Qhapaq Ñan

Published on October 28th, 2016 | by Nick Dall

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The mysterious Band of Holes at Monte Sierpe, Peru

Peru is home to many curious mysteries. But this mile-long band of around 6000 holes near Pisco is surely the most confusing of them all.

Where is it?

The Pisco River cuts a swathe of emerald through the exceptionally arid, stony landscapes of central Peru. The city of Pisco receives only 0.06 inches of rain every year, but it is famed for its lush vineyards…and its pisco of course.

25 miles from Pisco lie the Inca ruins of Tambo Colorado, another settlement which owed its existence to the river’s bounty. Built during the reign of Pachacuti, Tambo Colorado served as an important administrative center along the Qhapaq Ñan –  much like the sites of Huanuco Pampa and Vilcashuaman which have already been discussed on this blog. Due to the extremely dry climate, the ruins are excellently preserved and they are well worth including on your Peruvian itinerary.

tambo-colorado-jocelyn-saurini

Tambo Colorado (Photo: Jocelyn Saurini)

The Band of Holes is located 3 miles from Tambo Colorado, in a relatively flat area that coincides with a narrowing of the river. It was first brought to the world’s attention by an aerial photograph published in National Geographic in 1931, and it is still best appreciated from above.

What is it?

shippe-photo-1931

An aerial photo of the Band of Holes

The Band of Holes also known as Monte Sierpe (serpent mountain) and Cerro Viruela (smallpox hill) comprises between 5,000 and 6,000 man-made holes which snake up a hillside for about a mile. The holes have an average diameter of about 3ft and are between 2 and 4ft deep. The band varies in width from 45ft at its narrowest to 70ft at its widest.

As with all mysterious sites, outlandish theories about the holes’ construction abound (aliens predominate, naturally), but UCLA archaeologists Charles Stanish and Henry Tantaleán (who, unlike most other theorists, have actually done extensive research at the site) have a far more prosaic explanation:

“The alternative science websites suggest that the construction of Monte Sierpe was a difficult undertaking. This is simply not true. There are three kinds of “holes,” all quite easy to build for an entity like the Inca Empire. They are not dug into volcanic rock as implied in some of the alternative science arguments. The sides of the hole segments were elevated, with removed soil giving them volume above the surface. A second kind of “hole” was actually dug into an artificial low mound scraped from the sides of the hill. The other “holes” were actually small rock structures (that looked virtually identical to informal storage structures in contemporary sites in the region).”

img_3017

Note the river valley and electricity pylons.

Stanish and Tantaleán go on to explain how easy it would have been for the Inca empire to construct the entire Band of Holes:

“With a pre-Hispanic technology of stone picks and foot plows, one young man could dig or construct one of these holes easily in about two or three hours on average. Digging holes into the mounded surfaces would have gone even faster. A very conservative estimate is that one worker could easily dig or construct two holes per day. Working in groups, laborers would have been even more efficient. Teams worked in groups of 10, 50, 100, and 500 for local projects such as these. A simple calculation reveals that 10 workers could have made this entire band in 300 days; 50 workers in 60; and 100 workers in a month. Five hundred workers, properly managed, could have knocked this out in a couple of weeks.”

Why did they bother?

They’re not know as the mysterious Band of Holes for nothing, and the short answer to this question is ‘Nobody knows’. Since their discovery in 1931 various experts, amateurs and adventurers have suggested that they were built as vertical graves, geoglyph art, defensive positions and very odd-looking storage containers, to name but a few.

But we turn, once again, to Stanish and Tantaleán for the most plausible theory. They believe that the holes were a place for Inca subjects to leave tribute for the state, in the form of beans, grains and other produce. It was the job of Inca accountants or quipucamayoc (click here to find out more about them) to receive the tributes – not an easy task, given the vast quantity of tribute that Inca subjects were required to pay the state.

khipu

Khipu in a museum exhibit.

Archaeologists at Inkawasi, just 75 miles to the North, have unearthed evidence of an enormous ‘checker board’ which was used to physically separate the tribute into piles, and Stanish and Tantaleán posit that the holes at Monte Sierpe were a local adaptation that served the same purpose. “The curious nature of the different kinds of construction of the holes is now understandable as a means of accounting for different groups and possibly different kinds of goods. Each segment, we suggest, belonged to different tax-paying groups, most likely kin and territorial groups called ayllu.”

To prove their theory they are trying to find traces of ancient pollen or other pieces of plant tissue in the soil. If they find them it will mark a significant step towards putting one of South America’s greatest mysteries to bed, but – if you ask me – it’ll only make the holes more interesting, not less so.

As they say, watch this space…

Photo gallery

These pics were taken only yesterday by SA Expeditions’ Chief Explorer, Nick Stanziano as he treks from Vilcashuaman to Ica along the Qhapaq Ñan.

Further reading:

Recent article in Archaeology Magazine

Another, fairly similar, article on Ars Tecnica

Stanish and Tantaleán’s full academic paper

An article about the ‘checkerboard’ discovery at Inkawasi

Another article about the Inkawasi discovery

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About the Author

Nick is a nomadic freelance writer with a particular passion for Latin America. He has lived in Argentina and Bolivia and traveled just about everywhere else. He gets excited about wine, language, literature, trout and cheese.



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    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 8

    *Versión en español abajo*

    In the end, we made the 170 miles walk from Jauja to Antioquia in seven days, two day less than planned. The improved management and behavior of

    In parallel with sharing the historical, ecological and cultural marvels, we aim to place the Qhapaq Ñan alongside the great long distance walking trails on the planet . The 2000 miles path from Cuenca, Ecuador to Cusco, Peru can become a vein of economic activity through tourism. A feat that will require persistence and common vision from local and national governments alongside private industry. The Pacific Crest Trail going from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Sierra Nevada’s and Cascade ranges was a vision began in 1932 by Clinton C. Clark, which took 60 years to be considered complete and with a network of “trail angels” overseeing its maintenance.

    Although the Qhapaq Ñan has already been a contiguous stone trail along the spine of the Andean since the 1400’s at the height of the Inca Empire and the traditional communal work structure of the Andes, which road maintenance was a part of, is a cultural practice already in place that can be organized and directed just like the “trail angels” of the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not even mentioning that the Qhapaq Ñan is one of the greatest public works of ancient man, with millennial cultures still along its route.
    It will become one of the great long distance hiking trails in the world, and our explorations and stories along the way we hope will serve for generations of walkers who come after us.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions

    ________________

    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 8

    Culminamos con la expedición de 320 kilómetros desde Jauja a Antioquia en solo siete días, dos días menos de lo planeado. El progreso en el manejo y control de nuestras llamas en esta caminata significó poder dedicar unas horas extras al día explorando en lugar de re-ordenar la carga o tener otros retrasos que se producen con un equipo menos entrenado. Durante siete días caminamos en promedio alrededor de 40 kilómetros por día, distancia que equivale a la caminata de cuatro días en el tradicional camino inca desde el Valle Sagrado hacia Machu Picchu – 41 kilómetros en total.
    Si buscamos un punto de comparación podemos decir que caminar estos 40 kilómetros cada día por el Pacific Crest Trail desde Sierra Nevada hasta los andes Cascade en Estados Unidos es la misma distancia que caminaremos por día en la expedición que realizaremos por el Qhapaq Ñan en nuestro gran proyecto durante cuatro meses en Abril del próximo año,

    No solo queremos compartir las maravillas históricas, ecológicas y culturales del Qhapaq Ñan, si no también queremos establecer a este gran camino inca a la par de grandes caminos de larga distancia en el mundo . El tramo de 3,200 kilómetros de Cuenca, Ecuador hacia Cusco, Perú puede convertirse en una principal actividad económica a través del turismo. Una hazaña que requerirá persistencia y trabajo de la mano de los gobiernos locales y nacionales junto con la industria privada. El Pacific Crest Trail que va de México a Canadá a lo largo de las cordilleras de Sierra Nevada y Cascade fue una visión que Clinton C. Clark tuvo en 1932, la misma que tomó 60 años para ser considerada completa y con una red de trabajo de personales responsables que se encargan del mantenimiento de la misma.

    Desde el año 1400, el Qhapaq Ñan fue un camino de piedra del Imperio Inca construido a lo largo de la cordillera, su tradicional estructura y el mantenimiento vial era realizada con trabajo en conjunto de las personas de los andes. Esta práctica cultural era organizada y dirigida por los “ángeles del rastro” del Pacific Crest Trail. El Qhapaq Ñan es una de las mayores obras públicas del hombre antiguo, con culturas milenarias que existen aún a lo largo de la ruta.

    Se convertirá en uno de los grandes senderos de larga distancia en el mundo, y esperamos que nuestras exploraciones e historias a lo largo del camino sirvan para las generaciones de caminantes que vienen después de nosotros.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

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    The journey continues…

    *Versión en español abajo*

    Qhapaq Ñan – Day 1

    The team departed this morning from Jauja with 12 llamas heading along a transversal Qhapaq Ñan towards Pachacamac, 200 miles west, near the

    In three days by foot west, we’ll arrive to the great Inca stairway in the shadows of the great Apu Pariacaca (mountain deity). The set of 1800 steps will be the entry to another three days on some of the most spectacular Qhapaq Ñan anywhere on the 25,000 mile network. Ten days from now, we should arrive to our finish point at Antioquia, where the Qhapaq Ñan starts to disappear closer to the coast. The terrain for most of our trek will float between 11,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level, perfect for the llamas with plenty of Ichu grass along the way.

    Our first day on the route covered 15 miles and with better behaved llamas and more efficient llameros (llama handlers). Our llameros, Flavio, Nicolas and Valentine are getting better at their craft. We also have two local llameros, Tito and Antonia, the latter being our first female llamero in 500 miles of Qhapaq Ñan we’ve trekked thus far and adds an interesting dose of female energy into the group. She’s probably the most able llamero of the group and it’s her animals were working with while in the region. The majority female team at SA Expeditions might find this amusing that even on the Qhapaq Ñan I find myself collaborating with strong and talented women.

    Nick Stanziano
    Chief Explorer
    SA Expeditions
    ___________________
    Qhapaq Ñan – Día 1

    Desde Jauja, esta mañana el equipo inició la expedición junto a doce llamas a lo largo de una transversal del Qhapaq Ñan en dirección hacia Pachacamac, 320 kilómetros al oeste, cerca de la costa sur peruana en el Océano Pacifico.

    Hace 600 años, en la cima del reinado del Inca, Jauja fue un importante centro de administración que apoyó la expansión del imperio hacia el norte desde su capital, a 770 kilómetros al sur, en Cusco.

    Pachacamac, fue un importante centro religioso que se remonta a dos milenios e influyó en las siguientes culturas incas. Tiene sentido que el camino que une estos dos centros antiguos haya contado con tal planificación y grandeza. Es un ejemplo que se suma a la lista de obras extraordinarias a gran escala del imperio.
    Luego de tres días de caminata en dirección al oeste, estaremos llegando a la gran escalera Inca localizada en las sombras del gran Apu Pariacaca. El conjunto de mil ochocientos escalones será la entrada durante tres días a uno de los lugares más espectaculares de todos los 40,200 kilómetros que conforman el Qhapaq Ñan. En estos diez días de expedición llegaremos finalmente a Antioquia, más cerca a la costa donde el Qhapaq Ñan comienza a desaparecer. La mayor parte de nuestra caminata se realizará en alturas que van desde los 3,350 y 4,900 m.s.n.m, lo que es perfecto para las llamas ya que encontraremos abundante hierba de Ichu a lo largo del camino.

    En el primer día de ruta se ha cubierto 25 kilómetros. Las llamas se han comportado mejor y los encargados de ellas, los “llameros”, están realizando su trabajo de manera más eficiente. Flavio, Nicolás y Valentín están mejorando en su labor. A ellos se han sumado dos llameros locales, Tito y Antonia, siendo esta última la primera mujer en acompañarnos luego de 800 kilómetros de expediciones por el Qhapaq Ñan. Ella añade una interesante dosis de energía femenina al grupo y debo mencionar que, probablemente, es la cuidadora con más capacidad dentro del grupo.

    La mayor parte del equipo de SA Expeditions, conformado por mujeres, encontrara divertido que incluso en el Qhapaq Ñan me halle trabajando de la mano con mujeres fuertes y con mucho talento.

    Nick Stanziano
    Jefe Explorador
    SA Expeditions See more

    4 months ago

    SA Qhapaq Ñan

    Follow founder Nick Stanziano as he hikes 2,000 miles.

    Get ready for more Qhapaq Ñan!

    4 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    The Galapagos giant tortoise is the largest living species of tortoise, weighing up to 900 lbs. Galapagos tortoises are native to seven of the Galápagos Islands, the volcanic archipelago 620 miles See more

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