Monday, May 18, 2020

c. 1040 - A Vision of Water Running Uphill from Lake Titicaca

The Tiwanaku state in the middle region of the Andes Mountains faced terrible strife. Social unrest had shaken the region a generation before, wrecking urban centers with such ferocity that even the enormous stone Gateway of the Sun had been toppled. Later scholars would believe this low point was due to the beginning of drying climatic change for the region as food prices rose due to poor harvests. If not for a miraculous discovery of hydro-engineering, the entire region could have collapsed.

Tiwanaku peoples had flourished centuries before thanks to the development of farming using flooded-raised fields. Compared with traditional farming that would yield some 2.4 metric tons of potatoes per hectare, the system of using raised mounds surrounded by shallow canals generated some 21 metric tons in the same space. The water in the canals prevented frosts from damaging much of the farmland. Further, the canals could be used as fish farms, adding available protein while fertilizing the raised mounds. Adopting high-yield agriculture allowed specialization, turning much of the population to manufacturers of ceramics, textiles, and metalwork. Everything depended upon good rains, however, and the increasingly bad droughts might soon promote a mass exodus to wetter regions south.

In the midst of the coming disaster, a priest of Viracocha, the creator of all things, called a public assembly to demonstrate a new method of drawing water out of Lake Titicaca. He had been granted a vision during his prayers of crying out to the hot sun to turn to rainstorms when he saw the waters of the lake flow upward onto the land to refill the deserted canals. Some scoffed, saying the amount of work needed to run jars of water could not be kept up, but the priest countered by rotating his staff in the water with attached potsherds that drew up the water at regular intervals. Later European visitors would recognize the device being similar to a water screw, also called the Archimedes’ screw.

Religious fervor seized the troubled region, and enormous versions of the water-raising tools were constructed with each contributor receiving a guaranteed share of the crops in proportion to their input. Harvests recovered, and social issues with wealthy landowners stockpiling food were widely alleviated. As the culture returned to specialization, a new branch of priests and priestesses arose to divine other new technology from the gods. It was a clear religious continuation: the ancient legend of Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo told how these descendants of Viracocha had been born out of Lake Titicaca in ancient days when humans lived as animals to teach them agriculture, weaving and sewing, construction, law, and to make fire.

In the coming years, the technology-driven priesthood would devise numerous inventions for making labor more efficient. Spinning devices and looms revolutionized the textile industry so that one person could do the work of a dozen. The quipu, a system of knotted strings to hold records, had long existed with distinct meaning to the placement and size of knots. By running the knots as a “program” through machines, looms could be automated to create particular designs with colored string.

The rains returned to the region, and the water screws were no longer necessary for irrigation, so many were reversed to create screw turbines that generated power. Rather than requiring human or animal labor to drive their machines, Tiwanaku peoples could tap into the flow of water to drive their work. Soon organized factories rose up along the waterways with a moneyless system of exchange through goods and labor.

Metallurgy improved, too, which drove other discoveries. Being high in the mountains, furnaces required specialized air-blowing systems to be hot enough to smelt ore. Artisans noted how the hot air rose and sought to capture it for work as the flowing waters had been. Weak turbine engines gradually came into development, along with specially stretched and tanned animal intestines that made balloons for religious services. Mining tapped new sources of iron and coal that enabled fire-driven engines to drive machines away from rivers.

In the 1400s, one of the neighboring states in Cusco, the Inca, rose up to conquer the others. Their creation legend included further siblings to Mama Ocllo and Manco Capac (whom they called Ayar Manco and considered their first king), including the warrior goddess Mama Huaca. Taking command in 1438, divine ruler Pachacuti began a tradition of aggressive expansion through spying out power centers and sending ambassadors to persuade them to join him with promises of expanded wealth. If the local leaders refused, military conquest followed with the leaders being executed. Either way, the conquered area soon prospered under Inca administration. Through only a few generations, the empire grew up and down the west coast of South America, uniting a wide language base.

During this conquest, the Inca weaponized technology, such as adapting balloons into siege weapons to drop diseased animals into strongholds for biological warfare. The balloons also became a method of communication by using mirrors to deliver messages in a complex code based on reflecting sunlight on silver mirrors for certain intervals and durations, much like the quipu. Chasqui runners on foot carried quipu and oral messages as much as 150 miles per day while llamas laden with goods acted as transport along mountain roads.

A new crisis struck the area with visitors from Europe. While the attempted coup by Spaniard Pizzaro ended in disaster with the emperor Athualpca’s escape via his royal balloon, the Inca were ravaged by diseases brought by trade. The scientific priesthood turned their attention fully to the plague, and methods of quarantine and controlled exposure to weaker strains through variolation minimized the effects as much as could be possible. Counter-expeditions by the Inca seized European technology such as the wagon, tacking to sail into the wind, iron weapons, and written records. Wheeled transport with Incan gas-turbine engines expanded trade, and turbine-driven balloons made conquest eastward over the mountains possible. While Incan chemistry could not unravel gunpowder, the Incan pneumatic rifle was smokeless and had a better rate of fire.

Eventually the Incan Empire normalized relations with the outside world, gaining allies to balance against Spanish incursion to the north and Portuguese to the east. English and Dutch ships were eager to buy up Incan manufactures, which soon outpaced China as the biggest exporter in the world economy. As calculations became too complex even for advanced yupana tables that used spatial meaning, Inca priest-engineers adapted their quipu-programmed automated looms into mechanical, and then electrical, computing. Inca technology became the groundwork of the icon-based worldwide digital communication network.


In reality, the Tiwanaku state did collapse roughly 1,000 years ago, although the exact reasons remain unknown. The Incan empire grew up in the region several hundred years later, ruling a vast stretch of land over 2,500 miles long. It came under a new stress of disease and civil war shortly before being overtaken by Spanish Conquistadors.

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