A Culture of Stone: Inka Perspectives on Rock

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A major contribution to the fields of art history and Latin American studies, A Culture of Stone offers sophisticated new insights into Inka culture and the interpretation of non-Western art. Carolyn Dean focuses on rock outcrops masterfully integrated into Inka architecture, exquisitely worked masonry, and freestanding sacred rocks, explaining how certain stones took on lives of their own and played a vital role in the unfolding of Inka history. Examining the multiple uses of stone, she argues that the Inka understood building in stone as a way of ordering the chaos of unordered nature, converting untamed spaces into domesticated places, and laying claim to new territories. Dean contends that understanding what the rocks signified requires seeing them as the Inka saw them: as potentially animate, sentient, and sacred. Through careful analysis of Inka stonework, colonial-period accounts of the Inka, and contemporary ethnographic and folkloric studies of indigenous Andean culture, Dean reconstructs the relationships between stonework and other aspects of Inka life, including imperial expansion, worship, and agriculture. She also scrutinizes meanings imposed on Inka stone by the colonial Spanish and, later, by tourism and the tourist industry. A Culture of Stone is a compelling multidisciplinary argument for rethinking how we see and comprehend the Inka past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Art historian Dean has provided perhaps the best interpretation of how the
Inkas saw their environment, particularly their lithic one, and how this motivated their actions. . . . Her judicious use of historical documents, combined with thoughtful and critical analysis of contemporary Andean concepts that appear rooted in their pre-Hispanic ancestry, provides a new and refreshing perspective for understanding the Inkas’ culture of stone.” - Michael Malpass, Comparative Studies in Society and History

“A Culture of Stone is beautifully written. . . . As a study of ancient rocks, their material texture, location and relationship to other features in the landscape, as well as their social agency during Inka times, A Culture of Stone is a welcome intervention and will be of interest to students of material worlds, anthropologists, archaeologists, as well as scholars of Peru and Latin America.” - Haidy L Geismar, Material Worlds blog

“As a study of the rocks themselves, their material texture, location and relationship to other features in the landscape, as well as their social agency, A Culture of Stone is a welcome intervention in art history, and will also be of interest to anthropologists, archaeologists, and scholars of Peru and Latin America.” - Sandra Rozental, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“In her exquisitely researched, articulate, and annotated book, Carolyn Dean explores the Inka love affair with stone and demonstrates the near-universal role played by the material in Inka cultural and spiritual life. . . . Dean has made a strong contribution to the field of Andean studies, one well presented and worth reading.” - Vincent R. Lee, American Historical Review

“[Dean’s] book has implications far beyond its locus in Latin America. ... [I]t represents an intervention into current debates about world art history. Dean suggests a way in which the interpretation of human interactions with nature that in the European tradition are called art and architecture may be imaginatively reconstructed with terms and concepts that are not Eurocentric.” - Thomas DeCosta Kaufmann, CAA Reviews

“By addressing both well-known and understudied objects, Carolyn Dean offers sophisticated new insights into Inka practices. Moreover, while advancing scholarship on the colonial Andes, she tackles issues relating to the interpretation of non-Western art and its reception, contributing to debates on material objects and the built environment in a wide range of fields.”—Dana Leibsohn, Smith College

“Gold, silver, and weaving are the riches most often associated with the Inka, but as Carolyn Dean’s scholarly study demonstrates, their greatest investment of thought and time was in stone. Moving between descriptions of the magnificent walls of Inka imperial buildings and worked stones in situ, Dean links them as related parts of Inka visual expression, which is hard to comprehend and not easily recognized. But, as Dean stresses, there is an intimate relationship between Andeans and stone that is at the heart of the greatest empire of Ancient America.”—Thomas B. F. Cummins, Harvard University

“The sixteenth-century Spanish priest Cristóbal de Albornoz noted that over half of the sacred things in the Inka capital of Cuzco were rocks. In her stimulating new book, Carolyn Dean explores this ‘culture of stone,’ examining ways in which rock outcrops and other rock forms were the focus of ritual practice and spiritual belief. Illuminating key aspects of pre-Hispanic understandings of landscape and the built environment, this insightful and thought-provoking study reframes the way we consider the Inka visual world.”—Joanne Pillsbury, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822348078
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2010
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Carolyn Dean is Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru, also published by Duke University Press.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Note on Orthography xv


Coming to Terms with Inka Rocks 1

Chapter 1 Rock and Remembrance 25

Chapter 2 Rock and Reciprocity 65

Chapter 3 Rock and Rule 103

Chapter 4 Rock in Ruins 143

Notes 179

Glossary of Quechua Terms 255

Bibliography 257

Index 289

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First Chapter

A Culture of Stone


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4807-8

Chapter One

Rock and Remembrance

To the ancient Inka, as to modern speakers of Quechua, the word for rock in general is rumi; a boulder, an outcrop or crag, and, more generally, any significant rock formation were called qaqa (caca, caka, ccaca). Like many other people, the Inka recognized the distinctive properties of which some kinds of rock were composed; for example, crystals, obsidian, and other precious stones were qispi (qespi, quispe), pumice was khachka rumi, limestone was saqana, and metallic rock was qurpa (corpa). A rock could also be distinguished on the basis of its form, as in flat stones (p'alta rumi), round stones (llunphu or rumpu rumi), squared-off-stones (k'uchu rumi), or named according to its function, as in hammer stones (kumpana), ashlars (kallanka rumi), pavers (qallkirumi), and so on. Clearly the Inka thought about rock in a variety of ways, some of which are more familiar to us than others. As quoted in the epigraph, Susan Niles notes that although the Inka recognized the numinosity of many rocks, they did not revere all rocks. The seventeenth-century Jesuit extirpator of idolatries Pablo Joseph de Arriaga tells us that large stones worshiped by the Inka were given names, and that stories were told about them. Another extirpator working in the first half of the seventeenth century, Fernando de Avendaño, indicates that many rocks held sacred by Andean peoples were deities who had petrified, and that such stones had histories that were passed down through generations of worshipers. Thus named rocks were usually large ones about which stories were told. They were rocks that were supposed to be remembered and associated with particular deeds or events. Whether we call the stories myths, legends, fables, tales, or oral histories, they recorded the meanings of, and so made meaningful, certain rocks.

I begin by looking for cues on or about large rocks still present in the Andean landscape that allow us at least tentatively to differentiate between rocks that were just rocks, no matter how useful, and rocks that the Inka considered to be something beyond the mundane, rocks that were named and likely had stories attached to them. I then consider aspects of Inka oral culture that converted regular rocks into remembered rocks. Many of the rocks that were worth remembering to the Inka were believed to embody (once) nonpetrous things. Most often, these rocks did not look like that which they embodied. As I have argued elsewhere, representation is a misleading term with regard to many different types of Inka numinous rocks, for these rocks are not substitutes for that with which they are identified, but are, in fact, those very things themselves, just in a lithic guise. Because, from an Inka perspective, such rocks make something other than stone present, I suggest they be thought of as "presentational" stones. Because presentation and representation constitute the complementary poles of Inka material and visual culture, I conclude the chapter with a consideration of these two fundamental interpretive modes.


Of the many waka (sacred places or things; see the introduction) listed by the sixteenth-century priest Cristóbal de Albornoz as being in and around Cuzco, more than half were rocks. According to the Jesuit Cobo, writing in the first half of the seventeenth century, approximately one-third of the waka composing a system of 328 "shrines" (adoratorios) in Cuzco and its environs consisted entirely or primarily of rocks. A large number of these petrous waka escaped extirpation during the Spanish colonial period because they were unworked elements of the natural environment and so easily overlooked. Even if recognized, they were not so simply done away with; destroying large boulders, rock outcrops, caves, and so on is not readily accomplished, as Albornoz noted: "It is impossible to take from them this superstition [of worshiping boulders and mountains] because the destruction of these waka would require more force than that of all the people of Peru in order to move these stones and hills." As noted in the introduction, Polo relied on the observed behavior of devotees to identify waka. While there are no pre-Hispanic Inka left to instruct us, we can attend to some of the visual cues-framing, distancing, contouring, and carving-that allow us to recognize some large rocks that the Inka likely regarded as not "just" rocks, for these strategies all single out particular megaliths from the otherwise undifferentiated landscape.


One readily recognizable Inka strategy for designating special rocks was to frame them in masonry (plate 4). The rectilinear frame draws attention to what is enclosed, and separates the extraordinary from the ordinary, the special from the regular, and the sacred from the mundane. Sometimes the frame is low, allowing a view of what is framed, and sometimes the frame encloses the rock, housing it as human residents would be. Some framed crags are given finely formed habitation; as Niles observes, such rocks would be "impediments to comfortable living" and so "are not part of the house or its furnishings but are, rather, the denizens of the house." The quadrangular frame itself is a common motif in Inka visual culture: tukapu (tocapu), for example, distinctive woven patterns in the finest Inka textiles, are held within and distinguished by quadrangular frames, and the kancha (cancha), the basic unit of the Inka built environment, acts as a frame that separates specialized places from nonspecialized spaces. Doorways and windows in Inka architecture frequently frame special views, separating and drawing attention to certain features of the surrounding landscape, as will be discussed in the following chapter (figure 27).

Given the ubiquity of frames as indicia of special or specialized space in Inka visual culture, it is not surprising to find that the early-seventeenth-century indigenous chronicler Joan (or Juan) de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua (hereafter Santa Cruz Pachacuti) drew the three exits from the inner world of the ancestors, from which the first Inka emerged into this world, as nested frames (figure 6). The mouth of the cave (t'uqu) functions as a conceptual frame delineating the passage from one world to another. Like the mouth of the cave, only horizontal rather than vertical, the masonry frame signals the encounter between specialized and regular space. In particular, the frame around an outcrop announces the emergence of the rock from the underworld or innerworld of spirits and ancestors, marking it as a place where worlds conjoin.


Rocks in the Inka built environment can also be distinguished by their distance from other structures. Unlike the petrous waka that are framed with a visible boundary between sacred and profane space, the distanced rock is surrounded by vacancy. The void announces the approach to something significant by the striking contrast between nothing and something. This is the case, for example, with regard to many chakrayuq, the lithic owners of the fields or terraces where they are found. Because vacant space, as a mark of the special, depends on the distant presence of other structures or monuments, it is most commonly seen to define rocks very near or within zones of human occupation. Distancing indicates that certain rocks are both a part of and apart from the built environment. Since distanced rocks-being outcrops or boulders-could not (easily) be moved, we must conclude that the Inka determined the placement of some structures so as to purposefully contrast with the space around these extraordinary rocks.


A third Inka technique used to identify a rock that is not just a rock may be characterized as contouring. Unlike the rectilinear frame, contoured masonry traces the form of the rock, hugging its lateral surfaces. In contrast to the distanced stone, positioned apart from worked masonry, the contoured rock is integrated into the architecture that surrounds it. Curvilinear contouring signals some of the most important of sacred Inka rocks, including the so-called Intiwatana at Pisaq (Pisac, P'isaq), where fine masonry encircles two outcrops (figure 7), and the misnamed Tower (Torreón), also known as the Temple of the Sun, at Machu Picchu. Despite its exterior appearance, the Tower's upper chamber opens to reveal the room's occupant: the outcrop whose upper surface is visible in the interior (plate 5). At both Machu Picchu and Pisaq, the living rock is embraced by masonry but is also exposed. The interplay of worked and unworked stone at sites of contouring articulates the rock's liminal position as part of the natural environment and part of the built environment, a simultaneous resident of both this world and the inner- or underworld. At Chinchero the set of carved rocks known as Pumacaca (Pumaqaqa, "mountain lion crag") was even once contoured in such a way as to make it appear as though parts of the bedrock were worked ashlars, deliberately confusing the distinction between masonry wall and sacred rock; this may have happened at other sites of contouring as well.

It has been suggested that the curved shape of the contoured wall may itself be significant, as curvilinear walls of worked masonry embrace sacred topography at Ingapirca (Hatun Cañar), Patallaqta, Tomebamba (Tumipampa), Wiñay Wayna, and many other sites. Of all curved walls, surely the most sacred was part of the Inka's main temple in Cuzco, the Qurikancha (Coricancha), a structure that will be discussed in greater detail later (figure 44). Indeed, the Qurikancha may well have inspired other examples of curvilinear contouring masonry walls found throughout the empire. Because the Spaniards built the church of Santo Domingo over its walls, placing the apse of the Catholic church close to the curved portion, exactly what the bowed wall contoured is a matter of conjecture. Gasparini and Margolies, who produced a plan of the Qurikancha based on work done after the earthquake of 1950 brought down some of the colonial-period structure, wondered whether the wall could have enclosed a sacred stone in the manner of Machu Picchu's Tower. In reconstruction no outcrop was uncovered, however. According to some chroniclers, one of the original Inka brothers was petrified at the place where the Qurikancha was later built. It may also be the site where the first Inka sank a staff into the ground as a sign of Cuzco's foundation. Betanzos, writing in 1557, reports that Manco Capac (Manku Qhapaq) selected the site of the Qurikancha as the first spot to be settled in the Cuzco valley. Thus the curving wall draws attention to this special place.

Terrace walls are also sometimes curvilinear, emphasizing both the natural curvature of the topography and the orderly and procreative presence of Inka occupation; this will be discussed in the following chapter (plates 10 and 12). The curved, contouring wall-whether it is hugging a numinous outcrop, embracing a sacred location, retaining an unstable slope, creating cultivable plots, or serving other purposes-inevitably draws attention to the shape of that which it contours. As pointed out in the introduction, a focus on appearance (the curviness of the contouring wall) alone may be misleading; the Inka focused on what was behind the wall, encased and embraced by their masonry. The function of the curve-to draw attention to what it contours-is the key to understanding the significance of the curvilinear wall. While outcrops were just one of several things to be embraced by curvilinear masonry, when rocks were contoured, they were clearly waka.


Of all the visual cues to a rock's special status, carving has been the most thoroughly considered elsewhere. As indicated in the previous chapter, the book-length studies by Paternosto and Van de Guchte are the most detailed; Bauer, Hyslop, and others have also authored insightful considerations of Inka rock carving. The following forms are most commonly found carved in stone: steps; flat places or platforms; gnomons; rectangular niches; cupules; and channels. Rarer imagistic carving, as seen on the Saywite monolith (plate 3 and figure 8) and elsewhere, includes terraces, pumas or other felines, frogs or toads, reptiles, monkeys, and birds.

On the most basic level, the carving of the stony surface, whether imagistic or not, distinguishes the rock from its natural environment, visually marking it as extraordinary. Carving separates, as Paternosto says, "the space of the sacred from its profane and nameless surroundings." Thus carving, like framing, distancing, and contouring, visually distinguishes the sacred rock from its mundane setting. On another level, some of the carving may well have been functional: the frequently carved flat places could have served as altars or places for setting offerings; some niches may have been seats; some steps may allow passage onto and across the surface; gnomons and other shapes allowed for astronomical observations or other sighting practices; and cupules and undulating channels (called paqcha or paccha), such as those at Kenko Grande which give the site its name (Kenko or q'inqu, meaning zigzag in Quechua), provide a way for liquid offerings such as water, chicha, or blood to be deposited on and flow across the stone (figure 9).

Some imagistic carving may function as a form of offering, a sort of relief version of the more familiar free-standing illa (ylla), small amulets used by pre-Hispanic Andeans (and still used today) as repositories of good fortune, increased productivity, and abundance. An illa is usually a small stone sculpture, often shaped like a camelid (llama or alpaca) or bird, with or without a depression for offerings. When carved directly on the surface of the stone to which it is offered, the imagistic carving may have served as a permanent record of petitions to the larger petrous numina. Imagistic carving may also allude pictorially to characteristics of the place. A rich and fertile environment is suggested by the terraces, canals, and creatures symbolic of water on the Saywite monolith, a carved granite rock measuring ten feet in length, nine feet in width, and eight feet in height, located near a waterworks (plate 3). The monolith appears to be a microcosm-its upper surface altered by habitation, procreative and teaming with life; its lower portion, its underworld, unhewn and untamed. The carved upper surface of the monolith, with its terraces, steps, and channels, reminds us of the ways the Inka carefully orchestrated the flow of water through their sites. Indeed, the Saywite monolith appears to have been designed for liquid to run through its channels and across its surface, spilling off the carved area at orifices along its edge where the carving ceases. Flowing water visualizes the passage from and communication between under- and upperworlds. Indeed, many carved rocks signal sources of water or waterways. The Inka's "culture of water" clearly and importantly overlaps and intersects with their culture of stone, as water was also a transubstantial medium symbolic of the transitions between parts of the world and diverse stages of being.

Steps, found on many carved rocks, likewise symbolize passage and may mark places of transition between worlds. As noted earlier, outcrops themselves are liminal, being both part of the underworld, from which they emerge, and part of this world. Steps and stepped patterns are particularly important parts of outcrops associated with caves or chinkana (labyrinths), crevices or underground passages through the stone, as well as waterways (e.g., plates 6-7 and 11). The cave, called the Royal Mausoleum, beneath the Tower at Machu Picchu features a flight of steps leading nowhere at its entrance (plate 8); the so-called Third Stone (or Intiwatana) at Saywite is carved with both nonfunctional steps and a window, both of which signal transition (plate 1). Steps carved into many other boulders and outcrops are likewise nonfunctional. Referring to the "little flights of stairs" carved into the outcrop at Kenko Grande, the early-twentieth-century explorer Hiram Bingham notes that they "serve no useful object so far as one can see." In fact, steps at Kenko are placed near a passageway through the outcrop that the Inka modified. Similar carvings of steps near caves, crevices, passages through rock, or waterways are found at Chinchero, Saqsaywaman, Choquequilla, Intinkala, and Salunpunku (Salonpuncu, also known as Lago, Laqo, or Lacco), just to name a few. Steps or stepped patterns symbolically allude to passage between different cosmic levels; in so doing, they signal the liminality of the places they mark. These are important sites where this world opened into the ancestral realm. In fact, some caves and crevices actually housed ancestral mummies.


Excerpted from A Culture of Stone by CAROLYN DEAN Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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