by Martin McReynolds
American Reporter Correspondent
Sept. 27, 2007
DISCOVERING ARGENTINA'S ANDEAN PAST
SALTA, Argentina -- My wife Norma and I got an unexpected glimpse of the distant past when we took a two-week trip recently through the mountainous provinces of Salta and Jujuy in Northwest Argentina.
Norma, at least, had a good idea of the role that area had played in Argentina's 19th Century independence struggle against Spain. Names and dates of battles were drummed into her in school while she was growing up in Argentina.
But I had only a vague concept that those provinces bordering Chile and Bolivia had some quaint Andean towns and colorful canyons.
Neither of us had ventured to that part of the country before, although I had lived for nine years in Buenos Aires, where I met Norma, and we had visited other parts of Argentina over the past 34 years.
Our first surprise was a new facility in the city of Salta, capital of Salta province, called the Museum of High Altitude Archeology. In keeping with Salta's proud past, the museum is housed in a 19th Century building on the city's centuries-old main plaza. Inside, it's all new and has the latest in climate control and lighting to preserve the bodies of three children discovered in a tomb at 22,000 feet altitude near the peak of Llullaillaco (pronounced yoo-yigh-YAH-ko) Volcano in the Andes close to the Chilean border.
The remarkably well-preserved remains were unearthed in 1999 by an expedition led by an archeologist from the National Geographic Society. The children had been sacrificed to the mountain gods in an Inca ceremony 500 years earlier.
Among the surprises of the trip was the spread of the Inca Empire and its culture into this part of Argentina, which came only decades before the Incas and their Peruvian capital fell to the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. The extreme dryness and cold of the high altitude had kept the three small bodies intact. While widely referred to as mummies, they were not mummified the way Egyptian rulers were, with vital organs removed after death and replaced by preservative materials, with the remains carefully wrapped in linen.
These children, selected for their near perfection, were honored in an elaborate Inca ceremony, dressed in the finest of clothing with gold ornaments, put to sleep with drinks of the fermented corn beverage known as chicha and placed in the tomb to die of the cold without waking up. They were a 15-year-old girl, called La Doncella (the maiden) by her discoverers, a 7-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl known as La Muchacha del Relampago (the lightning girl) because her body and clothing were partially scorched by a random lightning strike sometime in the past half-millennium.
Because of the fragile nature of the bodies, they were being kept out of sight in refrigerated chambers when we toured the museum in July. We were told of plans for special sub-freezing display cases that would permit public viewing while preventing the bodies from thawing and decomposing. I was skeptical that funding would be found for this project any time soon.
But another surprise came when I read an Associated Press dispatch reporting hat La Doncella had indeed been put on display in such a chamber in the museum Sept. 6. Preparations were reported under way to display the other two bodies within a few months, despite complaints from indigenous groups that the sacred dead should be laid to rest rather than being placed on view.
While we were unable to see the bodies, we were fascinated by videos in the museum that documented the discovery of the tomb on the snow-covered Andean peak and showed the bodies from all angles as they were examined by scientists wearing arctic gear and working in an icy laboratory. More than 100 artifacts found in the tomb were on display, including ornaments of gold and brightly colored feathers, finely woven llama-wool shawls and tiny spare sandals intended for use by the children in the next world.
Inca lore was only one of the revelations for us.
We also learned those mountains and valleys were inhabited for hundreds of years by well-organized groups before the Incas arrived. Known as the Calchaquies, Diaguitas, Quilmes, Maimaras, Tilcaras and Omaguacas, they grew corn and other crops with the help of irrigation systems, produced handicrafts and observed their own customs and burial rituals.
Near the old mountain town of Cachi, at 7,478 feet altitude, we were led to an open plain ringed by snow-capped mountains where remains of a pre-Inca settlement lie open to the elements, including low stone walls, corn-grinding mortars and scattered fragments of pottery and utensils. Judging by the number of fragments, the area must have supported a sizable population, although we found only one family living nearby in an adobe hut, tending a small flock of goats. Rosana Liquin loaned us her son, 14-year-old Gabriel, as a guide across the cactus-studded plain to the ruins.
Moving on to Jujuy province farther north, we traversed the Humahuaca Gorge flanked by bluffs with layers of red, green, blue and violet rock. There, setting out for a hike in the countryside around the town of Tilcara, we ran across a religious festival that combined the name of a Catholic saint with an ancient ceremony going back before the Conquest. As we walked down a dirt road, we heard drums and reed pipes playing Andean music far up on a hillside.
A woman came walking toward us from that direction and we asked where the music was coming from.
"It's the feast of San Santiago," she said, and told us how to get to the spot - walking about a half-mile farther on and then going up the hillside and along another road back toward town.
We had heard that it was the saint's day but the local tourist office told us no celebration was scheduled. The music lured us on, though, becoming louder as we neared the site.
"I'll bet the place is swarming with tourists and their camcorders," I said.
What a surprise. There wasn't a tourist in sight when we reached a dirt yard in front of a low adobe structure, where several dozen people were gathered before a table bearing the image of the saint. It wasn't a gold statue in rich embroidered clothing but a small figure of a mustachioed man in a cowboy hat on horseback with a poncho draped over his shoulders. His body was almost hidden by folded-up bills - Argentine currency - pinned to his clothing.
Never mind that the saint's name is a bit odd: San Santiago means, literally, Saint St. James.
The celebrants were not kneeling reverently. They were dancing to the beat of the drums and the keening of the reed pipes. A line of young and old dancers in ordinary clothes advanced in pairs toward the table with the saint.
It looked like each pair was swinging a sheepskin until the skin turned in their hands, exposing a side with raw meat. What they were swinging was a front and hind leg of a freshly slaughtered sheep that had been cut down the middle, with each dancer grasping a leg. The offering was swung toward the ground and then over their heads as they approached the saint. After showing the offering to the tiny figure, they turned, twisted and passed back through the remaining dancers, who formed an arch with bloody sheep's legs held over their heads.
I approached someone who appeared to be in charge and asked if it was all right if I took pictures. There was a brief consultation and then I was told it would be OK if I felt like making a contribution to the saint. I saw two-peso and five-peso notes among the folded bills attached to the saint so I offered a 10-peso note (about three dollars) that was quickly accepted. I then pulled out my camcorder and digital camera and shot to my heart's content.
The people were friendly and passed around a small plastic glass of chicha, the fermented corn drink - very mild - and a cup of coca tea, brewed from the same plant that produces cocaine. I accepted both and couldn't tell that they affected me at all.
The celebrants appeared to be tireless. They danced on and on. But the ceremony eventually came to a close when each pair of dancers stood before thesaint and yanked on the sheep's legs to rip the meat in two. This was harder than it looked and there was much giggling as pair after pair failed to rip the legs apart. Finally, some discreet cutting was done with a knife and each set of legs was torn asunder amid shouts of triumph, with each participant walking off with a fresh leg of lamb to take home.
Before leaving, I got an address and was able to have the digital photos printed in Buenos Aires and mailed to the participants. I hope they liked them.