The Trees of the Rising Sun
Some believe the Inkas maintained a kind of obsession with entering the rainforests to the east of their Andean domain. The jungles to them were the realm of the Antis, fierce tribes who took their collective name from their location within the Inka landscape. Anti is the rising sun, the sun at dawn and in the early morning, the eastern sun. The Amazonians or Antis were thus essentially the people of the rising sun, so-called not simply because of their physical location to the east, but also due to the highland perception that the sun rose each morning out of the blanket of green and mist that is the Amazon. To this day, an annual festival at the overlook point of Tres Cruces near Paucartambo bears witness to the solar emergence from out of the jungle’s depths.
But the Inkas’ fascination with the rainforest extended beyond the symbolic. The Amazon provided an enormous variety of products that were otherwise unavailable to the highlanders. Coca, often called the divine leaf of the Inkas, is thought to have originated at the intersection of Andes and Amazon. Important foods such as fruit trees and cassava (manioc) were traded with the people of the high sierra for thousands of years before the appearance of the Inkas. The sixteenth century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega describes talkative parrots kept as pets in Inka Cusco, a city at 3,300 meters (11,000 feet) above sea level. Jungle goods formed an important part of what might be called the religious economy: items whose use was largely ceremonial, including the feathers and staffs that we have seen carried down into our own times.
“Fiestas de los Andisuios” – Writing between 1600-1615, the chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala described festivals of the Antis and Ch’unchos of the Amazon to the east of Inka Cusco. His drawing shows obvious parallels to the feathered headdresses of contemporary Ch’uncho dancers. In the accompanying text he makes mention of “auca warmi” or warrior women. Tales of female warriors also are said to have led to the Spanish naming of the Amazon River.
In reality the Inkas were the enthusiastic inheritors of a long lineage of exchange between the high sierra and the lowland rainforests. At Chavin de Huantar, the central temple of one of the Andes’ oldest cultures, stone monoliths are carved with decidedly Amazonian motifs: harpy eagles and caimans mingle in hallucinatory congregation with manioc and peanut plants, and this at an altitude where none of these plants and animals are found. The highland perception of the rainforest as a source of spiritual power is a theme that endures today. Even as far away as the Peruvian coast, certain ruins feature prominent portrayals of the Amazonian jaguar.Peter Roe’s interpretation of the Tello Obelisk at Chavin de Huantar includes mention of Amazonian species like the caiman, the jaguar, the vampire bat, and cassava. This, found at 3,180 m (10,430 ft.) above sea level.
Legends abound in reference to the Inkas’ intentions to enter the rainforest. One story has the Inka emperor Wayna Qhapaq sending an army of thousands of soldiers to bring back a mated pair of boa constrictors and a pair of jaguars. Another tale tells of the defeat of the Andean conquerors under fire from swift arrows and silent, poisonous blow-darts. Other chronicles attest to the presence of jungle sorcerers of the Antis tribes kept on as valued spiritual advisors in the Inka court. And, in the days of written record, during the Spanish conquest the Inkas staged a legendary retreat into the forests of their final refuge at Vilcabamba near Machu Picchu.
Perhaps the most widely-known story of the Inkas’ symbolic connection with the Amazon is the mythic account of Paititi, the city of gold that may have been the original El Dorado of the Spanish conquistadors’ imagination. Even contemporary Andean villagers suggest that Paititi may be just around the corner, just hidden in the cover of the next valley over, a place of spiritual significance in which the descendants of the final Inkas are said to dwell to this day. Several of Pizarro’s original Spanish invaders were lured into the forest by tales of a king who was painted from head to toe in pure gold dust every day. This king’s bathing pool was the subject of great excitement: years of rinsed-off gold dust would be caked in the water.
Palms are remarkably useful and productive. The leaves of several species of the Peruvian Amazon are dried for roof thatch. Photo by Jason Edwards/ National Geographic at Camino Verde’s reforestation center.
Yet we need not comb the annals of myth and lore to understand the profound influence of the Amazon on the psyche and culture of Andean people. It is well-recorded by Spanish and indigenous chroniclers alike that of all the important members of the extensive highland pantheon of gods and spirits, the tree maintained a unique position of wonder and awe.
In the Quechua language, a single word – mallki – was used to signify both tree and mummy. Embalming was a high science in the Andes. Past Inka rulers in mummified form were treated with much of the same pomp and deference as their living counterparts. Lands held in the name of Inka mummies were maintained by their extended families, and each new Inka had to build a new palace, so as not to infringe on the holdings of his predecessors. Some historians argue that the mummies’ ownership of extensive territories was a primary factor in the Inkas’ rapid expansion: a ruler would have to conquer new lands to have anywhere to put his own name.
Theologically, the mummies may have been understood as living ancestors, a bridge between the incarnate and the beyond, founts of supernatural power and otherworldly wisdom. These same traits could be used to describe the position of the tree in the Andean religious cosmos. Though the Andes were extensively forested before the arrival of the Spanish, there were simply no highland trees that matched the size and majesty of their Amazonian relatives.
It is curious to note that among trees, the Inkas considered the palms to be some of the holiest. Curious because of the parallels to holy palm fronds in Old World religious traditions. Curious also because the Andes were rather poor in palm species. The Amazonian lowlands on the other hand were and are a dramatic showcase of the family known to modern botanists as Arecaceae. Palms abound in the rainforests, both in the vast number of species and in their importance within the forest structure. In a mega-diverse landscape that abhors a monoculture, extensive areas of Amazonia are dominated exclusively by palms. There are practically no Amazonian forest types where palms are absent.
Anyone who has walked in a tropical forest knows that palms are present everywhere. Yet the importance of palms as economic mainstays would have been equally apparent to ancestral native people. The Andean highlanders happily utilize local grasses for roof thatching. Their Amazonian contemporaries have always preferred palm fronds. In fact, many forest-dwelling cultures of South America continue to build their dwellings out of nothing but palms – trunks for posts, floor, and walls, leaves for roof material. Many palm woods are remarkably hard and resilient. And of these palm timbers there is none to rival that which comes from the tree known rather unimpressively in English as the peach palm.
About the Author
Founder and Executive Director of Camino Verde, Robin has lived in the Tambopata province of the Peruvian Amazon since 2004. A long-time student of traditional and indigenous agriculture and medicinal practices, his work has focused on developing community-based reforestation strategies to regenerate important endangered plants of the Amazon. He is a writer, regenerative designer, and consultant in agroforestry, reforestation, and regenerative development.