At the Spanish discovery, South America, like the Northern continent, was, in a great portion, peopled by half-savage tribes, resembling the Indians of our own country. Some powerful and partially civilized kingdoms, however, yet survived, and of these, the empire of the Peruvian Incas was the first. Under the sway of these powerful sovereigns was comprehended an extensive district, lying along the Pacific coast for many hundreds of miles. Other nations, in their vicinity, of whose history we are ignorant, also possessed a considerable share of power and independent government.
The antiquities of these regions, so similar to those of the Northern continent, appear to prove a similarity of origin in their founders. Very numerous mounds occur, some of them two hundred feet in height, and containing relics of the dead. Urns of fine construction, and human bodies interred in a sitting posture, have been excavated. Embalming has evidently been extensively practiced, and in many instances the arid nature of the soil, without this precaution, has preserved the bodies of its ancient inhabit ants. Caverns appear to have been frequently adopted as cemeteries. In one of these, six hundred skeletons were found, bent double, and regularly arranged in baskets. Stone tombs, of a very massive construction, have also been disinhumed.
In these mounds and graves are found a great variety of ancient implements, of gold, copper, and stone. Exquisite carvings in stone, and jewels evincing great skill in the lapidary, have been discovered. The idols of gold and copper are often of singular construction, being formed of thin plates of metal, hammered into their respective shapes, without a single seam. Stone mirrors and vases of marble, weapons, domestic utensils, cotton cloth of fine texture, and the implements of ancient mining, have also been frequently brought to light.
The system of ancient agriculture and of artificial irrigation appears to have been extremely ingenious, and well adapted to the nature of the soil and climate, reminding us strongly of the Chinese industry in effecting similar objects. The steepest mountains were laid out in terraces, and aqueducts of the most solid and durable construction conveyed water for domestic uses, and the fertilization of land. In some instances, the pipes of these aqueducts were of gold a circumstance, which excited the cupidity of the Spaniards, and contributed to their destruction.
The public roads and causeways laid out by this ancient people may justly compete with the most celebrated works of the same kind in the old world. Their Cyclopean architecture, and the ingenuity with which the greatest natural difficulties have been overcome, excite the admiration of travelers and inquirers. ” We were surprised,” says Humboldt, ” to find at this place (Assuay), and at heights which greatly surpass the top of the Peak of Teneriffe, the magnificent remains of a road constructed by the Incas of Peru. This Causeway, lined with freestone, may be compared to the finest Roman roads I have seen, in Italy, France, or Spain. It is perfectly straight, and keeps the same direction for six or eight thousand meters. We observed the continuation of this road near Caxamarca, one hundred and twenty leagues to the south of Assuay, and it is believed, in the country, that it led as far as the city of Cuzco.” When complete, it extended from Cuzco to Quito, a distance of five hundred leagues.
“One of these great roads passed through the plains near the sea, and the other over the mountains in the interior. Augustin de Carate says that for the construction of the road over the mountains, they were compelled to cut away rocks, and to fill up chasms, often from ninety to one hundred and twenty feet deep, and that when it was first made, it was so plain and level, that a carriage might easily pass over it; and of the other, which pursued a less difficult route, that it was forty feet wide, and as it was carried through valleys, in order to avoid the trouble of rising and descending, it was constructed upon a high embankment of earth.”
The ruins of many edifices, all of massive construction, and all bearing the marks of similarity of origin, are scattered throughout a great expanse of country. In the ancient city of Tiahuanaco, built before the days of the Incas, the architecture appears to have been of the most massive character, reminding us of the Cyclopean structures at Baalbec and Mycenae. Immense porches and doorways, each formed of a single stone, and supported on masses of similar magnitude, struck the early travelers with astonishment. In Cuzco, the city of the Incas, are many remains of a singular character. The walls are built of stones, of great dimensions, and, though of many angles, fitted so accurately that the interstices can scarcely be seen. On a round mountain near Caxamarca, are the extensive ruins of a city, built in terraces, and constructed of such enormous stones, that a single slab often forms the entire side of an apartment. Above these circular terraces, seven in number, appear the remains of a great for tress or palace. Many cities of a similar construction have been discovered. In some instances, pointed or bell-shaped roofs, composed of stones laid in cement, have been remarked. Some of the ruins are constructed of unburnt brick, exceedingly hardened by the sun.
Many sculptures, evincing great skill and delicacy, still exist. These are the more remarkable when it is considered that the chief instruments of the ancient inhabitants were, probably, for the most part, composed only of hardened copper. Of this material, their weapons, often of exquisite manufacture, were composed. Far to the northward, beyond the dominion of the Incas, inscriptions and figures may be found sculptured on the rocks. ” On the banks of the Orinoco, and in various parts of Guiana, there are rude figures traced upon granite and other hard stones, some of them, like those in the United States, cut at an immense height upon the face of perpendicular rocks. They represent the sun and moon, tigers, crocodiles, and snakes, and occasionally they appear to be hieroglyphical figures, and regular characters.”
The surprising number of these ruins and relics, and the great space over which they extend, indicate the existence, for many ages, of a people possessing all the power which regular government, settled institutions, and national character can give. ” In examining,” says Mr. Bradford, “the line of civilization, as indicated at present by these ancient remains, which is found to commence on the plains of Varinas, and to extend thence to the ruins of the stone edifices, which were observed about the middle of the last century, on the road over the Andes, in the province of Cujo, in Chili, or to the road described by the Jesuit Imonsff, or to the ancient aqueducts upon the banks of the river Maypocho, in south latitude thirty-three degrees, sixteen minutes, we are surprised to discover a continuous, unbroken chain of these relics of aboriginal civilization. Reverting to the epoch of their construction, we are presented with the astonishing spectacle of a great race cultivating the earth, and possessing many of the arts diffused at an early period through an immense territory, three thousand miles in extent. Even up to the time of the discovery, most of this vast region was occupied by populous tribes, who were dependent upon agriculture for subsistence, were clothed, and in the enjoyment of regular systems of religion, and their own peculiar forms of government. From conquest, and various causes, some sovereignties had increased more rapidly than others; but still, whether we are guided by the testimony of the Spanish invaders, or by the internal evidence yet existent in the ancient ruins, it is impossible not to trace, alike in their manners, customs, and physical appearance, and in the general similitude observable in the character of their monuments, that they were all members of the same family of the human race, and probably of identical origin.”