Peter Neissa Shares Story of Peruvian Expedition in “Inkas and the Celestial”?

For Peter Neissa, Instructor and Chair in Spanish, scaling boulders without any rails or ropes to reach the citadel on the summit of Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca fortress, was well worth the dangerous maneuvering. This Wednesday, Neissa shared with the Andover community experiences from his self-funded research trip to Peru in a presentation titled “The Inkas and the Celestial,” sponsored by Alianza Latina. His presentation focused on “overlooked treasures” of the Inka Empire, according to an announcement on PAnet. Neissa emphasized the considerable complexity and span of Andean history. According to Neissa, Caral, the first city-state of a civilization in the Americas, dates back to 2500 B.C.E. He said, “The information coming out of the Andes is so extensive that we are tripping over ourselves trying to name the different cultures and periods. There’s the late pre-ceramic, initial lower formative period, early intermediate, middle horizon, later intermediate, late horizon, early formative.” According to Neissa, throughout its history Peru has been home to many indigenous cultures including the Chavín, Nasca, Huari, Tiwanaku, Chachapoyas, Moche and Chan Chan. “I’ve been to Peru and been fascinated by the culture. We assume that the history of Peru goes back a few hundred years, and it’s not true. There’s incredible history and culture that we are just now starting to look at seriously,” said Neissa after the presentation. Neissa also highlighted some surprisingly recent archaeological discoveries in Peru. Between 2005 to 2006, the discovery of a sophisticated canal irrigation system dating back to 500 B.C.E took archaeologists by surprise. Currently, there are around 20 active excavation sites in Peru, most of which are studied by students from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Lima. Neissa noted, “[Deciding] which site to start excavating is meaningless, because the next day a peasant appearing to plant crops can drive into a buried temple that has been undiscovered for thousands of years.” Neissa’s presentation also highlighted the astronomical and time-keeping functions of many Incan structures. Neissa himself has observed the distinct relationship between the movement of celestial bodies and Incan architecture. For instance, the Giant of Atacama, a humanoid figure carved into the ground that can be seen from space, is not only the largest anthropomorphic figure in the world but also served as an astronomical calendar. The figure features 12 points representing phases of the moon and different planting seasons. La Puerta del Sol, or the Gate of the Sun, a 17 ton limestone monolith in Bolivia, was similarly used as a calendar, precisely divided into 290 days. What is most surprising about the structure, however, is the fact that the nearest quarry was at least 20 miles away, according to Neissa. Similar structures such as Machu Picchu’s Temple of the Sun and the Palace of the Moon indicate unique positions of the stars or the sun during solstices and other significant astronomical events, according to Neissa. Alexandra Donovan ’13, Head of Publicity for Alianza Latina and one of Neissa’s students, said, “Dr. Neissa has done amazing things in his life and he gives you stories… It’s always good to hear them, so we asked him to give a presentation, not on anything specific, and he chose Peru.” “[Neissa] has done extensive research and he really did plan [his presentation] down to the minute,” continued Donovan. “The presentation was amazing.” Donald Slater, Museum Educator at the Peabody Museum, and Mark Cutler, Instructor in Spanish, are planning to use Neissa’s research to help them create a new Peru-based itinerary for the Bilingual Archaeological Learning Adventure in Mesoamerica Project (B.A.L.A.M.). The program last took students to Mexico in the summer of 2010, before the U.S. State Department issued travel warnings for Mexico. The program will restart in Peru in the summer of 2013. Carmen Munoz-Fernandez, Instructor in Spanish, said “[Neissa’s presentation] shows a different side of what we [teachers] do. As faculty, we teach here but we also have this other life where we get really excited about our trips. That’s where we get ideas for our classroom.”