This week: Peru

Psamathe Archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar, Ancash, Peru. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A number of imaginative solutions to the global-warming crisis were on offer this month, as world leaders gathered in Glasgow to discuss ways of tackling climate change – but one subject that was not up for discussion was human sacrifice.

As a fascinating new exhibition on the history and culture of Peru makes clear, however, the Inca and other pre-Columbian civilisations of the central Andean region had no such qualms.

Like us, these early Andean societies were affected by climate emergencies – many of them linked to the same El Nino events that trouble the region today. But lacking modern scientific methods, their elites opted instead for more visceral solutions: resorting to gruesome public displays of human and animal sacrifice in the hope that the weather gods might be appeased.

As Jago Cooper and Cecilia Pardo, co-curators of the British Museum’s Peru: a journey in time, explain in the new issue of Current World Archaeology and on the latest edition of our PastCast podcast, these bloody and desperate-sounding measures may seem repulsive to modern sensibilities, but they must be understood in the context of societies such as those of the Inca and the Moche.

Andean societies, which existed for millennia in isolation from the rest of the world, had a non-linear conception of time. This meant they believed that past, present and future were all happening in the same moment. According to this view, death was not a terminal end point. Rather, there was an overlap between natural and supernatural states, in which those departed would live on as guiding spirits in the community.

Against this backdrop of life after death, and with climate catastrophes of their own to deal with, it seems perhaps less unfathomable that these societies might come to offer up their most treasured possessions – livestock, prisoners, and sometimes even their own children – as sacrifices to the gods.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we’ve also been delving into the archives in search of a deeper understanding of pre-Columbian Peru: we travelled to Pachacamac to uncover the important part played by pilgrimage in the lives of the Inca; we joined the excavations at Huaca El Pueblo to see what they reveal about the ancient Moche civilisation; and we visited the town of Palpa to investigate whether the extraordinary geoglyphs discovered there really are more ancient than their celebrated neighbours, the ‘Nasca lines’.

And finally, if all that simply leaves you hungry for more, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of pre-Columbian South America. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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