Examination of ancient Peruvian sites challenges current theories

November 27, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Sites once occupied by the ancient people who created some of the pre-Columbian world's most exquisite art, largest ground drawings, most ingenious hydraulic engineering and most intense "trophy hunting" of human heads, are identified and explored in a new book.

In her book, the first extended study of the ancient Nasca sites in what today is southern Peru, Helaine Silverman combines field research with postmodernist theory to illuminate the Nasca people's "social construction of space and cultural meaning" through their manipulation of natural settings and creation of built environments. Throughout, she challenges current anthropological theories and practices.

"Rather than interpreting settlement patterns solely as reflections of political decision-making and economic organization, I add a necessary social dimension to consider the meaning of space across multiple domains of ancient society," said Silverman, author of "Ancient Nasca Settlement and Society" (University of Iowa Press).

Silverman, a professor of archaeology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has devoted 20 years to surveying and studying the Nasca. She is widely regarded as one of the world's preeminent authorities on the Nasca.

Nasca culture rose and fell between approximately 100 B.C. and 700 A.D. Its origins on the south coast continue to be debated, Silverman said, and its demise is "somehow related to the rise of Wari, a strong highland state east of the Nasca region, to a major drought or droughts in the sixth century A.D., and possibly to heightened competition among local chiefs within local Nasca society."

While data-rich, the major contribution of the book is theoretical and methodological. In essence, the author argues that her fellow professionals "cannot mechanistically apply the principle of settlement pattern hierarchy to ancient societies because ancient people 'constructed' social space under premises not necessarily amenable to western rational organization."

"Thus, in doing a site survey to look for ancient sites, archaeologists may well miss recognizing the most important features on the ancient landscape because such places may not be the largest sites."

For example, she said that in the case of ancient Nasca people, it is likely that particular mountains and springs were sacred. But in the absence of architectural "elaborations," such places might be missed in archaeological analysis. Similarly, small habitation sites might have been important in the local ranking of chiefs because they may have had a special history or mythology.

The new book is meant to be read with "The Nasca" (2002), which Silverman co-wrote with Donald A. Proulx. In it, the authors explore many theories regarding the intriguing and immense Nasca lines. Silverman argues that they were pilgrimage routes that were ritually walked, and also "arenas of performance." This year, she has written five published books on ancient Peru and two major articles.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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