Interview Words : Peter Moore | 17 January

Dr Jago Cooper: Lost Kingdoms of South America

Real-life Indiana Jones Dr Jago Cooper talks about the thrills, spills and discoveries on his journey through the Lost Kingdoms of South America

Presented by archaeologist Dr Jago Cooper, the new BBC Four series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, reveals the extraordinary history of some of the continent’s ancient civilizations, exploring spectacular ruins and investigating the myths and legends that
surround these mysterious kingdoms.

Dr Cooper took time off from tending his precious artifacts at the British Museum to chat to Peter Moore about his adventures – and the surprising discoveries he made.

Most people’s knowledge of South American civilizations starts and finishes with the Incas. I’m guessing that one of the things you wanted to do with this show is change that.

Definitely. The Inca only make up a few hundred years of more than 12,000 years of human history in South America. But the Inca are the benchmark people talk about with regards to civilization in South America. But anyone who has travelled to South America knows, that, everywhere you go, there’s a huge time-depth of different cultures that have been there in very, very diverse environments.

And they’ve all taken different pathways through to social complexity and that’s really what this series is about. How different human communities decide to work together and develop complex societies.

You’ve concentrated on four different societies in this series. How did you choose them?

Basically, the overall theme of the series is this pathway to complex societies, so what I wanted to do was choose four pre-Incan cultures from South America that gave a different emphasis on what helps develop a complex society and I also wanted to have them in very different environments to show off the diversity of environments which societies develop.

Tell us a little about the kingdoms you chose...

I chose the Chachapoya because I wanted a balance between the better known societies and the lesser known ones. The Chachapoya were definitely one of the lesser known ones!

They provide an excellent example of trade and the influence of trade. The Chachapoya really control the trade between the Amazon and the Andes. That element of trade was a real driving force to the development of their society.

I chose the Tiwanaku, right up on the Bolivian Altiplano, because I wanted to focus on ideology, and in particular, the power of ideology and agricultural innovation. It shows how people can develop really intensive agriculture in what seems to be an incredibly harsh environment with some big problems of climate variability.

Then the Muisca and Tairona, in Colombia, I chose because I wanted to focus on value systems. How do societies decide what is important in life? How do we establish what our value systems are? That one’s about aesthetics and value systems and how you come at that through craft, and craftsmanship, in particular, in gold working. It shows you how people can share value systems and in particular, when the Europeans arrive, how it can create a complete clash of cultures and value systems. The two can’t really understand each other.

Then finally, I chose the Chimu, the Kingdom of Chimor. One of the big things I wanted to do in this series is to change people’s perceptions of what a complex society is. In the UK, the focus is always on Egypt and Babylon. Chimu is the closest to that. It had kings and queens. It had hierarchy and a big capital city. And it has warfare as well. It’s your first major empire in South America.

So you can see, we’re trying to get different themes and basically draw people in to thinking about South America in a slightly different way and contextualising South America within that global framework of understanding societies.

Why do you think these kingdoms have gone relatively unnoticed for so long?

First of all, you don’t have written sources, well not in the sense that we understand it. Egypt has hieroglyphics and the Maya region has glyphs. These written elements give people bite-sized facts that people like to have. I think that’s one major reason.

The second reason is that South America is a big continent and not much archeology has been done there for the past 300 years, particularly UK scholar level. Egypt has this very long historical tradition of archeologists going out there, year after year, for hundreds of years, developing a narrative. So has Greece. South America lacks that.

And thirdly, it’s quite a difficult place to work, for many different reasons. Environmental – some of the places are difficult to get to and hard to work. Politically, there have been some problems. For example, in Colombia and in Peru at different times and that really restricts the amount of work that has been done over the past 30 years. I think they are the major factors, really.

Were all these kingdoms remote and inaccessible?

Some of the sites you can drive to in a 4WD and some of them are much more remote. We wanted to get that balance between having that sense of exploration, going to sites you wouldn’t otherwise see.

In the Colombia programme, we go up to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, and to get there we had to hitch a helicopter ride with the Colombian army. Normally that would be a four or five day trek. So, yeah, it was a unique opportunity to see some of these sites.

But, if people watching this series are inspired to visit these sites, there are some they can visit?

They can go to Ciudad Perdida. It’s just that it’s a five day trek!

What do you think people will find most surprising about this series?

The diversity of environments in which people can thrive. Here in the UK, when we think of our environment, we think of the bucolic English countryside, and if you think about the Altiplano, it’s high up, the air is thin, it’s a harsh environment and yet you have half a million to a million people living in a complex society.

And then you contrast that with the desert, where there’s no water. How can you have these big societies in the desert? How do people organise water, organise irrigation? So I think that’s the most surprising thing is the diversity of these societies and environments that South America has in abundance.

One of the things I was intrigued by was the Quipu, a form of writing using knots and colours.

One of the great questions of South American archeology, one of its mysteries, are these Quipu. They have not been completely deciphered or understood. They are a form of writing, a form of recording information that you can travel between different places in different times, that is unlike any other tradition from around the world.

If you think of a system of writing as having a series of variables, you can have a number of different letters in a number of different orders, that’s what a Quipu is. You have the lengths of the strings. You have different twinings of the strings. You have different knots and numbers of knots. Different colours. So there are all of these different variables in Quipu that clearly have meaning, that is clearly a form of communication, and yet we haven’t deciphered it yet.

There’s a great guy called Gary Urton at Harvard who runs a Quipu database project, who’s been trying to decipher it for many years. They’re beautiful things, and because they don’t preserve very well, because they’re made out of textile, in most environments they won’t preserve, there’s only a very limited number of them left. We’ve got some great ones in the British Museum.

I wanted to touch on what you were saying about the Muisca and Tairona, about their value system and the importance of the environment and aesthetics. Do you think there are things modern society can learn from them?

Absolutely. That’s the big narrative of the Colombia episode. We look at the ancient cultures of the Muisca and the Tairona and then we also go to visit the present day Cogi. At the end of that programme we spend a lot of time with the Cogi, who are a very strong indigenous community who live in the centre of the geographical region of the Tairona and they’ve maintained a completely different value system to the European one and it’s one very much based on harmony with the environment and understanding humanity as part of a wider whole.

The environment is not something to be exploited for material wealth but one with which we are in a symbiotic relationship with. It nicely provides a narrative that says the Muisca and Tairona had a completely different value system in the past and this is what it looks like. It challenges us to think about our relationships to the environment and also our relationships to real objects and to question our value systems.

A lot of the ceremonies from the Tiwanaku are still kicking around in Bolivia today.

There are two real parts of that which are still going.

One, is festivals. You still have these fantastic festivals in Bolivia that are centred around the agricultural calendar. Tthe big part of the ideology is that it helps bring people together as a collective, which then allows you to tackle some really big agricultural projects like build big raised field systems, which you can use for intensive agriculture; anything you need to get a lot of people to do a lot of work at a particular time of the year, like planting and harvesting. These festivals still act as these things that bind together the social framework for society.

The other element is that the Imara indigenous community today still use ceremonies as part of their world view. So many of the archeological sites, like the site of Tiwanaku, are still used by Imara, especially at all the equinoxes, as part of giving rebirth, a much more spiritual link, the rebirth of the land

At the end of the programme we go to the Spring Equinox at the site of Tiwanaku with the Imara performer who still performs a ceremony there to welcome the start of the new agricultural year.

What was your favourite part of your journey?

Going into the Chachapoya territory, definitely. It was the only area I hadn’t worked in before, so for me it was the greatest journey of exploration.

What drew you to South America?

The great thing about South America is that it challenges what you expect to find. I went over the other side of the Andes and I was expecting to go into the Amazon. I was at the headwaters of the Amazon, but it was really this weird little micro-climate, where it's always raining and you’ve got like this real rain zone; the environment was just completely different to what I expected.

And among this you’ve got this huge archeological sites where hardly anyone has done any work.

What’s next?

Back to my job as a curator at the British Museum. Back to my lovely little objects.

Lost Kingdoms of South America is on BBC Four, Mondays at 9pm. The British Museum are currently showcasing treasures from the kingdoms to coincide with the series.