The Great Inca Rebellion

The Producer's Story:
Unearthing Suppressed History
by Graham Townsley

When I first looked at background material on the project that became "The Great Inca Rebellion," I had mixed feelings, I must admit. I loved the idea of returning to Peru. I had spent many years there as an anthropology graduate student doing the fieldwork for my doctorate at Cambridge, and the place is very close to my heart. It has always inspired me. But when I looked hard at the story, my secret thoughts were these: Here we go again, another one of those TV films that make a big deal out of a minor archeological find, and we get to tell the story of the conquest of Peru for the 200th time!

The story seemed slight. I thought I knew exactly how it would all evolve.

It wasn't. I didn't.

That perfectly round little hole in that 500-year-old skull—if you haven't seen the film, have a quick look at the program description to learn what I'm talking about—that hole turned out to be the doorway to one of the most exciting scientific and intellectual adventures I have ever been part of.

Shaking an edifice

The scientific questions were clear enough: Was this or was this not a bullet hole? Were these or were these not the victims of the first battles of the conquest of Peru? If we could get a conclusive forensic result, that in itself would have been a real first: the first-ever forensic remains from one of the battles of the conquest, not just in Peru but anywhere in the Americas. In my experience, absolutely conclusive archeological or forensic results are few and far between, so I was amazed when we actually did get a conclusive result. It really was a bullet wound. These really were the first victims of the conquest ever found. And it was all beyond a shadow of any reasonable doubt.

The forensic trail was fascinating enough, but it was just the beginning of the adventure. When we were able to put the forensics together with a statistical analysis of the remains showing that although these individuals clearly died in a conquest skirmish, most of them appeared to have been killed not by Spanish weapons but by Indian ones—at that point things became even more interesting. When we connected those results up with painstaking and pioneering work done over the past few decades by historians of the conquest, I realized we had the makings of something truly remarkable—a new vision of the conquest and a radical deconstruction of one of the grand narratives of world history, the European conquest of the Americas.

Pizarro's conquest of Peru is at the core of that long-established narrative and has traditionally been taken to exemplify its key themes: the great march of European expansion, the West's invincible technological prowess, the cosmic bad luck of the Indians' lack of resistance to European diseases, the tragic but beautiful Indian inability to comprehend what was happening to them, and so on. But here was a discovery that seemed to challenge all of that.

Reconstructing the story

The forensic side of the story started with the Peruvian archeologist Guillermo Cock's discovery of a mass grave of Indians, whom he was able to determine were killed at one of the most famous battles of the conquest, the Siege of Lima. This battle has conventionally been portrayed as the brave rout of a vast Inca army by a handful of wily and determined conquistadors commanded by Pizarro. Cock's discoveries pointed in the opposite direction. This pivotal battle of the conquest was won not by Spanish cruelty or brilliance, not by European technological superiority, nor by European diseases. This was essentially a clash of Indians against Indians.

I felt like I was creating a collective memory for people and events erased from history.

And this, I found, corroborated the recent findings of historians like the Peruvian Maria Rostworowski, who, in long-forgotten legal documents, have found striking evidence of the broad scope of the alliances between conquistadors and rebel Peruvian chiefdoms that were anxious to free themselves from Inca domination.

Again, I saw the potential for a really captivating film: not only a genuinely new story to tell about the conquest, but a very poignant human drama, the final day and deaths of the people killed at the Siege of Lima.

What was that day like? What did Mochito—the Indian whose brutalized remains led researchers to give him this name, meaning "the severed one"—and his people think as they went off to their deaths? To spend days around their battered skeletons, hear from the forensic scientists about the moment of each person's death, learn from the archeologists and historians what was probably going on around them as they died, became a strangely moving experience. The longer I spent trying to imagine their last day, the closer I felt to them.

It became very important to me to tell the stories of their lives and deaths well. I felt like I was creating a collective memory for people and events erased from history because they didn't fit a narrative constructed by their conquerors. I went to great pains to try and recreate that last day of their lives as faithfully as possible. The actors and extras were wonderful. Mostly drama students or actors working in Peruvian soap operas, they threw themselves into the project with great enthusiasm. Like everybody involved with the film, I think they found it refreshing to help tell a quite different story of the conquest from the account they had all grown up with.

No simple heroes

The production left us all with vivid memories and big questions. What does it do to the traditional narrative of the conquest to learn that its battles were overwhelmingly decided not by Spanish technological or intellectual superiority but by bitter conflicts within the Indian world? That the Spanish were to some extent bystanders of an Indian civil war?

The first thing it does is to complicate our understanding in compelling ways. The conquest of Peru looks less like the inevitable march of European expansion and more like a fluke. Pizarro looks less like a conquering hero and more like the adventurer he was, who had the enormous good fortune to wander into an Indian civil war and the wit to know how to manipulate it to his advantage. The Inca look less like noble victims and more like complex human beings with sophisticated thinking and complex motivations, some of them just as low and scheming as the Europeans'. Suddenly everything appears a lot messier and more interesting. We no longer have a saga with clear heroes, villains, and victims. We're back in the real world, where things never quite happen the way they do in stories.

In a funny way, making this film also restored my faith in television documentary.

The realities we reveal in our film also raise the intriguing question of why all this was erased from history in the first place. We did not have space to delve into this in detail, but it is fascinating and really deserves its own film. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the true story of the conquest does not flatter anybody involved, for exactly the reasons outlined above. Nobody comes out as either good hero or good victim, and much in terms of self-image was at stake in maintaining those roles.

History's higher stakes

There were also, however, very real political and economic considerations. The conquistadors enlisted the massive support of Indian allies by promising them huge payoffs once the war was over. They would receive lands, money, and influence. When the war really was "won," it was enormously beneficial economically to the conquistadors to simply forget their promises and debts. And who, after all, was going to enforce them?

On the Indian side of the equation the dilemmas were harsher. When the great chiefs who had allied themselves with the Spanish realized that they were not, as they had thought, equal partners in the much-desired ousting of the Incas but had in fact colluded in the self-destruction of their entire world, they were horrified and, finally, ashamed. Naturally, they did not want to go down in the grand narrative as the collaborators who had betrayed their own people. So they too had something to gain from a tale of inexorable Spanish victory. It at least allowed them to salvage some pride from the disaster.

Faith restored

I find all this curiously moving and powerful. It seems to restore to the world of Inca Peru, so complex and divided against itself, a sort of epic and tragic grandeur.

In a funny way, making this film also restored my faith in television documentary. As I said earlier, like all filmmakers I know all too well the pressure to always simplify, to rehash old, well-known stories in an attempt to make them entertaining all over again. It sometimes seems that TV lives in a world of endlessly recycled cliché.

"The Great Inca Rebellion" was different. NOVA immediately bought into the freshness and rich complexity of the story, and the whole experience was heartening. It reminded me that it is possible to tell new and intricate stories on TV, and that people want to see them. That potential is, after all, why I became a filmmaker in the first place.

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Skeleton with blue cloth

Battered skeletons uncovered on the outskirts of Peru's capital tell a radically different story of the Siege of Lima than that chronicled by the Spanish conquistadors.

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Of 70 individuals in the Puruchuco cemetery, only three show clear signs of having been killed by Spanish weapons. One of them is the individual known as Mochito, whose skull (above) is thought to have been pierced three times by Spanish steel, possibly from horseback. (At this time, New World Indians had neither steel nor horses.)

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Part of the skeleton of Mochito, who apparently died a very violent death during the siege.

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"Pizarro looks less like a conquering hero and more like the adventurer he was," Townsley writes.


"The whole world is addicted to the idea of great battles, great generals, of victors and the vanquished," Townsley has said. "But this story reminds us that every conquest is really achieved by complex behind-the-scenes action (by allies, spies, secret deals, etc.) which is later forgotten about."

Graham Townsley wrote and produced "The Great Inca Rebellion." He is a documentary filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. Originally trained as an anthropologist, Townsley has written, researched, and filmed extensively in Latin America.

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