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Lost Temples of Peru
Peru's Andes Make a Disneyland for Archaeologists

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Feb. 4, 2002 -- South America's Andes Mountains, stretching for more than 5,000 miles from the southernmost tip of the continent to the Caribbean coast, are the last place on Earth humans occupied. Spreading south from North America, humans may not have reached the high peaks until as late as 18,000 years ago.

Over time, small civilizations formed in the dizzying altitudes of the high mountains, only to disappear. New cultures would build upon the ruins left behind, but they too eventually faded or were conquered, and replaced.

Peru is littered with the ruins of such ancient civilizations. But the high plains are so remote and difficult that much remains unexplored. On the latest National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick travels to southern Peru for a look at what archaeologists are finding there.

Dr. Charles "Chip" Stanish, director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, has explored ancient Andean sites for 15 years, including many from Peru's great Inca empire. The Inca ruled the Andes for two centuries until they were conquered by the Spanish during the 1500s.

Stanish can point to any number of hills that have never been explored by archaelogists. He says they are bound to have remnants of past civilizations. The area is an archaeological Disneyland.

Standing near a hillside site that pre-dates the Inca, Stanish explains: "One day, I went on the other side, same hills, just for kicks, and just walked. I found about 25 phenomenal sites like this, and bigger, just in two days. So that's the kind of frontier archeology we're talking about here. It's a whole 'nother world."

Before the Inca

During Chadwick's visit, Stanish was doing reconnaissance work -- trying to figure out which, out of all the intriguing sites, should be the next subject of his next project.

The site he picks should help illuminate one of the fundamental questions of archaeology. "What I'm concerned about is the development of the first civilizations," Stanish says. "And that's the really big question, the holy grail of archaeology is to explain why civilization first developed."

He hopes an ancient society called the Pukara will help provide answers. The Pukara began settling in the Andes well before the Inca, some 3,000 years ago. They were a complex society, farming the hillsides much like modern Peruvians still do.

Stanish has found pottery shards, agricultural terraces, defensive walls and other stone structures left by the Pukara on hills near a 2,000-year-old road that winds through a valley and leads to the Amazon lowlands. The location supports a theory he and other archaeologists hold: Trade is the match that lights civilization's fire.

The ability to create huge amounts of wealth through trade routes, Stanish supects, is one of the factors in the development of complex society or civilization.

For instance, images on Pukara pottery suggest the mountain dwellers valued the jaguars found in the Amazon lowlands. Stanish believes the Pukara would have settled near a route that gave them access to trade with the Amazon tribes who could provide them with the pelts.

During one of their scouting expeditions, Stanish and Chadwick came across a new find that supports the trade theory. Stanish found a sunken space almost like a platform overlooking a valley. Its perimeter is lined with large stones, and beneath the Earth and lichen slabs form a stone floor. Other yellowish slabs stand upright. Stanish recognized the form as similar to a signature piece of Pukara stonework at the main Pukara temple. It appears that some 60 miles away from that main site, he has found another temple.

To Stanish, the stones say that 2,000 years ago, a trade route mattered enough to an ancient people that on this site, they built a fortress and a temple.

In Depth

audio icon Listen to Alex Chadwick's 1997 interview with Dr. Johan Reinhard, who discovered a frozen, mummified Inca girl in the Peruvian Andes.

more icon Browse through other NPR stories about archaeological finds.

Other Resources

Visit the National Geographic Channel's Web site.

Read more about Dr. Stanish's work at UCLA's Cotsen Institue of Archaeology

Read more about the Pukara at University of California at Santa Barbara archaeologist Elizabeth Klarich's Web site.

*Photos by Carolyn Jensen, NPR

Lost Temples of Peru Credits: Carolyn Jensen, field producer; Alex Chadwick, correspondent; Leo DelAguila, field recording engineer; Bill McQuay, technical director.

test The Pukara built defensive stone walls and agricultural terraces into the hillsides of the Peruvian Andes thousands of years before the Inca.
Photo: Carolyn Jensen, NPR

test A slab in a sunken court marks the spot of an ancient Pukara temple.
Photo: Carolyn Jensen, NPR

test Site of the expedition in Peru. See the area in detail.

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