Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: Trekking the Inca Heartland Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Michael Malpass

It is hard to decide on which bookshelf Hugh Thomson's The White Rock: Explorations of the Inca Heartland (New York: Overlook Press, 2002; $27.95) belongs: Exploration? History? Therein lies its appeal. The author, a documentary-maker and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, has done a masterful job of weaving a story about his travels through Peru's fascinating but little-known Vilcabamba region northwest of Cuzco, where the Incas fled after their failed rebellion against the Spaniards in 1536. The Incas held out in Vilcabamba for thirty-six years before the last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed in 1572. Thomson traveled around the Vilcabamba region for several months in 1982, then returned seventeen years later to muse upon both famous and relatively unknown Inca sites of the period.


There has long been an uneasy relationship between professional archaeologists and explorers, with neither fully respecting the contributions of the other to our knowledge of the past. This book provides a balanced view of each, although Thomson clearly has greater sympathy for explorers and what motivates them. Unlike a typical explorer's account, however, Thomson provides the latest information about the Incas from the very archaeologists who are criticized by one adventurer for being "so specialist they lose the plot." The book has remarkably few errors in its reconstruction of the Inca Empire. That said, a person well-versed in the history of the Incas will find nothing original here.

The value of this book is not in its historical re-creation of these people's final days, but in the ability of the author to make the exploration of Vilcabamba come alive. Descriptions of sites are augmented by his own and others' photographs, notably those of the Peruvian photographer, Martín Chambi. Those interested in the history of exploration will find, among other interesting facts, an intriguing hypothesis about the looting of Machu Picchu at least twenty years before Hiram Bingham's famous "discovery." Thomson's book is about exploration, but there is a wealth of information about the Incas and their history to satisfy both the professional and lay reader.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America