In ancient Peru, a Huaca could be a river, a tree or a mountain to whom magical powers were conferred in the belief that therein dwelled some divinity or ancestor. In the area of the coast, that designation was specifically used to name some scaled pyramids. Thanks to scholars and locals, the Huacas have been left as archaeological vestiges that stand out in the middle of developed Lima. In the heart of the district of San Isidro stands the archaeological complex of Huallamarca. Hualla in the quechua tongue means “uneven” and marca stands for “village,” because this complex structure is sustained over spiraled ramps. In 1999, several pieces of pottery were unearthed, possibly indicating a nearby burial ground. Many young archeologists are working in all the important Huacas of Lima.

The Huaca Huallamarca or Pan de Azucar (Sugar Bread) is an adobe scaled pyramid with an impressive access ramp. The pyramidal shaped ceremonial center of pre-Incan times contains an artifact museum. The tombs found in the Huaca Huallamarca embrace a very long time period, from the 3rd century A.D. to the coming of the Incas during the 15th century. Apparently, Huallamarca was a ceremonial center whose access was possibly restricted to a religious elite, in view of the fact that the uncovered floors show little wear from use. During the historical period called the Intermedia Temprano the dead were buried laying on their backs on mattresses of reeds. Towards the 6th century A.D. the corpses were put in a fetal position and wrapped in fine fabrics. During the last stages of the Horizonte Medio, the dead were wrapped in fardos or bundles with a false head above, a sort of mask made of painted fabric or wood. Here are some example of funerary and other art typical of Peruvian Huacas.

But what’s new in Peru? We have examined ancient history, artifacts of lost civilizations, and the timeless rainforests. Rather current was the discovery in the 1930’s, during the first commercial trans-Andean air flights, of giant ground drawings that cover 400 square miles of southern Peru’s desert coast. Aviators in those flights saw for the first time in human history these ancient, acre-sized tracings of hummingbirds, foxes and condors; a 100 foot man with odd eyes, his raised arms beckoning, dozens of spirals, zigzags, triangles and trapezoids and 1,000 miles of long, straight lines crisscross a dry wasteland that bears an uncanny resemblance to the surface of Mars. Are they roads, star pointers, gigantic maps? If the people who lived here 2,000 years ago had only a simple technology, how did they manage to construct such precise figures? Did they have a plan? If so, who ordained it?

At Nazca, theories abound about the lines: some speculate that they represented a solar calendar, astronomic observatory, alien landing strip or totems that were invisible until air flight became a reality. A German mathematician, the late Dr. Maria Reiche, discovered that the giant figure of a monkey coincided exactly with the constellation of Ursa Major. Perhaps the drawings helped the Nascans determine the seasons of the year. Some believe that these were pre-Inca configurations made in 800 B.C., and that there are secret underground waterways associated with them. Some of the pottery found in these areas has the shape of UFO’s.

What’s new in Peru? Today, esoteric groups congregate in many areas of this unique country—Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Nazca, Lake Titicaca—to chant mantras, to talk about cults and cosmic energy and discuss books such as The Celestine Prophecy, a novel set in Peru that stirred interest in spiritual culture. At the full moon, granite stones of the Peruvian ruins glow. The magic, the myths, the questions are as new today as when they were first asked, and there seem to be no answers, new or old.

Elizabeth Vexelman says, “When Gary asked for volunteers, I just thought I will go to collect a couple of pounds, and that’s it. But then when the carton arrived, I realized he would prefer soil from an historical, significant place.” Her contribution came from the Huaca Huallamarca historical site. Elizabeth is married to Elias Farhi and is mother to two children Deborah, 5, and Nicole 3. She has a degree in public relations and used to work for AT&T. Now she is an entrepreneur together with her husband, but works as a consultant in PR every now and then. We say thank you to Elizabeth for her efforts on behalf of Common Ground 191.

This is new: a lady takes the time and thought to collect some significant soil from this magical country of Peru, ship it back to Laguna Beach, California, and writes to us about herself and her contribution. New ideas are forming every day for solutions to Peru’s rainforest challenges. And of course Common Ground 191 is new—a completely new concept in art—using world soils as the medium. That’s what’s new in Peru.




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