Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Jeff Cole

Q: You have led over 45 Smithsonian journeys to Latin America since 1992, including more than 20 to Peru. How has Peru changed over the last 16 years and how has it remained unchanged?

A: The country has emerged from its struggle with terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, and has prospered economically because of its growing connections with Asia. The greatest changes are on the coast, especially in Lima, which is now a cosmopolitan center. The other major change has been the communications revolution, with satellite television and mobile telephones irrevocably altering the way in which Peruvians get their information. Internet cafés in Cusco charge $0.40 per hour for broadband connections, and the internet now speaks Quechua! What hasn't changed is the core of the pre-Columbian highland culture, based on reciprocity, responsibility, and a respect for the past. Despite 500 years of attempted colonization by Europeans, coastal Peruvians, and—most recently—tourists, the traditional Andean highland culture is intact and thriving.

Q: What do you think that Smithsonian travelers will find most fascinating about the vanished Inca and Moche civilizations? 

A: That they haven't vanished at all. The faces of the individuals you see on Moche pots from the 3rd century are the faces you still see on the streets today. The highland culture of Peru, with its many pre-Inca and Inca characteristics—language, rituals, food, architecture—has never been conquered. Moche, Nasca, Chimú, and Inca cultures have been preserved to one extent or another in everyday life as well as in museums. 

Q: We can observe the physical ruins once they are unearthed, but how can we begin to understand how people lived in Inca, Moche, and even earlier times?

A: All we need to do is to listen to their descendants, including our local guides in Cusco and Puno. They bring to the table both an oral tradition and formal training in the cultures of their ancestors. The peoples of Peru in 5,000 BCE were just as smart and capable as any other. They were constructing cities, irrigating large sections of coastal plain, and creating elaborate art before many of the classic cultures of the Old World. The cultures that followed these civilizations built upon those earlier traditions. We also see their lives in their pottery, weavings, and the other material culture they left behind.

Q: In Lima, Smithsonian travelers will see renowned Moche pottery from the 1st millennium AD in the Larco Herrera Museum. What should they take away from that experience?

A: They should understand that the Inca were only the last of many pre-Columbian empires in South America. The arrival of humans in the New World goes back much farther, perhaps 35,000 years, and the earliest Peruvian cultures of note are now dated to 5,000 BCE or earlier. Many of the pre-Inca cultures were vastly superior to the Inca in terms of metallurgy, agriculture, or other aspects. Where the Inca (actually the Quechua, as "inca" means "king" in Quechua and does not refer to a people, but rather to an individual) surpass their predecessors is in their stonework. And that is amazing! 

Q: This tour covers the Peruvian region where Quechua, a language spoken long before the time of the Inca, and subsequently the official state language of the Inca, is still spoken. How much does Quechua inform Peruvian Spanish?

A: Quechua was initially a language spoken by one of the peoples conquered by the people we call the "Inca." It apparently was more precise and useful than the conquerors' own tongue. Much of modern Peruvian Spanish—and quite a bit of American English—can be traced to Quechua. For example, our word for dried meat or "jerky" comes from the Spanish "charque," itself derived from the Quechua. In Spanish, the words "puma" (strong), "pampa" (flat ground), "cancha" (field), "mani" (peanut), and many others come from Quechua.

Q: What is your favorite part of this tour?

A: First and foremost, my Peruvian colleagues, all of whom are first-rate. Second, as there can't be a single favorite part of the tour, it is the chance to see my god-daughter and her family in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. I became Hilary's god-father in a traditional Quechua baptism ceremony in September 2001—just days after 9/11—when I cut her hair for the first time in her life. That ceremony, which was originally intended to be a family affair, was transformed into an event for the entire Smithsonian group, who needed something positive and forward-looking given the events of a few days earlier. The grace of the Peruvian people on that occasion is forever preserved in the way I remember how my compadres (Hilary's parents) helped a band of stranded Americans in September 2001.