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Before the Incas…

November 27, 2009

It’s black Friday.  The day when retailers supposedly move from the red to the black in their yearly sales ledger.  Don’t think I’ll make it out into the shopping frenzy.  We will be venturing out to fetch that central Christmas symbol in most American homes–the evergreen tree.  Then the decorating.  Setting the stage for an early exchange of Christmas gifts sometime today or tomorrow.  We have moved up the calendar on these annual proceedings in anticipation of our trek to Peru in December.  

So I am reading Lost City of the Incas (Hiram Bingham) in preparation for our family visit to Machu Picchu next month.  Bingham is the Yale professor who is credited with discovering the lost Incan ruins north of Cusco during the early part of last century.  Reading and thinking about the origin of civilizations.  Like who lived in Peru before the Incas?  And before them?  And how did they get there?

Bingham notes that historians and archaeologists have very little material to work with in piecing this story together.  In contrast with Ancient Near Eastern civilizations, the Incas and their predecessors did not develop any writing system or even hieroglyphics.  So the answers to these questions must be constructed by studying fragments of cloth and pottery, ruins of temples and terraces.  From all this material we can gather a fragmentary story, the details of which are debated by the experts.  

Much of human history (as I have read it) has been interpreted through the lens Western civilization–the presumed repository of enlightenment knowledge.  The unshakeable foundation of truth.  Most of the written accounts of the Incas and their predecessors come to us from the early Spanish conquerors and their descendents, or the Christian missionaries, priests, monks, and Jesuits who learned the language of the Incas and made reports on what they saw and found.  (Note to self–read the account of the conquest of Peru by Garcilasso de la Vega, the son of an Incan princess and Spanish conqueror who went to live in Spain as a teen and never returned.)

One of these Spanish writers was Fernando Montesinos who apparently went to live in Peru the century following the conquest as an advisor to the viceroy, the Count of Chinchon.  Montesinos, an ecclesiastical lawyer by trade, was well educated and apparently devoted himself to historical research.  He wrote a history of the Incas, Memorias Antiguas Historiales del Peru, in which he contended that Peru was peopled under the leadership of Ophir, the great-grandson of Noah.  

Richard Danbury traces a different history prior to the Incas–only the third empire to dominate the Andes.  The first pan-Andean civilization, the Chavin, thrived about 2500 years ago, the second, the Huari-Tiahuanaco, about 1000 years ago.  Danbury’s survey of pre-Incan civilizations holds that the first settlers of the Americas, Paleo-Indians, walked across the tundra land bridge that joined the continents of Asia and North America some 20,000 years ago.  According to the theory, the earth’s climate at that point in human history was colder–causing massive ice sheets to freeze from the oceans into glaciers.  The temperature of the earth rose over time, the glaciers melted, and the land bridge is lost beneath the Bering Straits.  

Whatever myths one uses to explain the origin of pre-historic civilizations, there seems to be a common underlying quest–framing human existence in some kind of meaningful way.  This is the function of myths.  No matter how much the rationalist assumptions of Modern scientific inquiry presumed to avoid the messy, subjectivity of myths, the assumption of objective knowledge no longer has traction.  Science  and religion are recognizing the limits of the  foundationalist metaphor of knowledge–the primary driver of inquiry in modernity.  Those foundations are crumbling.  The illusion of objectivity is no longer tenable.  The emperor has no clothes on.  

What we are discovering in the postmodern world is that knowledge is fragile and subjective.  Another way of saying that is to say this.  We are not gods.  Our perspective is finite.  Even if we base knowledge on the examination of the physical world, we bump up against limitations.  

So what will we do with the stories told by fragmentary evidence of pre-historic civilizations?  Stories told by massive stones at Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman, by mysterious lines at Nazca.  How do we fit the stories of what has transpired in the physical world into a bigger story of meaning?  

Montesinos’ explanation that Peru was peopled by the great-grandson of Noah raises a troubling question for a certain line of biblical interpretation.  How do we explain the diversification of the species when applying a literal interpretation of the biblical text.  If all human history emerges out of one family–Noah’s family–how do we explain the perpetuation of the species in a way that leads to diverse cultures and civilizations?  How do we get from one to many?  Of course, this way of “explaining” human history only works if we allow for incest (by today’s cultural mores) as the means by which the earth was populated.  While the Babel story provides a biblical way of explaining linguistic diversity, the biblical text is less illuminating on questions of ethnic and cultural diversity–the Table of Nations (Gen. 9) notwithstanding.

What we have is a mystery (human existence) that cannot be explained by rationalist foundations.  Although it is defended by orthodoxies on the left and the right.  Whether reason is applied to the a literal interpretation of the biblical text, or the evidence gleaned from “empirical” examination of the physical world.  Either way the illusion of unshakeable foundations is only made possible by limiting the evidence one considers.  

So on this black Friday, we pause to consider the mystery of origins, the social dimensions of the construction of knowledge, and the need for great humility as we hold our beliefs.   As we attempt utter mere words.  Words which fall short of rationally explaining being and time…the relationship of matter with eternity.  As we attempt to provide words which explain God–God’s actions.  As we are bold enough to open our finite mouths and utter truth as God sees…

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