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The Discovery of Cota Coca; Gateway City to Choquequirao - a Royal Geographical Society Expedition R

Cota Coca

Reconnaissance Project 2002

A Report by Gary Ziegler and Hugh Thomson

to the Royal Geographical Society


Ziegler has extensive knowledge of the area dating back to the 1960s when he first led reconnaissance teams to the area, having completed his doctoral work in Inca archaeology. He has published several field studies of important sites.

Thomson worked with teams from the Cusichaca Project in 1982 and has since travelled and researched extensively in the Peruvian Vilcabamba and written about the area: he is the author of The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland and of a critical edition of Hiram Bingham’s Lost City of the Incas.

Ziegler and Thomson had previously done reconnaissance work together in other areas of the Vilcabamba. Acting on information Ziegler had received from a local farmer on a previous trip and some preliminary investigation, the aim of this reconnaissance expedition was to map and clear a previously unreported and unexamined Inca site in the lower Yanama valley, in an area traditionally known by the name of Cota Coca.

The site proved to be an important and substantial addition to the pattern of already known Inca settlements in the Vilcabamba area.

Logistical support was generously provided by Barry Walker, the British Consul in Cuzco, and Peru based Manu Expeditions. The expedition was also greatly helped by the support given by Mr Simon Sherwood and the Orient Express and Perurail companies.

Reconnaissance: May 2002

The approach route was from Cachora, passing across the Apurímac and over-nighting in Choquequirao, where it was possible to liase with COPESCO archaeologist Percy Paz, who knows this area well.

After crossing the pass above the Choquequirao ruins, at approximately 3100 metres, the team descended to the Río Blanco at 1850m: it was not possible to traverse around the lower Río Blanco valley, due to the severe erosion of the valley at that point, so a further ascent had to be made to a campsite at 2950m belowCerro Victoria, before being able to descend to the small mesa at the bottom of the Yanama valley where the Cota Coca ruins are found.

The Cota Coca site lies at 1850m ( GPS map location: 18L 0727848-UTM 8521494) near the junction of the Yanama and Blanco rivers.) It is on an isolated bench or mesa some two kilometres long, left as an eroded remnant when the Río Yanama river cut a deep chasm near its intersection with the Río Blanco.

This area of the Vilcabamba is characterised by the deep canyons which rivers such as the Apurímac and Urubamba have made through the mountain ranges on their rapid descent to the Amazon basin.

The valley bottom at Cota Coca is hot and semi-tropical with a micro-climate environment created by the deep canyon. Like the nearby Inca site of Choquequirao, the bed rock is an assortment of metamorphic muscovite schist and fine grained yellow quartzite. A considerable depth of alluvial deposit swept in by river flooding and canyon breakdown covers the valley floor. Much of this material is made up of igneous grey granite in the form of rounded river stones that have been carried downstream.

An initial clearance showed that Cota Coca contains at least thirty stone-built structures, including a seventy-five foot long kallanka ( meeting hall ) grouped around a great central plaza, with some walls standing to a height of 3 metres

Construction and architectural features are in the style typical of this part of the Vilcabamba, derived from the construction characteristics of the local rock type. The schist, quartzite and metamorphosed sediments comprising the southern Vilcabamba range break along parallel molecular alignment representing the bedding planes of compressed ancestral shale and sandstone. Unlike the granite of Machu Picchu and the limestone/andesite of Cuzco, this material can only be worked into square, flat or rectangular shapes.

This geological feature was previously identified by Ziegler in his work at Choquequirao. It may be one reason why Hiram Bingham and others long discounted Choquequirao as having inferior construction and architecture to other monumental sites. Bingham did not realize that the fragile metamorphic rock of the Apurímac region would not permit the fine polygonal shapes and massive blocks commonly associated with monumental and high status Inca architecture – nor that the stonework was probably plastered

The best construction at Cota Coca consists of shaped, fitted rectangular blocks of quartzite seen in the construction of the doorways, windows and corners. Walls are made either of coursed stone, or of fitted and mortared smaller blocks of mixed schist and quartzite fieldstone. As at Choquequirao, most structures were probably plastered over with a tan-coloured clay, giving the appearance of a `Santa Fe’ pueblo house.

Windows and entrance ways are almost rectangular and reminiscent of many structures in the Ridge and Huranchanca groups at Choquequirao. Niches are not evident.

Outside the central area are more well made rectangular houses: there are also some low, round auxiliary structures that may have been wooden-sided above a stone-walled base, as there was no evidence of rubble.

Beyond the main sector are two large walled enclosures, (c. 175' x 100'), possibly used as holding pens for passing llama trains: Cota Coca lies along the route from Vitcos to Choquequirao and across the Apurímac to the Capac-nan, the ‘royal road’, which runs across Peru. Because of severe erosion in the lower Yanama valley, this route has fallen into disuse and sections have been lost.

Sector I: The main sector consists of a large walled cancha (compound ) enclosing a central plaza bordered on three sides by unusual buildings and a smaller cancha with two well constructed houses facing each other in Inca style. The group is arranged in classic Inca cancha arrangement [cf Moseley p75].

The team divided the site into a further four sectors in addition to this main group:

Sector I- Main Cancha Group

Sector II- West group

Sector III- Corrals and Walls

Sector IV- South Group

Sector V- Canal House and Canal

Sector II was made up of 12 low-walled, one metre high structures up to 10 metres in length that may have supported wooden-sided houses. Some of these were rectangular, while some were oval. They are similar to structures at Pincha Unuyoc (the site near Choquequirao first reported by Thomson in a reconnaissance project of 1982). All would have had thatched grass roofs. Each has a single entrance way made from coursed, selected and squared quartzite blocks.

Sector III is contained by the long walls that begin some 50 metres to the south of the main cancha and run parallel and near the river course along a north-south axis. A stepped round wall enclosing several boulders at the far south end of one of the enclosures appears to be a huaca or small shrine.

Sector IV is an area of round low walled structures made from large rounded river stone, usually some 4-7 metre in diameter. This group may have been pre-Inca or be have been for imported worker (mitamayos) satellite housing away from the main group. We were not able to clear and examine all of these so the exact number is unknown.

Sector V is a single rectangular house perched on a small rise overlooking the river and a wide depression running for some distance that we believe to be a acequia or water canal now left dry by the eroding river cut below. A long stone wall runs at a slight angle to the depression. This sector lies to the north of the main group and approximately 300 metres up river.

Connecting Inca Roads

A main Inca road appears to have passed near the site and down the Yanama valley, which has experienced much flooding and lowering of the water channel since Inca times.

The Incas at the apex of their expansion in the early 16th century maintained a complex system of all weather roads and secondary branch routes estimated at 30,000-40,000 kilometres [cf Hyslop, also Moseley, The Incas and Their Ancestors,10]. The main roads were up to 4.5 metres wide where permitted by the terrain, paved with flat, fitted stones and retained by stone walls. Raised causeways crossed wet or boggy areas and stepped stairways with switch backs carried official travellers over mountain passes.

Several principal Inca roadways pass into and through Vilcabamba connecting the various sites through a network of roads and secondary pathways [cf Lee 2000, Ziegler 2001, Hyslop 1984, Kendall 1984]. A number of factors make following these routes difficult: dense forest, thick undergrowth vegetation and numerous landslides which have truncated and covered the way.

The Yanama valley road is likely to be the continuation of the Vitcos-Choquequirao route coming over the Choquetecarpo Pass, bound for a crossing over the Apurímac. The section below the pass measures up to 4.5 metres wide in open areas and crosses over steep areas, with some retaining walls more than 6 metres high. An important individual contribution by John Leivers led to the discovery of a further Inca road and a number of accompanying structures beginning up towards Choquequirao, as a branching route from the main Inca path not far from the confluence of the Yanama and Blanco rivers.

Historical Data

It is unlikely that the site was visited or known of following the fall of the last Sapa Inca, Tupac Amaru, in 1572. However one early explorer, the Comte de Sartiges, passed this way to reach Choquequirao in 1834. He refers in his writing to the lower Yanama Valley being “known as Cotacoca” although he makes no mention of ruins. The dense forestation means that it would be easy to miss them and he seems to have kept to the riverbank. He commented at the time that he “thought it unlikely anyone could have inhabited this narrow valley because of the numerous and voracious mosquitoes that have taken possession of it. It was impossible to breathe, drink or eat without absorbing quantities of these insufferable creatures.” [Sartiges 1950]

Later explorers almost always approached Choquequirao from the more accessible access point of Cachora and the Apurímac crossing on the other side of that ruin. Indeed it is unlikely that any of the early visitors to Choquequirao found Cota Coca. Although only a few air miles distant, they are a world away across a deep canyon with connecting Inca routes long lost and severed. The new site of Cota Coca has never been documented, reported or known to the outside world until this present investigation.

Preliminary Interpretation

Time and resources were limited by the extreme conditions, physical exhaustion and difficult access, so any initial interpretations are preliminary and await excavation.

The main group of buildings (Sector I) containing the large meeting hall and a smaller compound may have served as overnight lodgings for high status Inca travellers on what would have been an important route, particularly in the neo-Inca period when communication from Vitcos towards the Apurímac would have been of paramount importance to the exiled Inca court.

In general, the lay out is functional rather than ceremonial. Some buildings in the outlying Sectors may have housed resident administrators, quipucamayos (record keepers) workers, servants and the usual assortment of retainers living and working about such an outpost. The number of closely grouped round and oval structures may have been a combination of resident mitamayo ( imported workers) lodging and store houses for corn and other commodities.

As with most such sites, the surrounding area would have been cultivated and may have also been a coca growing region which the climate and altitude would permit (it is similar in altitude and situation to the Picchu valley, which we know produced coca, [cf Rowe 87] and the area may also have been known as Cota Coca because of this).

The flat and sometimes walled fields along the upriver approach to the site and the possible remains of a water canal suggest that tropical fruit may have been grown as well. However the complex is not an agricultural settlement.

The relative altitudes and positions of this site and the recently reported Corihuayrachina/Victoria site which lies above it would suggest that they formed part of a vertically integrated agricultural zone, with the Cota Coca site as the main administrative centre and the much smaller Corihuayrachina (at an altitude band above 3000m) providing high-altitude crops and possibly a ceremonial platform.

Cota Coca appears to have been an administrative and storage/supply centre on the main road between the interior of Vilcabamba and the Apurímac region beyond.

The surmise is that it may have been initially built, abandoned and utilised at the same times as Choquequirao and Corihuayrachina/Victoria as part of a network of interconnected, economically supportive sites. The pottery and archaeological record at these sites indicates early transitional (Kilke) occupation followed by imperial Inca (type A and B) and then neo-Inca.

The hope is to undertake or support a further more detailed investigation including excavation of Cota Coca that will produce more data before the site is disturbed or looted. Currently, in co-ordination with the Victoria/Corihuayrachina project, Froilán Muños and Valentín Saca are guarding the approaches to both sites with the authorisation of the Peruvian I.N.C.


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