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The Mountain Gods "Exploring the Inca Heartland"
September 1, 1999

Three snow-covered mountains dominate the views to right and left of the Inca Trail. First seen is Veronica, a piled up mass of rock with jagged peaks reaching 5,750 m (18,872 feet). The highest is Salcantay, at 6,271 m (20,581 feet), which looks like a frozen Gibraltar on steroids. Somewhat farther off, at the near end of a series of peaks running into the distance beyond Machu Picchu, is Pumasillo (6,075 m [19,938 feet]).




Pumasillo Range (Pumasillo is the high peak at left)

For the Inca, mountain gods associated with high peaks govern the wild plants and animals, crops and herds, waters, and people in the surrounding region. These beliefs persist in the region today, and communities address to the mountain gods their pleas for good weather and abundant crops and flocks, while individuals look to them for good health and increased prosperity. Before he became famous for yanking frozen Inca bodies off Andean peaks, Johan Reinhard did considerable research on modern Indians' beliefs about mountains in this region. The following details about peaks in the Cusco-Machu Picchu region are based on his work (see Further Reading).

Salcantay is considered to be the brother of Ausangate, a high peak east of Cusco, and the two are thought to be equally powerful and the fathers of all the other mountains. Ritual specialists in the area today go to one or the other for their spiritual empowerment. Reverence for Salcantay, the name is from salqa meaning wild or uncivilized, is recorded as early as 1583, and the mountain is still invoked in rituals to cure illness. Viewed from Machu Picchu, the constellation we call the Southern Cross, which was also known and of some importance to the Inca, rises on east and sets on west of Salcantay, and at its highest point is directly above the mountain. Salcantay is viewed as male, and Veronica is its consort.

Veronica, more properly known as Huaca Huillca or Waqaywillca, and also called China (female) Salcantay. The meaning of this name is uncertain; huaca means sacred and willca means either sacred object or, in the Aymaran language spoken east of Cusco, sun. But a ritual specialist in the Cusco area told Reinhard that it derives from waqay, to cry, and willki, peak or rock, and that tears is a reference to the numerous streams that come off mountain. At Machu Picchu the equinox sun rises from behind the highest point on Veronica, and the mountain is highly revered, worshiped for crop and livestock fertility as well as good health. Veronica and Salcantay are said speak to one another with thunder.

Pumasillo's name is straightforward: it means puma's claw, but whether its the peak's prehispanic name or not is unknown. Today the mountain (the highest in a series forming what is called the Sacsarayoc or Pumasillo range) is locally revered and invoked for crop and livestock fertility. On the December solstice, one of most important dates on Inca religious calendar, the sun sets behind at Pumasillo. On the equinoxes it sets behind the last of the snow-capped peaks in the range.

It is easy to understand why the Inca and their descendants would conceive of such impressive mountains as deities of great power. It was this reverence which led to the ritual known as capac cocha, in which children between the ages of six and ten were sacrificed and entombed to appease mountain deities. This type of sacrifice has been brought to public attention through the recovery of the frozen bodies of victims by Johan Reinhard and his colleagues. While such recoveries do good in the sense of preserving the bodies and associated artifacts from looters, one wonders about the quality of the excavation under the arduous conditions, what arrangements have been made for for study and publication, and what provisions are being made for the permanent curation of the finds. Popular sensitivities and national pride are another issue. Peruvians were not happy when the most famous of the recent finds, Juanita, was first exhibited not in Peru but at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.


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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America