Understanding climate change from Peru’s past

You probably heard about climate change at some point either in the news or in casual conversation and I guess politicians just love to talk about it. And if you take travel as a way of life and has been trying to understand of this seemingly subliminal topic in its granular form, then Lima might be a great place to pursue that passion.

Like many travelers, what brought me to Lima was due to fascination after seeing those scenic Macchu Picchu pictures. Well that was before until I had this opportunity to visit Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which pioneered the early archaeological study of the ruins in Macchu Picchu. It may be controversial but at least the University has extended efforts to return at least 4,000 artifacts they shipped out from three expeditions between 1912  to 1916. That moment I felt like I need to know more about the cultural wealth of the Incan civilization, which I only knew from the dusted history books in our library.

In less than a day in Lima, my visit to Museo Larco somehow helped me in connecting the dots on the role of drastic changes in climatic patterns to depopulation. This is the same pattern of events that are slowly coming back to our senses as we watch those horrific natural disasters raging before our eyes on television. And personally, I always draw my public health perspective as way to intimately converse with those exhibited relics as they might have left unspoken messages for us to decipher.

Museo Larco in Centro de Lima, Peru
Museo Larco in Centro de Lima, Peru

While scientific techniques in archaeology have gone so sophisticated these days that it goes beyond methodological excavating, digging, and brushing; there are still missing links that will make you either curious or outrageously curious. In wearing my archaeologist hat for nanoseconds, I have some take-home reflection that in many ways can be unscientific yet still within the range of reasonable thought. I have three that stand out in relation to the burning climate change debate.

First, Rafael Parco, the museum founder, has proposed chronological analysis based on the stratigraphic studies whereby each superimposed stratum represents the specific ancient cultures/styles of the seven periods of Peruvian epoch. What striking here is Larco measured each sand layers with alluvial deposits produced by the torrential rains on the Peruvian coast approximately every 18 to 25 years as a result of the El Niño phenomenon. Clearly, alteration of weather patterns have greatly contributed to the life-courses (or even demise) since the earlier civilizations.

Another observation points to the moulded images in the pottery collection. Other than its aesthetic value, it tells snippets of human geography, of rituals, and even just for their day-to-day living. My humble opinion, geographical location shapes people’s organization of thought, familial and societal relations. The craftsmanship shown in weapons, textile, and pottery is a manifestation of how they interpret the natural word, which means close association with the physical environment as well.


Lastly, depopulation of many indigenous communities during the smallpox epidemics was the most painful effect of Spanish colonization. Back in the days when border protection is non-existent and vaccinations are not yet known, European diseases easily spread in the New World and claimed millions of lives. Christianization followed with an effective strategy of synthesizing Incan art expression with those of the European Medieval period. With such dramatic confluence of forces, indigenous health was compromised, replaced, and undervalued. But it does not end there, extreme weather events may have aggravated the burden of diseases and there is likelihood that due to cyclical El Niño phenomenon, access to traditional medicine derived from the medical knowledge of plants has been limited.

I know climate change, along with pandemics, is such a loaded word. But we all shared our vulnerability to this regardless of who and where you are. We can take stock of the lessons from whatever we can pick from the cultural artififacts of the Incan civilization as they might have left us with something to ponder. And who knows it might help us adapt to the growing threats of climate change.

Watch out for my next blog as I travel to the Nazca lines tomorrow. I feel like chasing the paths of the past and I am not yet tired of connecting the dots.

Klein Fernandez

Klein is from the Philippine who loves to travel in random places. He is currently based in Boston doing global health work.

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