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"How Real Is That Ruin? Don't Ask, the Locals Say"

The New York Times, March 2006


CHUCUITO, Peru — Inside a thick-walled rectangular ruin, a crowd of gawkers from around the world stood among rows of carved-stone posts protruding from the earth.


"Then she would sit on top," said Allison, the 11-year-old tour guide, pointing to a five-foot high, mushroom-shaped object that many say looks too much like a phallus to be anything else. Incan priests would pour chicha, or corn beer, on the woman trying to conceive, the girl explained in a robotic spiel, and determine the future child's sex by which side of the monolith the libation ran down.


Or maybe they didn't.


No one disputes that the structure, called the Inca Uyo, is hundreds of years old. Everyone further agrees that the site, in the middle of a grassy enclosure where soccer matches and bullfights were once held, has been a moneymaker for this small town on the Andean high plains, near Lake Titicaca. But what seems all but certain is that the ruin, with 86 of the carved stones inside it, is not the ancient fertility temple that many here like to say it is.


After all, a local restaurant owner can recount how, a dozen years ago, he jokingly proposed arranging the suggestive stones so the town could market the Inca Uyo as the site of ancient fertility rites. And a former director of the local branch of Peru's National Institute of Culture describes finding the first of the stones in a storage shed around the same time.


But those facts — and exposés in the national news media here — have not squelched the blend of archaeology, entrepreneurship and imagination that has made obscure little Chucuito a lure for globe-trotting tourists. And there is just enough of the truly ancient here to sustain the myth, and the attendant commerce it fuels, making the ruin another example of a cultural icon that is both too good to be true and too valuable to be disowned.

The Inca Uyo's walls of large interlocking stones were authenticated in the 1950's by Marion and Harry Tschopik, archaeologists who specialized in Peru. Experts also agree that the objects inside are ancient and come from local quarries. The problem is that excavations did not reveal, and most scholarly articles do not suppose, that they were ever arranged upright in rows, as they are today.


"You have a legitimate archaeological site and inside you have a lot of pieces that are architectural objects that were found and collected by the municipality many years ago," said Charles Stanish, the director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has worked extensively in Peru. "It's become a cultural icon, and people get very upset when you say it's not legitimate, because there is obviously a huge tourist industry that has been built around it."


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Read the full article at The New York Times' website.