I followed Esteban and his flock of sheep up the stony path toward Winaq, the mountain crowned with ancient ruins just beyond Macashca, a little town in the Peruvian Andes whose name means “the beaten people.” For months, I had been hunting for myths and legends to inform my dissertation about climate change. I wanted to know how it was understood by the people who bear its brunt. In Macashca, Winaq emerged as a central but only partially drawn character. “You have to see it,” people told me, declining to elaborate. So one Sunday afternoon found me carrying my baby in a sling, struggling to keep pace with a spry, sixty-four-year-old farmer over enormous, parched hills beneath a merciless sun. Atop each ridge, he pointed: “Over there. Do you see?” I squinted. I saw nothing.

Macashca sits in the Huaylas Valley in Peru’s central highlands. This place became, to me, a global stage on which battled the forces demanding growth and the force of nature itself. Here, the Santa River divides the hulking Cordillera Negra, reaching 15,000 feet, and the Cordillera Blanca, whose icy peaks soar to 22,000 feet. The Huaylas valley’s strip of dusty towns formed through successive historical traumas, beginning with the Spanish conquest, and centuries of dispossession, exploitation, and persecution of native people. Natural disasters periodically ravage the area, too: floods from glacial lakes, massive landslides, and earthquakes (the most recent killed 70,000) have sculpted the land and popular memory. Now, as the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca melt, another slower disaster unfolds. And although the area hosts two of the world’s most profitable mines, the surrounding countryside languishes.

Reversing the global myth of progress through growth, people in Macashca imagine climate change and their progressive decline as divine punishment.

While Esteban’s sheep trotted ahead, we walked past crumbling adobe farmsteads and emaciated cows tended by old women with long braids and bright woolen skirts. Most of the young people had fled to the city—a global trend that here is told as tragedy, although it is also every parent’s hope. He was ranting about having to pay the government for irrigation water as we passed weed-choked fields and empty stone huts, whose straw roofs had rotted away. I asked why the farms were abandoned; he responded with the story of Macashca’s fall from natural abundance into a ruined, costly present.

“The earth doesn’t produce anymore,” he said. “In the old days, we planted with manure. We harvested well. But now, one must use fertilizer. One hundred-fifty soles for fifty kilos. But when we buy a sack of fertilizer, sickness comes to all the crops. And sometimes one still cannot grow. And we must buy medicines for the animals. Before, we raised them naturally and they never sickened. We work. And each year, we are failing. So, for what? If you’re going to lose.”

He stopped and bent to drink from a stagnant spring.

“We used to drink from springs when we sowed in our field. From springs we drank, and now there aren’t any more. The mountains are drying up.” Not only has available freshwater reduced from its peak flow during rapid glacial melt in the latter twentieth century, but construction of reservoirs in the Cordillera Blanca’s glacial lakes for hydropower (which, when dispensed from the Cañon del Pato hydroelectric station, irrigates industrial farms for export on the desert coast) diverts water from the region’s farmers. In response to all of these changes, rural people have turned from farming to herding. But widespread degradation of pastures (from overuse and erosion) has crippled the herding economy, too. Now, with help from NGOs and the government, people plant eucalyptus and pine trees, invasive species that impoverish the soil even more. These fast-growing trees are nearly impossible to extract, but they yield a good, quick profit.

Effects of Spain’s ecological conquest in highland Peru, set in motion hundreds of years ago, continue as rural people struggle with practices their ancestors were forced to embrace. In the sixteenth century, Spanish soldiers marveled at the Huaylas Valley, where thousands of camelids grazed the green hills and maize grew in vast fields. But centuries of deforestation for European livestock have severely eroded the land. As we walked up and down hulking hills stripped of their native trees, Esteban noted the drought, amidst other woes; extreme weather and erratic rainfall were ruining crops, streams now barely trickled into irrigation canals, and the Macashca River had less water because of its hydroelectric dam. Some of these changes are attributable to climate change, but all of them—including global warming—originate in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Now every natural thing has an owner, a price, and a fixed quantity. Climate change could be the apotheosis of the world system that began in 1492. Or another chapter in Macashca’s history of punishment.

The stony path branched into dusty trails. We followed them to Winaq, where at last, 14,000 feet above the sea, we rested.

Winaq spread two square miles over the hilltop. Sections of low stone walls framed a vast field where rocks sat in high piles, formed squares, and jutted out from the earth like crazy obelisks—a grand and battered cemetery. My baby stirred and cried. The sun burned.

Esteban exulted in the view. Below, rolling pastures unfurled into magnificent mountain chains. To the east rose the jagged Cordillera Blanca, and to the south gleamed the massive cliffs of the Huayhuash. Westward undulated the Cordillera Negra, where the Pierina Gold Mine glinted. The wind whipped around us.

Esteban sprinkled some raisins behind him, asking Winaq to let us walk safely.

“Is Winaq chúkaro?” I asked, using the Quechua word for unruly, wild nature.

“That’s what they say. But so many people have walked here. It’s tame now. Well, more or less.” With that, we set out through the ruins, where Esteban pieced the stones into a hazy and luminous bridge.

“There were two bulls.” Esteban explained. “One, here. And one, in the Cordillera Negra. They fought. Because they wanted to explore here—for a mine. But the bull didn’t allow it. This bull won. The bull in the Cordillera Negra got beaten. Aha. Because its mountain is mined. That’s why, when the gringos came to explore, they had bad dreams. Winaq threatened them. They got vomits. With dizziness.”

“What kind of metal is here?”

“Gold. They have analyzed. But the mountain does not allow it. Because it is chúkaro they cannot exploit it. Gold is there, in exploration, but when they want to exploit, they don’t get any. They don’t find it anymore. Because the mineral escapes. The mountain hides it, covers it.”

Esteban then traced the foundations of huts and corrals, conjuring their walls to life.

“In ancient times, the grandparents lived in the ruins that were their houses, here in the town of Winaq. Look,” he pointed to a line of stones, “people would have lived there, they had their little huts. Here, too, they raised animals. Corrals, they also had. They had livestock, cattle, huts—everything.”

“Who were the ancestors?”

“The Incas, they were. Before the storm, before the flood, it is said that these stones also lived. Stones grew, they walked. The Incas lashed them with a whip and the stones went to their places. They lived stacked up. And they grew. That is how they made these ruins.”

But there was more.

“They had light and the town was illuminated. Without electricity. They say it lights up at night. Like a town. It lights up.”

Buried gold in Peru is often said to shine at night; perhaps gold illuminates Winaq today. Macashca, however, receives its weak electric current from the hydroelectricity company that dams the river, through powerlines donated by a megamine.

“The Incas thought that water would not come. When it rained, forty days and forty nights, Winaq filled up. And so those who lived in Winaq died. The flood ended the time of the Incas. It finished them off. That is how these ruins were destroyed. They do not grow anymore. They are dead now. Look, here there was a burial.”

Esteban wasn’t referring to the 1883 glacial lake flood that razed Macashca—one possible origin of its name, “the beaten ones.” In Esteban’s history, broadly shared by rural people in the Huaylas Valley, God’s flood killed the Incas. I couldn’t understand why.

“Because they were great sinners,” he said, repeating the Spanish justification for colonization. “Sin like now. Everything was like now. So, what punishment is to come?”

“To us?”

“To us.”

“Are we in the last days?”

“We are. The sun, how it is burning now.”

“What will happen when the snowy mountains melt?”

Esteban restated what he said before. This time it was prophecy.

“There will be no more water. Now they are taking away the mineral from the mountains. Every master of a mine takes the money to the government. Do you not see that the government takes away all the money it finds? And us, not even fertilizer can we obtain. There will be many mines, an abundance of wealth. And there will be nothing to eat. The Word of God was said long ago. They will no longer die, those who fulfill the Word. They will no longer work. Among fruits, they will live. In heaven. The rest will go to hell. Punishment. Now it is being fulfilled. People will be chosen. A few, a few. Little time is left. All of nature, we are—agriculture does not produce anymore. Yes. That’s how it is!”

A few hours later we returned to Esteban’s farmstead. His grandson ran from the pasture to embrace my gleeful baby. Esteban’s daughter, Santa Rosa, had just returned from another day of hunting for work in the city. We hung embroidered wool skirts on the clothesline. They billowed like sails.

Through the glowing stone Eden of Winaq, people in Macashca fantasize a precapitalist and precolonial utopia that illuminates their present sense of decay. By adopting the Incas, an imperial lineage that ruled from Cusco as their ancestors, descendants bask in their glory, mollifying their present abjection. Winaq’s origin is at once a dream of control over nature and a philosophical reflection on the hard labor and hierarchy required to build even a perfect society. Disobedience—sin—thus merits punishment.

Reversing the global myth of progress through growth, people in Macashca imagine climate change and their progressive decline as divine punishment. The Flood figures as the conquest, after which no redemption followed, because the people endured: during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, native people in the Huaylas Valley and throughout Peru lost their religion, lands, and lives. They suffered in hellish mines to pay tribute to the Spanish Crown and in campaigns of religious persecution to pay homage to their god. As the Spanish extracted vast wealth from Peru, they poured it into the coffers of their northern neighbors, who launched their own global empires. By extracting resources and exploiting labor in the colonies, Europe accumulated startup capital for the Industrial Revolution, which began releasing the carbon that heats the planet, fueling a global race to grow rich that shows no sign of abating. All because the ancestors sinned!

Through myth, the people merge the mountain and their ancestors into the bull, the ferocious animal that guards the gold that comprises its power. Thus, the bull keeps Winaq chúkaro: wild, dangerous, and free. Yet the story is charged with desire for forbidden wealth. Juan Carrión said that Winaq used to be a mine, until waters from inside the mountain flooded a tunnel and the workers fled, blocking the entrance behind them. Perhaps the people could get rich, if only the ancestors would allow it. But extracting golden lifeblood would mean sacrificing who they are. Florian Paucar’s animals used to disappear on Winaq until he offered lunch to the ancestors. And parents still hike to Winaq to offer the buried Incas the flower petals they have rubbed on their sick children, praying they may be healed. The ancestors hoard their gold but also give life in the drying land.

Climate change is often told as a problem of the present. Winaq is a bridge to the past, illuminating the historical relations still shaping life and death in the Anthropocene. Both present and absent, living and dead, the ancestors disrupt the temporality of political liberalism, which holds the past as over, the present as free, the future as for the taking. This mode of thought, among many other things, dooms climate diplomacy and its quest for “sustainable” growth. Climate change is part of the history of wealth accumulation, and our climate is where history accumulates, repeating its punishments. But while the Anthropocene is the age made continuously by force, it is not the only one. For just as Winaq’s body is formed of layers of geological time, its overlapping stories, living ancestors, and their imaginative descendants reveal the simultaneity of all history—all possible and impossible worlds—in the present.

Between tame and chúkaro, Eden and apocalypse, the ruins of Winaq stand as a threshold. Like our myths enshrouding climate change, Winaq’s story tells of growth, decline, and a secret hope that gold might buy time. And it offers a mirror to the beaten people, who rig faulty wires to light their dirt-floor homes with a flickering neon bulb. For Winaq shines at night, and without electricity, the Inca had light.

Feature Image Credit: Elena Turevon