Joan Gero

Joan Gero is Professor Emerita of Anthropology from American University and a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology in the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian. She is also a lifelong fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge, and has taught at the universities of Cambridge, Uppsala (Sweden), Catamarca (Argentina), Magdalena (Colombia) and the University of South Carolina. She has conducted archaeological excavations in the Andes (Peru and Argentina) since 1985 with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, Fulbright, the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Heintz Foundation. As a pioneer scholar of gender in prehistory, she has authored dozens of articles and book chapters in professional journals and books. In 2003, she served as Academic Secretary of the Fifth World Archaeological Congress, and was head series editor of the One World Archaeology book series.

Q: Since Lima is a melting pot of European, Andean, and Asian cultures, how many variations in language, or perhaps dialects, can Smithsonian Journeys travelers expect to encounter here?
A: Spanish is spoken as the dominant language today, imposed by the Conquistadors in the 16th century. Two centuries earlier, the Inca had imposed an imperial language (Quechua) of their own, replacing the multitude of local languages spoken by local indigenous groups. Today, some six million Quechua speakers remain (in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina combined). Meanwhile, the southern native Andean language of Aymara is also alive and well, still spoken by an estimated three million in Bolivia and Peru, and visitors will most likely hear Aymara in their travels as well.
Q: Our travelers go into the heart of the Inca Empire once they leave Cuzco and enter the Sacred Valley. Of all the historic sites (including some World Heritage sites) and surviving villages and small towns, what are the most meaningful places and/or activities there? What would you ask travelers to look very closely at in order to comprehend the immensity of the pre-Columbian Inca achievements?
A: The Sacred Valley, following the Urubamba River, presents some of the most amazing examples of Andean terracing that we see preserved today. Steep mountain sides are carved into flat, narrow cultivation terraces as a means of increasing the amount of arable land available for agriculture, while also retaining more moisture in the soils and stopping soil erosion. The total transformation of the steep-sided valley into a predominantly human-made landscape is truly remarkable and attests to the Inca's ability to control huge labor forces within its empire. And if travelers are lucky enough to get to Ollaytaytambo, there are other sets of wonders: huge stone winnowing arrangements; architectural models hacked into the local stone to show plans for buildings (and then realized in the architecture of the main site!); huge stones left in place on hillsides, apparently abandoned during final building phases (or in the inevitable and constant expansion phases); and sacred dedicated terraces where special corns were grown for Inca rites and ceremonies!!
Q: In the process of deciphering various archaeological artifacts and other evidence, and lacking contemporaneous written records, how does one begin to understand the role of women and their daily life, whether Sun Virgins or Coyas or ordinary women, in pre-Columbian Incan or, even more shrouded in time, Moche civilization?
A: Oh, you've hit one of my major research areas, exciting to me both because I want to know more about women's roles but also because this is such an excellent epistemological challenge! Essentially, we use whatever hints we can: sometimes we find iconographic depictions on ceramic vessels or on murals, of men and women undertaking specific roles or exhibiting specific statuses. Burials also offer excellent conjunctions of sexed skeletons with occupational tools and gendered garb. Sometimes we use contemporary ethnography to project back in time about women's or men's roles in the past. There are also huge data bases such as the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) that compile cross-cultural traits and characteristics, showing us whether there are tasks and jobs generally undertaken by one gender or the other worldwide (many aspects of metallurgical production, for instance, are gendered male).
Q: How did the Andeans come to develop such artistry – in color and design—in textiles?
A: Artistry INDEED! The fabulous Andean textiles are truly a treasure to behold. Possibly some designs evolved from earlier pyro-engraved decorations on gourds and calabashes, as well as adopting knotting techniques from producing fishing nets, twined baskets, and reed mats, all of which we have recovered from very early sites on the north coast of Peru. But the textiles themselves also go far back in time and include an enormous diversity of techniques including double weaves, discontinuous warp weaves, embroidery, and painting on textiles, laces, and gauzes. Colors were originally all derived from plant and animal products: onion skins make a lovely yellow, carbon produces a deep black, guano makes things white, and the red that comes from the cochineal bug is world-renowned.
Q: The cuisine in Lima is cosmopolitan, influenced by its European (Spanish, Italian, German), Andean, and Asian (primarily Chinese) populations. How would you describe the cuisine in Cuzco? And are there really potato desserts?
A: Ah, sigh. Cuzco cooking is the real Andean experience, exotic but never straying far from comfort food with lots of satisfying carbohydrates: corn, rice, and of course the indigenous potato! Generally there are delicious soups of rich broths and chunks of meat and roundels of corn to start a meal, followed by plates of carbs with delicious, delicate vegetable sauces, which the diner can make as spicy as they wish by adding in hot sauce. In the states, we have adopted two Andean-derived foods in our own diets: meat jerky (from the Quechua word "charqui") and "corn nuts" as toasted corn kernels. Cuzco street foods are equally tempting, including roasted beef hearts and pork chittlings, but also melons with spices on them and roasted corn on the cob. Expect simple, healthy, light, and fresh home-made foods!
Q: Is there a definitive explanation for the incredible stone masonry skills of the Incas, in particular, the methods whereby they cut and moved into place massive stones of many tons as at Sacsayhuaman or Machu Picchu?
A: Yes, Inca large cut stone masonry is amazing, especially since much of the high status construction was done without the use of mortar! It is generally agreed that earthen ramps and tree trunks or wooden beams would have been used to move large stones across flat expanses and then into position on higher tiers of buildings. Some experimental work has suggested that inserting one end of bent saplings underneath the huge stones would provide "lift" as the saplings together strain to straighten themselves. To cut the hard rocks the Inca used stone, bronze or copper tools, usually splitting the stones along the natural fracture lines. Extraordinary manpower would have been necessary for both the masonry and the movement of stone, and John Hyslop has noted that the 'secret' to the production of fine Inca masonry was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments.
Q: The signature bowler hat worn by Andeans – how old is the tradition and what is its origin?
A: There is much debate about the origin of the "bowler" hat, with many people stating that the Andean bowler hat derives from the British bowler, brought to the Andes by railroad workers in early 20th century. The story is even further elaborated with an account of overproduction of these hats in Britain and the surplus being shipped out to foreign places. But the contested version of this story, and one I am more comfortable with, argues that the form goes back to 16th century Spanish design, arriving with other clothing forms such as the full skirt with cinched waist worn by Andean women today.