A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The ruins of a sixteenth century
Peruvian town reveal a
resilient native culture
At the site of Magdalena de Cao Viejo, written as “mag de Cao” in the third line of a paper fragment found there, excavations are revealing how the cultures of the Spanish conquerors and indigenous people mixed.(Courtesy Jeff Quilter)
The Spanish conquest of Peru remains one of the most dramatic
examples, in history, of civilizations colliding. In just a few years
in the early sixteenth century, a few hundred Spanish soldiers
and their local allies toppled an empire of 16 million people
covering an area one-fifth the size of Europe. The result was a
fusion of European and indigenous cultures that, with some
later input from Africa and Asia, makes up Peruvian society today.
Most of our understanding of this period has been limited to just
a few written sources. Almost all of them are from Spanish politicians
and historians—the voices of the victors—describing complex events
in broad, often biased strokes.
Jeffrey Quilter of Harvard University is leading a project at a tiny
sixteenth-century settlement on the northern coast of Peru that he
hopes will change that. Since 2004, his team has been excavating Magdalena
de Cao Viejo in the lower Chicama River Valley, 50 miles from
Trujillo. The windswept site is yielding a trove of artifacts from these
early turbulent decades that are astonishingly well-preserved, even by
the standards of the dry Peruvian coast, including a collection of handwritten
and printed papers unequaled in the New World.
Race and ethnicity are still hot-button issues in modern Peru, but
nothing like they were in the chaotic century after the Spanish arrived in 1532.
The 1570s and 1580s in particular were the real transition point from the era of
the Inca to the colonial period, Quilter says. Pockets of native resistance still held out, but the execution of the last Inca leader, Túpac Amaru, and the
destruction of the indigenous state of Vilcabamba in 1572 had ended
any serious hope of driving the newcomers out.
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Julian Smith is a travel and science writer and photographer based in Santa Fe.