In 2005, a friend invited me to join a group to hike for several days through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu, the world-famous Incan archaeological site. I was thrilled, and quickly accepted the invitation. I am a geologist and an enthusiastic hiker and traveler, and high mountains and ancient cultures fascinate me. At the time, I had no idea that learning more about the natural setting of the Andes and how it shaped the cultural history of the indigenous people would become my passion.
I did have a few concerns about this trip to Peru. My foremost concern: squarely in middle age, could I really walk to Machu Picchu? Most of my time was spent in an office sitting in front of a computer, and I had a decade-old artificial hip that was becoming increasingly cranky. Fortunately, after months of dedicated time hiking steep hills and strengthening the muscles supporting my weak leg, I was confident that my hip was ready to handle more miles ahead. My other concerns weren’t as easily appeased, including responsibilities for my aging and ailing parents, boundary-pushing teenaged children, a faltering marriage, and a demanding day job as a geologist. Still, I pressed on with preparations for the trip. The draw to visit South America was strong and I wasn’t about to miss this adventure.
It was a clear September day when at last I stood in awe of the massive size and extent of the towering peaks of the Andes Mountains. I had never seen such majestic mountains! I walked for miles toward Machu Picchu on rock-paved trails constructed by ancient builders, climbing up and down steep stairways and through tunnels painstakingly carved into solid rock hundreds of years ago. My heart pounded hard and I had to stop often to catch my breath hiking in the thin air at the high elevations. I mulled over the challenges of carving out a living in such rugged mountains. How had people – isolated by snow-covered peaks, deep valleys, and arid coastal deserts – managed to thrive in this difficult environment for thousands of years?
While in Peru, I learned that the ancient Andeans developed unique solutions for environmental and societal challenges. They lived in a complex environment known for frequent floods, droughts, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Nonetheless, they built monumental stone structures like Machu Picchu, structures that can still be seen today. They developed highly effective farming methods, providing enough food to support millions of people. Their artisans created luxury items of finely crafted textiles and exquisite gold and silver ornamental art objects. The achievements of the Incas and their ancestors have not been matched in mountainous environments anywhere else on Earth. I wanted to know more.
Thus began my research for a book, the type of book I would have liked to read before going to the Andes. That book, with a projected publication date of 2020, traces the accomplishments of the Andean people and how these were influenced by their dynamic environment. In my blog posts I will share what I have learned about the Andes, as well as some tales about the natural history of our amazing planet. Please join me on this journey.