Water, Wealth and Weather in Between Mountains and Sea

The desert coast of Peru is a land of topographical extremes. Cradled between the monumental Andes and the mighty Pacific, this area contends with taxing weather patterns of local and global implications. A colder-than-usual ocean blocks cloud formation and precipitation from the west, while the towering Andes deflect most rainfall to the east into the lush rainforest. In some places like the central coast, these conditions drop annual precipitation close to zero and create one of the driest deserts on earth.

Sea Lion, Chimu Culture
Chimu? Culture, 900 –1470 CE
Stirrup spout bottle as sea lion
Collection of The University of Texas at Austin, courtesy the Department of Art and Art History

At the same time, the physical features that hold back rain are the basis of life on the coast and bring balance to the region. On the ocean, the upwelling Humboldt Current that cools the waters and averts rainclouds also gives rise to one of the world’s richest marine environments. Likewise, fresh water trickles down from rare tropical glaciers atop the Andes to moisten sparse but fertile river valleys on the coast. The steep mountain range is also the source of seasonal springs, lakes and ores.

In spite of this duality or maybe because of it, pre-Inca civilizations thrived along the coast due to their resourcefulness, determination and technological achievements. Vestiges of pre-Hispanic canals and irrigation systems speak of the vital role water management had in this area. Shamanic leaders were expected to control and balance the natural and social realms or their authority could be called into question. The canals were meant to divert the seasonal rivers and springs carrying glacial melt towards agricultural lands. Today these canals remind us of the very real power held by those who controlled water resources.

The Chimú elite, for example, were powerful and fabulously wealthy. Besides controlling trade routes in the Northern region, the Chimú strategically managed a sophisticated network of irrigation canals and wells to provide water for their urban centers. This infrastructure helped them adapt to the great seasonal variation in water availability to grow food and beauty around them. Their wealth was also closely tied to the sea. Richly woven textiles, on view in Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes, illustrate their successful development on the north coast while their zigzag patterns of repeated undulation suggest the important place water occupied in their minds and way of life.

Crustacean Figure, Chimu Culture
Chimu? Culture, 900 –1470 CE
Stirrup spout bottle as crustacean
Collection of The University of Texas at Austin, courtesy the Department of Art and Art History

Having to negotiate austere conditions on land, the Chimú rejoiced in the sea. Peru’s coast is home to more fish species than any other area in the world. The country is one of the world’s top fish producers as well. One can see this abundance depicted in pre-Inca art and architecture, filled with representations of sea mammals, crustaceans, fish and birds. On view at the Blanton are ceramic bottles from the Late Intermediate Period that illustrate the tightly knit relationship between the marine environment and Chimú culture.

Adapting to this environment, a number of civilizations have thrived in the desert coast region of Peru. Nevertheless, even at the height of their power, they all remained vulnerable to the fluctuations of weather and sparse supply of fresh water. The weather patterns they learned to live with changed drastically every few decades. El Niño and La Niña, the cyclical warming or cooling of ocean surface displaced the local fisheries and locked the area in cycles of extreme drying or ravaging floods. These periods of great instability challenged everything these societies knew. For example, a thirty-year cycle of draught followed by floods coincided with the decline of the Moche culture. Scholars think this event could have caused ecological, economic or political havoc that played into their loss of influence.

Today, Peruvians living in the desert coast are even more pressed for water than their predecessors. While nearly eighty percent of Peru’s population lives in this area, only two percent of Peru’s fresh water is available to them. The tropical glaciers that historically provided precious drinking water are retreating due to the rapid increase in global temperatures. To make matters worse, many springs and wells are now polluted with mercury produced by ore mining in the mountains. Lastly, scientists expect El Niño to take place on 2014.

While we are all delighted that El Niño may bring much needed rainfall to Texas, this event adds pressure to Peru’s economic and political institutions. Sound water management policy is as indispensable for the future of the region, as it was in the past. However, reaching consensus on a specific plan of action is proving challenging.

Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes is on view through August 17, 2014 and features many artifacts that illuminate the striking visual, economic and ideological connections to water and sea portrayed by pre-Inca empires at the same time that reminds us of the vulnerability of this precious resource today.

Mariana Torrens Arias is the Blanton’s PR and Marketing intern. She is a foreign language teacher and a student at The University of Texas at Austin, where she studies advertising.

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