Extract from my book: Journeys to Ancient Worlds: What Modern Man Can Learn From Ancient Civilisations
When I was at the Inca ruins talking to Walter about my research, he suggested I get in touch with his friend Paul. So I did.
Paul was also a local guide, pleasant, chatty and in good shape. His thick black hair and a long narrow face is typical of Peruvians, and so too the smile that seems to be continually fixed to his jaw. He suggests I might like to go into the mountains to a little indigenous village named Willocq where I can meet Mama Yupanqui – the last surviving descendant of the Inca King, Manco Tupac. I jump at the chance!
To get to Willocq we need a taxi. Paul has arranged one with a man named Marco who also speaks Quechua and can act as translator. Whilst we wait in the main plaza for Marco to show, Paul points to Pinkuylluna.
“Do you see the face of the Inca in the side of the mountain?”
“Yes,” I said. It is a blatantly obvious carving. I had seen it the previous day and thought it was a face. Paul explains the more intricate details and points out the chin, eyes and nose.
“We know it´s the face of an Inca warrior because of the little bit of the rock sticking upwards on top of the figures head,” Paul said. “That is the helmet the Inca used to wear.”
Some archaeologists have said the rock is a natural formation. Even from this distance it doesn´t look like one. Neither did the face of Wiracocha that is carved into the same mountain about 100 yards from it.
We must also remember that the Inca priests believed nothing in the world could be planned without time. I had already learned that the Ollantaytambo complex was aligned with the celestial movements of the sun and that they also used the natural surroundings and field as a sun dial.
Paul tells me that during the winter solstice the sun shines directly on to the carved face of the mythical creator God, the Sun God, Wirococha. Looking towards the corn-cobbed village with your back to the main plaza you will see Pinkuylluna, the name of this magical hill to the right of the urban district. You can clearly see the two faces in the side of the rock. My feeling is they were carved out – a feat not beyond our ancients ancestors.
Marco arrives in a battered red Chevrolet. Even before I get in I know the seatbelts will not work. Most taxi´s I have taken in Peru only hang the seatbelts for show. None of them work. Marco didn´t even hang them for show – he didn´t have any at all!
To be fair with the 20MPH speeds we could manage up the rocky mountain dirt track, we didn´t have a lot of use for seatbelts. Marco did his best to avoid the potholes, but there was no escaping a bumpy ride – and my lunch had not digested.
On several occasions Marco stopped the car to shake hands and exchange a few words with local men walking along the path. To the women he waved a cheery hello and they waved back with big smiles. Marco seemed to know everybody and loved to holler out the window. On one occasion he stopped to pick up an old man who was hobbling slowly up the steep incline. The man was in his eighties.
“He has to walk to work,” Paul tells me. “Three hours there, three hours back.”
Today he got a lift.
It was rainy season and parts of the road were sodden with water and slush. Inevitably we got stuck. Paul and I climbed out from the back seat and pushed the car free. Before long we were stuck in another slush pit. This time there was no shifting the car. Marco revved the engine, but the wheels just spun and dug deeper into the mud.
Marco got out and suggested we put rocks under the wheels. On our hands and knees, the three of us scraped mud out from under the wheels and piled stones into the grooves. That didn’t work. The tyres just slipped of the stone.
We dug deeper and threw gravel into the mud to dry it out and wedged large stones under the front tyres. This time the car lurched forward – but immediately splashed back down into the mud and was stuck again.
I suggested we lay leaves on the ground and cover them with gravel to build a path across the sludge. This would give the tyres some leverage. Marco didn’t like the idea, but after another ten minutes of shovelling gravel and getting nowhere I started breaking branches from the bushes. Paul joined me. It was at least worth a try. Once we thought we had laid enough Marco gave the car another try. The wheels spin and splutter but lurch forward and over the dry leaves. He is out! The plan worked and we were on our way again.
By the time we arrive in Willocq we have a flat tyre. We drive as far as the infant school and clamber out. Marco tells us that Mama Yupanqui lives close by about two minutes walk from here. Paul suggests we visit the school first. What a great idea!
There is a classroom with the door open. We peer inside to find small indigenous children about seven years old dressed in colourful traditional clothes. When they see us a few of the boys rush over and shake our hands. Their smiling faces literally shine with rosy red cheeks. I suggest we go to the shop and buy sweets.
When we return brandishing two large bags of fruit chews the children leap from their seats and gather round us clapping with excitement. It is a special moment and the teacher has a difficult time to persuade them to return to their seats. Paul explains to the children in Quechua that I am from England and am interested in Inca culture – their ancestry. The children clap. I’m not sure why.
I crouch down and offer the girl in the front desk the bag of chews. She reaches inside and takes a solitary sweet.
“No,” I said, “take a handful.” She didn’t understand so I said, “Like this” and reached inside with my hand to grab a fistful of sweets. She smiled and timidly grabbed a handful. “Buenos,” I said ruffling her hair.
All the other children follow suit. Some are not so shy and dive in with two hands. When the bags are empty we say our goodbyes, but before we leave Paul asks if there is anything I want to say to the children. “Tell them when they are older, not to forget the ways of the Inca,” I said. Somehow I doubt they would even learn the ways of the Inca in the first place, but maybe some of them still had elders like Mama Yuapanqui to inspire them.
We find the old lady sitting on flattened hay outside her house. Typical of Quechua women, Mama Yupanqui is wrapped in woven alpaca blankets chewing coca leaves. Her head is bowed as if in prayer. When she hears us approach she lifts her head. Marco tells us she is going blind, but she is over one hundred years old – she didn´t know exactly how old.
Marco speaks to the old woman in Quechua. She smiles and raises her hands to his face. She remembers him.
Manco Tupac Yupanqui should never have actually taken the throne of Cusco. That right had been reserved for his brother, Huáscar Inca, but when the Chanca warriors threatened the Inca realm, Tupac’s father and brother fled the city and abandoned the throne. They would have left their subjects to die or to be enslaved by the Chanca, but Tupac was not prepared leave his families people. He stayed to fight and defended the city. For his show of heroism and victory he was crowned king.
Mama Yupanqui wears her hair tied in plats behind her ears and her dark eyes had sunk so far into her skull I can barely see them. Her toothless smile reaches out towards our voices and friendly warmth shines in her face.
“Ask her how things have changed in the village since she was a child,” I say to Paul.
The plan is for Paul to translate English into Spanish for Marco who would then translate into Quechua for Mama Yupanqui. Between us we will relay the questions and answers. Sounds like it will work!
At first, Mama Yupanqui answers my questions timidly and with few words and I wonder if the translation is getting through. She tells us she remembers how people used to pull together when she was younger. If anybody in the village needed anything doing they would seek help from the neighbours and friends. The next day they would return the favour and help the other person.
“She says, there was a real sense of community where everybody in the village worked together for the same purpose,” Paul tells me. I couldn´t imagine that happening in many societies today.
This system was known as Ayni and dates back to the Aymara people. It literally translates to “Today for you, tomorrow for me.” Mama Yupanqui also tells us of another system called Minca which involved everybody in the community working together on a major project – to build a bridge or a barn. As I had seen at Haya Marca near Puno, some communities of the Aymara still continue this tradition.
“When did the system change?” I ask.
“People still help each other from time to time, but it´s mostly the elders. The new generation are more interested in chasing money,” Mama Yupanqui told us, “working as porters on the Inca trail or in restaurants and hotels for tourists – like you” she says hitting Marco on the arm. Marco bows his head and looks at the ground with shame. Times change and people move forward, but a small community like Willocq, with its poverty and isolation cannot afford to lose its community values. Everybody needs one another here.
Now the younger generation are not interested in farming the land, traditional life is changing. A frail man in his 80´s has to do the work of a teenager in the local fields to help provide food for the village.
Mama Yupanqui tells us the ground was much more fertile in the past as well. The quality of produce was much higher. “Because the quality of crops are not as good as it used to be, people use it as an excuse to look for a better way of living.”
I ask Mama Yupanqui how she feels about Quechua traditions dying out. She said: “Time is coming to an end. The earth is not producing. We have made the God’s angry.”
“What do you mean when you say time is coming to an end?” I ask.
“The birds used to sing happy songs; now they sing only sad songs,” Mama Yupanqui says. “They do this because they know it is the end of the world. There is too much hate in the world.”
I ask Mama Yupanqui if she remembers any legends or myths from when she was a child. She tells us her grandmother used to tell her about small people that live underground. As strange as it may sound, this may actually not be a myth.
In the Natural History Museum in London are two tiny fossils of human skeletons about three feet tall. They were discovered in the Malapa Cave in South Africa and are thought to be early man. The fossils are around 1.9 million years old. Pieced together in a glass cabinet in the vestibule of the museum, the discovery mostly goes unnoticed by visitors.
Mama Yupanqui tell us: “In the underground world are beautiful towns where the dead live. This place is known as Uku Pacha.”
Uku Pacha is the name the ancients used to refer to the Under World, the world of the dead. Mama Yupanqui then says: “The upper world where the spirits live is also full of wonderful places. Because of the evil in this world, the spirits have returned to their homes and have left us alone to die.”
I wanted to know whether Mama Yupanqui thought the younger generations could learn anything from ancient cultures.
“Respect Pachamama,” she says.
In Inca times, the best animals were sacrificed to Pacahama. It was believed that sacrificing the strongest cattle and seeping the blood back into the Earth, Pacahamama would produce more animals like it. Of course, this superstition could easily have been a coincidence that had no means of measurement, but the idea still exists in modern day values: You get what you wish for!
However, the principle is not as easy as mainstream “new age” books such as The Secret would have you believe. You have to do more than make a wish. You have to put the energy in to get the reward out, much like another modern day saying, “you reap what you sow”. But most of all you have to respect nature and understand the energy around you.
“People today are blind to the needs of the Earth,” Mama Yupanqui says. “They do not look beyond their own reality. Because we have not shown her any respect she is failing to produce the food we need to survive.”
Mama Yupanqui tells us she didn’t get the opportunity to have an education. In those days, people lived life the Inca way and life was their learning. These days all children are obligated to attend school. In Peru, the indigenous children are taught how to speak Spanish rather than Quechua. They will learn other European traditions and the history of Spanish Peru rather than the true history of their own ancestors.
Quechua traditions are dying out completely. This is why the earth in Peru is not as healthy as it once was. When Mama Yupanqui was a young woman, Quechua traditions were still practiced underground out of sight from the prying eyes of Jesuit priests.
“The only tradition to survive from the ancient times is weaving. Life was happier back then,” Mama Yupanqui tells us. “Men and women today have become lazy.”
It strikes me that despite the comforts we have today, we are not as happy as people were when all they had was each other. They didn´t have technology to distract them or a wealth of entertainment to engage them. They filled their days by helping each other do whatever needed doing that day. Life was much more simple back then, but people were happier and more civil to one another.
In the modern age, people compete against one another rather than helping one other. We have become disconnected from our communities and there is little camaraderie to bring us together. We all have our little pockets of friends, circles of associates, our teams, our clubs; typical tribal traits of human beings. The problem we have today is that the tribes have become segregated so much many people barely know their neighbour.
If there is one thing we learn from the ancient Inca, let it be the recognition and importance of humanity working together rather than against one another. When will our world leaders wake up to the fact that war does not resolve real problems! World peace and a genuine willingness to help one another on the other hand probably would!
Mama Yupanqui invites us into the house to eat with her. I feel a bit guilty taking the food of a fragile woman and decline the offer, but Paul tells me it is impolite to turn down an invite to dinner. It is believed that turning an offer of kindness down means that something positive will not be returned to the giver. Paul had me by the huevos and I could not say no.
For a woman of 101, Mama Yupanki is surprisingly spritely. She scuttled off like an active women in her 70’s which in Andean terms is actually still quite young. The house is modest to say the least. There is no furniture to speak of, just some planks of wood laid out to make a bed at one end of the room and a concrete sink and shelf that supported a small stove cooker.
Marco organises us some upturned plastic buckets to sit on whilst Mama Yupanqui busies herself in the kitchen area putting together our food. She brought them over in plastic Tupperware dishes. We ate with our fingers; cold boiled potatoes and a mixed salad garnished with quite a tasty relish that had a zing of lime. The food wasn’t bad, and I hoped Mama Yupanqui would be blessed with kindness for her generosity.
Three weeks after meeting Mama Yupanqui I received an email from Paul telling me she had passed away. I don’t think her passing had anything to do with me eating her potatoes, but maybe death was an act of kindness for her at that point in her eternal journey.
If you enjoyed this extract and would like to learn more about the ancient cultures of South America, buy my book: Journey’s To Ancient World’s: What Modern Man Can Learn From Ancient Civilisations.