Civilisations do fail!

Any lessons for today from the Valley of the Pyramids at Tucume in Peru?

The view of Huaca Larga (Photo: Heinz Plege/PromPerú)

Let’s set the scene,

It’s amazing to think that anyone lived here, that this valley was once green. Now it is sun-blasted, scorching hot, and the only life is the circling vultures and the rainbow-colored iguanas, like something out of a desert hallucination, skittering across the rocks.

The reminders of past life rise up around me, however, eroded to look more like drip castles than the pyramids they once were. I am in Túcume, the once-grand capital of the Sican culture, Peru’s mythical Valley of the Pyramids.

I am not far from Chiclayo, and even closer to the city of Lambayeque, where the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum serves as one of the major tourist attractions on the north coast. Here at Túcume however, there are few visitors.

It is not hard to get to the site. Combis leave regularly from Chiclayo and Lambayeque, dropping passengers in the modern village of Túcume, from which an quick mototaxi ride leads to the ruins. By car or taxi, it is about a 30 minute ride from Chiclayo.

There are two main trails marked out across the desert plain in Túcume. One leads to Cerro Purgatorio, a craggy hill overlooking the 26 pyramids that comprise the site. The trail winds across the scorched valley, between several of the pyramids, before arriving at a staircase leading to different scenic overlooks on the face of Purgatorio.

WikiPedia, too, has a short reference.

Then there’s a long and revealing article on the InkaNatura Travel Site, which I recommend you go to.

So what happened at Túcume to cause the civilisation to fail?  Maybe this 10-minute film gives the answers, but just a note to say that there are some potentially upsetting scenes for the younger or more sensitive among us.

So anyone sufficiently brave to say that history won’t repeat itself.

Wonder which would be the ‘cursed cities’?

17 thoughts on “Civilisations do fail!

  1. So anyone sufficiently brave to say that history won’t repeat itself.

    Is that what you meant to say? (It doesn’t make sense, to me).

    A fascinating clip. Thanks for that…

    … at the beginning of the clip, the chilling explanation of how the sacrificial victims met their end is entirely believable, being underwritten, as it is, by credible scientific analysis. I do, however, have just a bit of a problem with the subsequent segue into this alleged belief that ‘the gods who controlled the world are living beings who are nourished by human blood’ — the narrator’s doom-laden tones are all too common in today’s infotainment 😦

    Have you seen Apocalypto? That’s, um, fun 🙂


    1. I amended that penultimate sentence just before going to bed last night – the brain was functioning even slower than normal! Yes, it didn’t make sense but hopefully what I was trying to infer was clear!

      Plus I agree with the drift from fact to conjecture. Not one of my better Posts!


  2. Thanks for the warning about some scenes in the 10minute and 31 second video being potentially upsetting (about 10 minutes 31 seconds thereof). Although I had it out of the library for weeks and weeks, I did not get very far reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed (as I had got the message from the opening chapters). However, one thing I recall from another National Geographic television programme (about the book) is that the Mayan civilisation probably came to an end in a similar escalating frenzy of human sacrifices that failed to appease their gods…

    Diamond suggested that Mayan population density eventually exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of their environment; and presented many lines of archaeological evidence to support this assertion. One of which was the changes in their use of plaster: As water became more and more scarce, the amount of plaster used to line and/or decorate the walls of their buildings reduced. There is, however, one other key factor in the demise of Mayan civilisation that I think is even more relevant to our predicament today: They used to throw the bodies of expended human sacrifices into the dolines (i.e. lagoons found in karstic limestone terrain where the roofs of groundwater-flooded underground caves have collapsed). Over time, the rotting corpses would have polluted their water supply and made everybody sick.

    The Mayan’s demise is understandable because they did not know they were slowly poisoning themselves. However, even if we are not likely to return to offering human sacrifices in order to appease unhappy gods, if not ignorance, what will be our excuse for deliberately polluting our own groundwater supplies in order to feed our Carbon habit?

    I speak of course, of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)…. a subject I intend to blog about later this week.


      1. LOL! …The F’ing post in question is a major challenge – not wanting to half-bake it – I may postpone it.

        I may do something easier instead – like discuss why one of the most complained-about British TV adverts in recent time was the DECC’s advert about climate change featuring a little girl being read a not-so-nice bedtime story – apparently people actually complained it was frightening… Err, hello-oh, climate change is frightening!!!


  3. Very interesting (in spite of the somewhat melodramatic and potentially misleading commentary).

    There used to be many civilizations. Some died, so others thrived. Today we have just one civilization. If it dies, it will have no replacement.

    The arrival of the Spanish Pizarro was preceded by smallpox. The Inca emperor was disfigured, and then died from it. A civil war between pretendants to the throne followed, while the epidemic kept on ravaging the population, whose genetics had absolutely no memory of smallpox, and was intrinsically all too weak to deal with Eurasian epidemics.

    So it felt as if the gods had deserted the Incas, while the awe of the conquistadores spread ominously.No wonder many were sacrificed.

    One saw something like that, with the First Crusade, when the would be crusaders, although they were on the attack, massacred countless Jews in the “Roman” empire (aka Francia, Germania, etc.), just apparently to warm up.

    Massacre call for massacre hormones. Those juice up best after warming up to the situation.

    The Mayas, were victims of a super drought, and they lost ecological control completely. abominable civil war started. Fire and sword finished what the drought started. It took nearly three centuries.

    I never heard of the poisoning theory, and I doubt it, because Mayan hydraulics were several millennia old. The ecological collapse from drought is well documented. However, indeed, massive overpopulation (ten millions?) may have played a role. The Mayans were reduced to use very inferior wood for necessary architecture.


      1. Thanks Paul. Your compliment is going to be drafted for an extension I made of the comment on my site, hahaha. i am looking for a further comment there!


    1. Patrice, I know I may be wrong about the connection to Jared Diamon’s Collapse, and I cannot find a reference for the pollution story but, the Mayans did rely on groundwater for drinking and agriculture and they did use what I believe Americans would call giant sinkholes – Mexicans call Cenotes – for sacrificial purposes. For example, a quick Google search yielded this on the subject Cenotes:

      …large sinkholes found mainly in Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. These round, water filled sinkholes often had huge importance for nearby Mayan cities as a source of potable water and sometimes as sacrifice and ritual sites [e.g. the Sacred Cenote in Quintana Roo]. Formation of cenotes is linked to another unusual monument of natural history – fall of the Chicxulub meteorite some 65 million years ago. After the fall of meteorite formed large basin where thick layer of carbonate rocks was deposited. Present-day cenotes have formed along the rims of this ancient basin.

      As water became more scarce, the Mayans sacrificed more and more people and, so the theory goes, chucked more and more bodies into their sacred sinkhole; thus compounding their problems. Presumably, for this theory to have emerged, someone must have found large numbers of human skeletons in the bottom of the sinkhole?


  4. Or it could be we just destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons…
    BTW, did not watch the video, the warning was sufficient enough not to go there…


      1. It would have upset my children (who like their Mum will feel a bit quesy if you so much as mention the word blood). Good call.


  5. Totally understand and appreciate. Again, I sincerely have faith in our society and do look forward to experiencing how we manage to get ourselves out of this “bucket of worms.” And, if not, the Good Lord definitely knows how this will all be taken care of.


      1. The original quote, allegedly attributed to Edmund Burke, describes the current state of the UN perfectly.


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