Cochineal Red, by Hugh Thomson

Threads of a lost past in Peru
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The Independent Culture

Few places on earth are as beautiful as the Peruvian Highlands. Arriving by dawn at Cuzco, the whitewashed town pulses into a golden light. It feels as if the sun is like a heart, filling the ancient Inca capital with life. The serrated brown hills around disgorge ruins. Yet while their monuments are everywhere, the vision of the people who built them is more difficult to grasp. However, such ancient sites are capable of reminding us of the diversity of human understanding.

In this book, the Andeanist explorer and writer Hugh Thomson tries to capture something of the excitement of entering into such worlds. He begins by exploring Inca sites close to Machu Picchu. From this adventurous beginning, he returns into the past by examining the coastal cultures that preceded the Incas. It is a jaunty guide to a cultural universe in which virtually every aspect appears to have come from "an absolutely alien mindset".

From the Inca highlands, Thomson takes us to the sites excavated within the last 20 years along Peru's desert coast, revealing advanced civilisations that flourished as long as 4,000 years ago. What does one make of the Moche, who built pyramidal complexes as large as those of Egypt, depicting ritual sacrifices? Or the extraordinary petroglyphs at Toro Muerto, where 5,000 etchings into the desert constitute one of the largest fields of rock art in the world?

As Thomson shows, these were people of great aesthetic sensibility, capable of creating meaning out of the wild landscapes that were their home. At Nasca, the famous lines depicting hummingbirds and jaguars across the desert were woven one at a time, like the threads of the cloths so ubiquitous in Andean cultures. With his typical insightfulness, Thomson draws on the latest scholarship to suggest that these lines derived from the Nasca weaving skills.

What makes Cochineal Red such a worthwhile book is that it is written by someone who is both an explorer and a scholar. We may begin with Thomson hacking through jungle paths, but he has read widely and talked to all the specialists. The result is an enjoyable, erudite and fascinating insight into cultures that, as they become temporally more distant, grow in importance in shaping our understanding of civilisation.

Toby Green's book on the Inquisition will be published next year by Macmillan