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Reframing the Way We Look at Ancient Civilizations

December 5, 2016

Legend has it that Incan ancestors became gods by mixing their flesh with the stone of Huanacauri, an important temple near Cusco, Peru. Assistant Professor Steve Kosiba’s research project centers around the cultural significance of this temple: Why was it built where it was built? And what happened after the Spaniards conquered the Inca Empire?

Kosiba describes Huanacauri as “both a sacred mountain and a small temple complex (one hectare), both of which have long been essential to Incan and Andean religious beliefs.” During the height of Inca rule, coming-of-age ceremonies were held there for elite young boys, and emperors “affirmed their sovereignty.” In order to protect the area and learn more about the site, Kosiba and his archaeological team collaborated with indigenous farmers and the Peruvian Ministry of Culture.

Because the Incas did not have a writing system, all written records are from Spaniards that conquered the empire —who regarded indigenous sites as areas where the “devil was speaking.” Piecing together these records with facts uncovered at archaeological sites “is a bit like those detective crime shows,” Kosiba says. The project is ongoing and the team continues to conduct more excavations and further look into the immense archives held in Peru.

Frequent visits to the Field Museum during Kosiba’s childhood in Chicago led him to cultivate a “sense of wonder” regarding cultural diversity and past societies, driving him to discover what we can learn from them. This sense of wonder followed him to his college years, where he realized that archaeology is the perfect mix of humanities and sciences. “Anthropology is a discipline that bridges the gap between politics in the past and present, comparing what happens in the ancient world to contemporary times,” he says.

During a class that he took as a sophomore at the University of South Florida, Kosiba developed a specific interest in the dramatic indigenous history of South America. He focused on what it meant to be indigenous, and the political struggles these groups faced against colonial governments.

Kosiba continues to research a related project on Incan labor colonies. “When studying ancient empires, a top-down approach is usually used, starting with the emperor,” Kosiba said, “but I want to use a bottom-up approach and look at lower peoples.”

He examines the daily life of the people in these colonies, who were forced to move across the empire from four separate communities into one for the benefit of the empire as a whole. He searches for answers to basic questions like: Were there women and children in these colonies? How did they interact with one another?

One thing we know for sure is how they interacted with one another after death. “We know that the Incas communicated with their dead,” says Kosiba. Individuals in the Inca Empire were usually buried in cemeteries, but some close relatives were buried under houses.

Kosiba and his team leave all uncovered artifacts in Peru, in local, small-scale museums that he developed. “This way the locals have stewardship, and a say in what happens in their community,” he says. By working with locals to develop stories and connect pieces of ancient mysteries, he gives contemporary people a stake in the historical sites and artifacts.

When we examine the ways that these ancient cultures lived and organized their societies, we learn from them. “What we’re really trying to do here is preserve the richness of these cultures,” Kosiba says. “We find valuable things left behind because people left them on purpose, to show they were of that place.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.