The Ancient Ones


When my host brother was six months old, my host parents Lanzo and Gloria (names changed) took him to the terreno (their land) to plow a new chacra (field) ona sunny day in the dry season.  In the middle of the land, they encountered a large stone and decided to move it in order to make plowing easier.  As they hacked with pickahoes at the stiff rocky soil around the stone, Gloria struck and shattered a ceramic piece.  They eventually extracted a giant pot, about a foot high, from under the stone.  The soil around it was soft and not as densely packed as the soil around it, and they could see dozens of other pots hidden beneath.  Gloria and Lanzo had stumbled upon an Inca tomb.

At that moment, a thunderstorm appeared out of nowhere (not an unusual occurrence in the mountains) and drenched the family.  Lanzo wanted to countinue “excavating” but Gloria wanted to go home so the baby wouldn’t get sick.  So they descended the mountain together.  They weren’t ten minutes from the tomb when the sun appeared again.  “Qué raro,” Gloria said to herself, but continued to take her child home.

That night Gloria did not sleep.  She dreamed of a man who brought her dinero, money, gold, silver–but tried to take her baby from her.  He said, “You will be very rich, but you have to give me your child.”  He took ahold of the baby’s hair and tried to wrench him from Gloria’s arms.  She shrieked and cried “I don’t want any money, I don’t want anything, I just want my child, leave me alone!”  She awoke, trembling, sobbing.  Usually the baby slept in between father and mother in their bed, close to their chests–but this time, when she awoke, he was far down near their feet, about to fall off the bed.

Gloria refused to go back to that chacra and insisted that they use a different piece of land for the new field.  She has not returned there since.

There are Inca tombs scattered all over Lumbisí land.  The ruins of the old Inca settlement are a fifteen minute walk up the mountain from the current town.   Gloria explained to me what is apparently common knowledge about the tombs of Lumbisí.  Many tombs are full of dinero, of gold and silver.  On full moons and new moons, the tombs glow deep blue, like an extremely hot flame, because of the dinero inside.  Until very recently, Lumbiseños would go looking for the telltale blue glow of a tomb on full and new moons.  When they found a tomb, they would take out all the dinero and become very wealthy.  However, when you take dinero from a tomb, you have to entregar, or “turn in,” a living person in exchange–for example, a family member would get sick and die afterwards.  Gloria explained the presence of larger and richer houses in Lumbisí as a result of those families taking dinero from tombs–and paying with their own family members.  “We have a good house because we work hard,” Gloria explained, “not because we took the dinero.  I didn’t want any money, I wanted my son.  If we took the dinero out of the tomb my son would have died.”

San Bartolomé de Lumbisí, the place I’m living, has a deep and ancient history that I barely see the tip of despite having lived here for some months.  While I’ve never heard a Lumbiseño self-identify as indígena, or “indigenous,” the community technically has automonous status with its own communal government that meets for long hours every month to make community decisions.  Lumbiseños are among few “indigenous” Ecuadorans that identify themselves as Inca descendants.  Lanzo told me that other Ecuadorians will sometimes refer to Lumbiseños as “Peruvians” because supposedly the original settlement was an imperial outpost of Inca who migrated to the conquered Ecuadorian territory.

In contrast to the unmitigated glorification of the Inca past in Peru, in Ecuador it’s a bit more complicated.  The Inca only showed up in Ecuador about ninety years before the Spaniards, after a long grisly war with the varied groups of Ecuador.  The Inca, therefore, are not the noble sophisticated characters that dominant literature tends to ascribe to them.  Rather, there is a sentiment in Ecuador that the Inca were just as imperialist, exploitative, and dominating as the Spaniards.  The “indigenous” groups with the most political and economic force here tend to be Amazonian Shuar or Quichua, who do not necessarily claim or want to claim an Inca past.

After Gloria told me that story, I was fascinated, and I’ve started to try to get her to tell me other stories.  I’ve been thinking about what that sort of story might say about the meaning that Lumbiseños ascribe to tombs, work ethic, and wealth.  Clearly the tombs and their ancestors are powerful.  The story made me think of some of the ethnographies of Andean communities that self-identify as Inca descendents (specifically, the work of Catherine Allen).  The idea of machukuna, which I translate as “the ancient ones”–from Quechua machu (elderly) and kuna (plural)–is an important part of Andean cosmology.  The tombs of powerful deceased Inca ancestors are sensitive to the activities of their mortal descendents, and the slightest disturbance of a tomb–even working in a nearby field–can cause illness and sometimes death.  The dry bones of the machukuna are jealous of the healthy bodies of living people, and sometimes curse them or try to steal them.  The prominence of a character with similar qualities in the dream and in the beliefs of Gloria and Lanzo struck me, and highlighted how even these thoroughly modernized “Inca” place a lot of stock in a semi-mythical past.


~ by Tara on March 28, 2012.

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