Wednesday, December 7, 2011

73. Inca Gold Llama (Peru, AD 1400-1550)

The Inca!
Of all the empires MacGregor surveys this first week of his “modern” chapter (Ottoman, Ming, Inca, Timurid, Portugese) the Incan Empire was apparently the biggest. Like any empire, they ruled uneasily over a lot of little rebellious groups, and when the Spanish came in and destroyed the Inca civilization, they were of course able to exploit how many people in the Inca Empire didn’t like the Incas, didn’t want to be ruled by them, etc. The Spanish weren’t there, particularly, to found an empire like the Roman or British; they were there to loot ‘em. They wanted gold, like this little gold llama figurine. The Inca had plenty of gold, they were famous for having rooms full of gold, all of which the Spanish took, melted down, destroyed, spent. So my own previous familiarity with this story all comes from having seen The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a fascinating play by the great Peter Shaffer, a few years ago when they remounted it at London’s National Theater (it had first been done there for the first time in the ‘60s, pre-Amadeus, which I think is Shaffer’s masterpiece). It’s mostly about the relationship between Pizarro and Atahualpa, and it’s true that if you’ve got two really interesting characters—like the most evil man who ever lived, who was also a real person, and a boy-prince who’s been told he’s a god all his life, and is surprised to find out that that isn’t the case—it’s not that hard to come up with some strong drama. But the story we’re waiting for somebody to tell is, I understand, the story of what happened after the Inca gold ran out, when the Spanish established their silver mine at Potosi. (As Gonick describes it in his great Cartoon History of the Universe, “It’s the Gangs of New York in the old west at high altitude on cocaine with mercury poisoning”!)

In any event, one of the fun things is of course the role the llama played in Inca culture, and still plays in South American/Andean life. Your standard barnyard animals aren’t any good at that altitude, apparently. The Incas used llamas as pack animals, and for wool, and probably milk and meat and so forth, because they do well way up there. The Spanish had horses, which go a lot faster than llamas and are more agreeable; but I guess they also tended to get sick, way up top. (What kind of horses do they have in Tibet?)

1 comment:

  1. Does not explain enough about the importance of Llamas in the inca empire.