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Athena Review:  Vol.2, no.3

The Petroglyphs of Pusharo

Peru's Amazonian Riddle

by Gregory Deyermenjian, Director, New England Chapter of The Explorers Club

The South American nation of Peru is blessed with untold thousands of ancient rock-art sites. Many have been documented in the exhaustive four volume Petroglífos del Perú by Cuban researcher Antonio Nunez Jimenez (1986). Yet, it is along the eastern ridge of the Andes, and down into the dense vegetation of the selva - the rainforest - where some of the most mysterious, beautiful, and potentially significant sites exist.

[Fig.1: Photo of the author]

Petroglyphs are engravings made on a rock surface. By pecking with a hammerstone, or cutting with a sharp stone knife, native South American peoples who were otherwise without written symbols utilized geometric forms in graphic expression. South American petroglyphs are divided geographically and stylistically into four separate groups: Patagonian; Ando-Peruvian; Colombian-Venezuelan; and Brazilian (Boman 1908; Rouse 1949). Patagonian petroglyphs consist of simplistic figures such as footprints of birds, animals, human beings, human hands, and concentric circles and squares. Those of the Colombian-Venezuelan group include human or animal figures, always without details of clothing or ornament, with those from the eastern slopes of the Colombian  more resembling Amazonian types, showing human faces and possible supernatural beings emphasized through simple, repeated curvilinear or swirling. Brazilian petroglyphs feature schematic representations of fish, animals, and human beings, as well as common designs of faces, circles, and the spiral (fig.2). Ando-Peruvian petroglyphs, by contrast, employ the most complicated designs of all, with frequent representations of birds, animals (including felines and llamas), and human beings. The gigantic Nazca figures in southern Peru represent the Ando-Peruvian style.

 [Fig.2: A section of the Petroglyphs found at Pusharo (photo: G. Deyermenjian).]

I first encountered petroglyphs in 1984 while my party of highland campesinos and Peruvian adventurers was traversing the Cordillera de Paucartambo, the easternmost range of the high Andes to the northeast of Cusco. We were at an altitude of 13,500 feet when we found ourselves astride a rockhang covered with bas- relief images of llamas and walking humans (fig.3). All the human figures on the rock were heading in one direction, northeast, toward the tropical forests This site is named Demarcación, whose meaning would doubtless have been understood by Incan peoples of old passing this way.

 We found the Andean foothills to be honeycombed with ancient Incan ruins, as well as pottery. And in subsequent years we returned, each time penetrating further beyond our most recent foray. In 1989, at the high, windswept Meseta, or tableland, of Toporake, just northwest of the jungles of Mameria, a number of Incan roads of stone converged, with one barely perceptible trail further north beckoning us toward the unknown plateau, the Meseta de Pantiacolla. "Pantay" means "to get or become lost," while "Qoya" means "Inca's wife" or "Queen;" also, that in at least one specific legend the Pantiacolla is the final resting place for the culture hero, Inkarrí, founder of Cusco.

[Fig.3: Human and llama figures (photo: G. Deyermenjian).]

In 1991, our Pantiacolla/ Paititi Expedition was ready, but Peru's political situation that year had worsened, and the Province of Calca was in a temporary state of emergency because of the activity of political subversives and bandits. We decided to avoid it and travel much further northeast from Cusco to the selva baja of the Province of Manu (fig.3).Here, we would investigate the "Petroglyphs of Pusharo." We frequently had to push and pull and dig to extricate the van from the mud that usually was negotiated only by the powerful Volvo freight trucks that made the days-long run between Cusco and the frontier river towns down in the lowlands.The van had an easier time of it once we emerged onto the plains at 3,300 feet.

In the jungle, all words become softened: "Pusharo" would be the lowlander's parlance for "Pucharo," which some claimed was a corruption of the Quechua "Pukara," meaning "fortress," or of "Puchu Karu," meaning "far away remains." It appears that a rubber tapper on an Indian raid in 1909 may have been the first non-native to encounter the Petroglyphs, describing them as "gothic letters." But it was not until 1921 that they were examined and drawn, by a Dominican missionary, who concluded their visit by declaring that the arcane figures represented scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Not until 1953 or '54 was the site again reached by an outsider, a Sr. Jorge Althaus of Cusco. In 1969 Dr. Carlos Neuenschwander, thwarted by thick cloud-cover in his desire to make an aerial reconnaisance of the Meseta de Pantiacolla, had thehelicopter at his disposal bring him instead to Pusharo.

 [Fig.4: some examples of  the Petroglyphs of Pusharo (photo: G. Deyermenjian).]

We put in at the Native Community of "Palatoa Tepa," where Machiguenga had gathered to live in what was for them an atypically dense concentration of perhaps a dozen families. We needed to acquire a Machiguenga guide. Also, we wanted a native person to provide introduction, and assurance of our friendly intentions, to the more nomadic Machiguenga we would certainly encounter further upriver. But, strangely, none of the Machis wanted to go with us. I found out that their reticence stemmed from some other party of extranjeros - outsiders or foreigners - having used them as guides and then not paid a single centavo. I insisted to the village headman that we were a different breed than our ill-mannered predecessors, and backed it up with an offer to pay in advance.

After having trudged upriver to 2,600 feet, we heard a dog wildly barking, and then approached a small band of Machiguenga, living by the river in what looked like a hastily constructed lodge of bent sticks covered with leaves .Soon the valley widened. This was it. As we moved from left to right along the length of the Pusharo monolith, the figures seemed to increase in baroque complexity. They covered the rock for three quarters of its length, and reached up to eight feet. "A picture's worth a thousand words" was never more true (fig.4). Having filmed and photographed all that I could of Pusharo, it was time to head back downriver. The rainy season arrived with a vengeance, that night we stayed with some hospitable Machiguenga. The next morning, we bid these most gracious people goodbye, Machiguenga themselves never say goodbye to anyone. Down the Palatoa to soon meet our canoe at the Native Community, then our van at Atalaya, and eventually our lodgings in Cusco (fig.5).

What now are we to make of the Petroglyphs of Pusharo? Although within Peru, this site appears to fall stylistically toward the Brazilian group: it contains all the geometric forms associated with lowland designs, and none of the typically Andean naturalistic forms such as birds, llamas, and human beings. All the glyphs are abstract. Some of the designsare found in many areas of the northwest Amazon: as petroglyphs in Brazil's valley of the Río Negro, Colombia's Calima valley, and several other places. Those who have commented upon Pusharo usually suggest any one of four possible interpretations. Some see it as a terrestrial map, with its various serpentine lines indicating rivers, mountains, and various other natural features. They see significance in the fact that it lies in a transitional zone between the lower selva and the highlands, thus being a crossroads for migrating populations that may have sculpted a map in the rock to record their wanderings, or the area from whence they came. Some see it as a gigantic map of the heavens. Some see in these Petroglyphs evidence of pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact.

[Fig.5: Route from Cusco to Pusharo (G.Deyermenjian).]

The Petroglyphs of Pusharo strike most viewers as weird, confusing, and fascinating. We may never know what these glyphs mean. We may, however, be able to understand something of the psychological and cultural motivations behind their creation. Whenever it was that these petroglyphs were carved, the northwest Amazon would have been home to countless hundreds of Amerindian tribal groups. Although most of these groups lived far away from each other, they must have nonetheless shared many life experiences in their relatively similar physical environment. They also undoubtedly partook of the same hallucinogenic plants, especially Ayahuasca, but also Brugmansia. They must have seen similar visions, and expressed them graphically on their houses, on rocks by rivers, with an especially lush flowering of expression emerging at Pusharo.

[For the complete article, see the printed edition of Athena Review, Vol.2, no.3 (2000)]

[Related discoveries by Gregory Deyermenjian are  featured in the article, The Search for Paititi.]

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