Subject:      Re: Amerindian navigators
From: (Yuri Kuchinsky)
Date:         1997/07/20
Message-ID:   <5qt98m$jog$>
Newsgroups:   sci.archaeology,sci.archaeology.mesoamerican


This post is based on some passages from

Heyerdahl, Daniel H. Sandweiss, and Alfredo Narvaez, Thames and Hudson,

What can this book tell us about Amerindian maritime cultures of Peru, and
about their possible connections across the Pacific?

This book updates us about the recent excavations at Tucume, on Peru's
Pacific coast. Heyerdahl secured the funding for this project, and helped
to supervise the excavations at the site.

This is what he writes about precolumbian Native navigation in this area
of the Pacific coast of Peru. He produces considerable historical literary
evidence to describe what the Spanish observed when they first made it to
the area. Pizarro set out to conquer the Incas in 1524, and his first act
of brigandage upon arriving to this area was the seisure of a Native boat
with all its crew and the heavy cargo in open sea. This was reported by
Juan de Samanos to King Carlos V of Spain:

"They captured a vessel which carried twenty persons on board, of whom
they threw eleven overboard. ... The vessel ... appeared to have a
capacity of 30 _toneles_ [36 gros tons]. The flat underbelly and keel were
constructed of logs as thick as posts, lashed together with ropes..." (op.
cit., pp. 17-18, quoted from Samanos, J.,{1526}, RELATION DE LOS PRIMEROS
ESPANA, Tomo V, pp. 193-201. Madrid, 1844]

Among the cargo, the first Inca property to fall into European hands,
Samanos lists ornaments of gold and silver, colourful costumes of both
wool and cotton, jars, silver framed stone mirrors, and a heavy load of
sea-shells, valuable to the Amerindians.

What kinds of boats were used by precolumbian Amerindian navigators?
Heyerdahl says,

"Thanks to pre-Inca art we know that both reed-boats and log-rafts had
been used along the Pacific coast of Peru since early Moche times." (p.

According to him, the reed boats were depicted in art much more commonly
than log rafts. Some good illustrations are included in the book,
accompanying the text. In particular, a Moche line drawing (of a reed
boat), also a fine silver statue of a reed boat with sailors, and a
ceramic effigy jar of a log raft, also with sailors.

Further, Heyerdahl writes that reed boats are still used very commonly by
the fishermen of Lambayeque valley, where Tucume is situated. Fishing
villages have fleets of such boats in the hundreds.

"The balsas of the Lambayeque valley were [only a few years ago] all of
totora reeds, but immediately to the north they were consistently made
from balsa logs. Larger rafts of balsa logs from the jungle east of the
Andes are still used by some of the fishermen in the port of Ilo in
southern Peru, right below Lake Titicaca..." (p. 223)

(A note about the word "balsa". "Balsa" is a Spanish word, meaning
"sailing raft" in general. But balsa raft can be made both from _balsa
tree logs_, and from _totora reeds_". These are two very different
materials. Balsa tree is a tree very similar to corkwood tree. The logs
are very light, and if treated properly, will make a good raft. It is a
tropical American tree. Totora reeds, on the other hand, are fresh water
reeds, also native to S. America. They are still grown in S. America for
the purposes of making rafts. Rafts made from totora reeds will be quite
different, and will look quite different from balsa tree rafts.)

Heyerdahl was of course the first to suggest that some migrations from S.
America to Polynesia took place in precolumbian times. So it is not
surprising that, in Tucume, he would have been looking for evidence to
substantiate his theories. And his archaeological team certainly did find
such evidence.

The evidence for transpacific contacts is not really highlighted in the
book, so it may be easy to miss if one reads the book quickly. I can only
guess that Heyerdahl did not wish this book to appear too controversial
for our mainstream archaeological community that seems to have quite a
strong bias against such theories. So he may have been treading lightly
here for this reason, and downplaying this area somewhat...

In any case, he says in the book,

"The strongest evidence for contact with Easter Island was, however,
brought to light by Alfredo [Narvaez] ... One of the miniature paddles of
silver or silver alloy he excavated (ill. 177 in the book) represented
what the Easter Islanders call an _ao_ -- a double-bladed paddle, with no
practical function, carried by chiefs during ceremonies. This type of
specialized emblem has a long history in the Lambayeque Valley..." (p.

He also writes about another similar artifact discovered in Tucume,

"The tiny double-headed but undecorated wooden paddle excavated in the
plaza of Huaca 1 is far too short for practical purposes and is of unknown
use in Peru. The same type of tiny, double-bladed paddle, far too small to
be gripped in two hands, is known as _rapa_ on Easter Island, where it is
a common ceremonial artifact spun in one hand during certain traditional
dances." (p. 227)

He also writes about a peculiar "birdman holding an egg" design that was
found in Tucume,

"The round and sometimes egg-shaped object in the hands of the birdmen
dominating the reliefs from Huaca Las Balsas puzzled the Americanist
archaeologists in our team, but was instantly recognized by those who had
experience of Oceanic Archaeology." (p. 225)

Such designs are commonly found on Easter Island. So the parallel here
seems very significant.

Also, the watercraft used by Easter Islanders, the reed boats, (as
described e.g. in 1917) were identical to the ones used in the Lambayeque

Heyerdahl writes further about the events that may have happened around
1100 ad,

"... no evidence [in Tucume] was found to indicate temple construction
earlier than around ad 1100. About that time a dramatic event influenced
cultures both along the coast and in the Andean highlands. An
exceptionally disastrous Nino flood caused devastating damage to buildings
and agriculture all along the northern coast and the drought that followed
in the highlands put an end to the Tiahuanaco empire. This is of
particular interest to students of Polynesian archaeology, as the timing
coincides with the beginning of a sudden and widespread migration event
that affected all the principal islands, with new royal families replacing
old ones. On Easter Island, ad 1100 is also the approximate date
established by archaeologists for the end of the Early Period, and the
beginning of a new, with the introduction of the birdman cult and the
carving of long-eared images." (p. 229)

Writing about the excavations in Tucume more generally, Heyerdahl says
that the archaeological work so far barely scratched the surface of what
may still lie hidden at that immence site, where the biggest pyramids of
S. America are found. The excavations so far only tried to lay the
groundwork for the study of this Tucume culture. The main purpose of the
excavations so far was to learn generally about the daily life of the past
inhabitants of the area, and it was done successfully. Of course, nearby
at Sipan, immence quantities of amazing gold objects were uncovered only
recently, while Heyerdahl was exploring at Tucume. One should note that
the structures at Sipan are rather small compared to Tucume.

In Tucume, on the other hand,

"No attempt has so far been made to penetrate any of the major pyramids in
search of the tombs of the supreme elite." (p. 228)

Thus much work still remains to be done so that we would be able to
understand better the nature and the possible connections of this unusual
medieval maritime culture of Peru.

Best regards,


Yuri Kuchinsky in Toronto -=O=- [22]

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than
to put out on the troubled seas of thought -=O=- John K. Galbraith

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