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Peru: Túcume and the Cult of the Birdman

November 9, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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I still remember tooling along the Pan-American Highway in 1978, looking out the window on the left side of the bus while headed south.  My friend and I planned to spend a few days in Chiclayo and then continue to Trujillo, where we had heard of some amazing archeological sites near that city.

A surprising sight leaped into view, behind a line of mature huarango trees growing around an unobtrusive village.  Large earthen mounds rose over the forest and the town’s adobe buildings.  I thought, what are those things?  The bus was moving at a high rate of speed, typical of such transport in Peru, so I was not able to see these mounds for more than a few seconds.  Could such large quantities of dirt have been shaped by human hands?  Nah, I concluded.  What would be the point?

I learned differently in the early 1990s when my mother sent my  son a birthday present, the book co-authored by Thor Heyerdahl, Pyramids of Tucume.  Whoa.  The pictures inside the coffee-table tome revealed a huge complex of mud-brick pyramidal structures built by the  mysterious Lambayeque culture, named after the modern town on the edge of the site.  This was a significant place, although the monuments have slowly melted into shapeless lumps over the centuries, a result of the periodic but devastating El Niño rains that occur along Peru’s desert coast.

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1) Plentiful evidence of rain damage to the pyramids

I had the good fortune to visit Túcume on several occasions during the 1990s and also in 2001.  The place had a special feel to it; the ground felt sacred and scenery was bizarre yet comforting to walk through.  A truly remarkable combination of feelings reeled inside my brain during every visit.

As for its history, archeologists think the complex was first constructed around 800 AD, although there is evidence Túcume was occupied by both the Chimu and Inca after the initial collapse of the builders’ culture.  Local residents still call it Purgatorio, an ominous term, and its mountain backdrop, La Raya, so named because of its alleged resemblance to a manta ray, is considered holy ground, the abode of night spirits and ghosts.

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2) La Raya Mountain.  A staircase allows visitors to climb to near the summit.  Not recommended for night-time explorations.

A small museum near the entrance to Túcume holds several startling artifacts.  First, we clearly see that the city was originally part of a maritime culture, despite its considerable distance from the ocean.  A ceremonial paddle, unearthed during archeological excavations, bears a strong resemblance to those used by ancient Polynesians, but more importantly, artwork depicting “birdmen” has also been discovered.  The “Birdman” cult achieved great prominence on Easter Island, where annual swimming races  to an offshore island to collect the season’s first eggs – before the first island contact with Europeans  – were powerful rituals that bestowed great honors upon the winners.

The Lambayeque culture did not arise in a vacuum, but rather was part of a continuum of societies that learned to thrive on the arid plains of coastal Peru, through the clever use of irrigation systems that drew water from far-away eastern mountains.  These wonders of engineering rival and often surpass their modern-day equivalents.

The coastal cultures, the oldest of which has been dated at the Caral site north of Lima to nearly 3000 BC, included the Moche, Sican, Chimu,and a host of others.  They existed for millennia, in and out of contact with other civilizations across the Pacific and north into Meso-America, before the irresistible yet crafty Incas terminated the independence of the last such society at Chan Chan, shortly before the arrival of the Conquistadors.

Nowadays the visitor has a difficult time making out the scope and scale of Túcume, although the city once covered over 500 acres.  Much of the site has been plowed under for agricultural purposes, understandable in light of Peru’s ever-growing population.

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3) Surrounding farmland

Who were the builders of this great cultural center?  We can’t say with surety.  In back of the site lies a small covered structure.  Inside is an incredibly sacred relic whose origins are steeped in mystery.  The artifact is a small boulder, unremarkable in size or shape.  Usually the shack that covers the stone is locked and tourists are not allowed to enter.  During my last excursion I was granted the privilege to step inside the building and stand before its centerpiece.

While viewing the stone, I  made sure not to touch it, nor to speak in more than a whisper.  I felt honored to be able to take part in a ritual of which I had no means of identifying.  Perhaps Muslims feel the same when they circle the Ka’aba in Mecca and touch the unearthly stone inside its shrouded protective cover.  I do not know.

Two local men walked trotted toward us as we departed the resting place of the holy object.  They looked unhappy and unpleasantly surprised to have seen us venture inside.  I bade them a good day and made a hasty exit, not wishing to incur well-founded hostility.

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4) More rain-damaged structures of indeterminate function. The house where Thor Heyerdahl lived is nearby

In the end, Túcume teaches us that contact between different cultures of the Pacific rim was a reality, not a theory of wild speculation proposed by amateurs.  Some people think this idea smacks of racism, the notion that early Native Americans were not capable of creating their advanced civilizations by themselves.  But the idea of trans-oceanic and cultural contact is a celebration of the technological prowess of our antecedents, not an attempt to belittle any one group of humans.  And it tells us of times when the very Earth was sacred, and that we humans should remain humble and awed during our time here.

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5) Pyramids with La Raya in the distance

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6) Sunset

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7,8) Two more views of the larger ruins


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