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April 30, 2001

Assistant dean plays role in History Channel program

By John Newman

If you've ever approached total synaptic stultification under the relentless fatuity of TV network programming, or felt like you were going to claw through the wallpaper if you heard one more inane sitcom laugh track, you've probably gotten on your remote and surfed some of those esoteric, double-digit cable combers. You may have even discovered the History Channel and one of its popular offerings: History's Mysteries.

Keith Muscutt and his archaeological work on the Andes Mountains will be featured on the History's Mysteries program.
Whether you're an HM fan, or simply tune in when the Simpsons rerun is one of those first-season stinkers, be sure to be watching on May 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. when Cliff Mummies of the Andes airs. The show focuses on the archaeological work, and itinerant Andean wandering, of UCSC assistant dean of the arts Keith Muscutt. Wait a minute, I can almost hear you saying, why is the UCSC assistant dean of the arts featured on a show about archaeology? Clever of you to notice. No, Muscutt's credentials are not scientific. For him archaeology is, in his own words, "a hobby"--but sometimes a hobby can produce impressive results.

Muscutt has been visiting and exploring the ancient homeland of the Chachapoya, in the remote Upper Amazon region of eastern Peru, since the early 1970s. In 1998, the University of New Mexico Press published his book Warriors of the Clouds, chronicling more than 20 years of travel and photography in the area. "Chachapoya," Muscutt informs us, is a Spanish corruption of the Inca name for indigenous people--and translates as "Cloud People." What the Cloud People called themselves in their own language, like almost everything else about them, has been lost.

The Chachapoya civilization flourished in the Upper Amazon about a thousand years ago until successive conquest by Inca and Spanish invaders, and the introduction of Old World diseases, decimated the population and their culture.

Today, little remains but the ruins of their ancient settlements and their numerous cliff tombs in which they buried their mummified dead.

Not surprisingly, most of the tombs have been looted, but Muscutt was always hopeful he'd find an unspoiled tomb that could speak to us across the centuries about the people and practices of this lost civilization. Without the sanction of the Peruvian Cultural Authority his search was restricted to scanning the cliff faces with long lenses, but in 1999 he was finally issued a permit and the help of government-sanctioned archaeologists. Within a matter of days, his 20-year search was rewarded with the discovery of an unmolested Chachapoya site.

History's Mysteries details the discovery, excavation, and ensuing political struggle over the remains, with Muscutt's informed asides throughout. It is a fascinating and compelling tale. In the end, it turns out that the "Cloud People" have more to tell us, and more links to the present, than anyone might expect.

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