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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Inca History by Catherine Julien
  • Madeline Barbara Léons
Reading Inca History. By Catherine Julien. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000

This volume deals with Inca history from their mythological origin through their rise of their Andean empire, brought down by the Spanish conquest. All versions of the Inca past identify eleven rulers, called Incas, from Manco Capac, who, with his siblings, emerged from a cave and settled in the valley of Cuzco to the feuding brothers, Atahuallpa and Huascar, into whose civil war the Spanish intruded. However, all we know about this history comes to us through the filter of colonial accounts written by Spaniards. As Catherine Julien points out, by the twenty-first century we have become very sophisticated about what goes into the writing of history; it is not so much the revelation of a hidden truth as a representation of the past according to the perspectives and interests of those who set it down. This is particularly clear in the case of the Spanish chroniclers of the history of the conquered Inca Empire, who were cultural outsiders to the traditions they presented and who wrote, often at decades remove in time, after its collapse. Although their accounts are presumably based on Inca sources, (which may have been incompletely understood), they recount the history of the Inca to satisfy their own concerns and to legitimate their conquest. In the process they filtered their retelling through their own concepts, for example “king”, which did not precisely correspond to Andean models.

Given what documentation we have on the Inca past was recorded by Spaniards who understood and reinterpreted what they learned in their own way, Julien proposes to uncover the underlying Inca content of the Spanish narration of their history. She is trying to reconstruct, as an anthropologist would put it, the natives’ point of view: how the Inca themselves represented their own past. But is it possible to engage in such an anthropological project when there are, in fact, no natives to interview? Julien believes she can do so by comparing those accounts their Spanish authors claimed were based on material from Inca informants in order to tease out the commonalities that would represent the underlying Inca source material, either oral, pictorial or in the form of information coded in quipus, the knotted string memory assistive devices employed by the Inca. Much of her account is devoted to uncovering the nuggets of that source material, often through side by side comparison of her sources summarized and printed in adjoining columns.

Julien identifies two main genres which she believes to be authentic to the ordering of the underlying Inca sources, the genealogical and the life history of particular rulers, along with others, like “stories”, that occasionally reveal themselves. Once she uncovers the Inca genres that underlie the Spanish accounts of Inca history and inventories their contents to discover what the Inca understood to be their own past, her intention is to “read” these sources for the “themes and messages” they contain. She wishes not merely to present the natives’ point of view but to interpret it to answer her own questions. Just as she examines the perceptions and motives of the Spanish chroniclers she also assumes, and finds textual justification for her assumption, that the underlying Inca narratives were far from disinterested but created to validate the claims to status of particular Inca rulers and to justify their right to the empire they created. She finds evidence that Pachacuti, the ninth Inca, codified the accounts of his predecessors into the form that was subsequently transmitted, in a way that reflected the dominance that the Inca had by then achieved. Nevertheless, she treats the version reflecting successful empire building as a palimpsest wherein an earlier time when the Inca were subordinate to stronger neighbors might be glimpsed.

A quest to explain Inca history requires, explicitly or implicitly, theoretical assumptions about the nature of what is to be explained and why some explanations are more likely to be correct than others. In this regard Julien, championing historiography, contrasts her approach with that of ahistorical “structuralist anthropology” as represented by the work of Tom Zuidema. Zuidema rejects the...

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