Together, Stanish and Tantaleán speculated as to what the Band of Holes might have been. They reasoned it could have been part of a defensive structure, or served as a marker for a trail, or might even be a geoglyph in the tradition of the nearby Nazca lines. In searching the archaeological literature, they found that the site had first been documented in 1931 by aerial photographer and geographer Robert Shippee. Since then, a few archaeologists had visited and described it as being made up of segments of shallow holes running a mile up a hill known as Monte Sierpe. The consensus seemed to be that the holes were made to store something, but exactly what remained unclear. Despite the fact that previous generations of archaeologists knew about the site, no excavations had been conducted, and no obvious artifacts had been found near the holes. There was no agreement on when it was built or by what culture. For Stanish and Tantaleán, the mystery was deepening.
A survey showed that most of the holes were about three feet across and 20 to 40 inches deep. They were made in various ways, some dug into artificial mounds of soil and others made up of small rock structures on the surface. None were dug into the hill’s volcanic bedrock, as some who believe in their extraterrestrial origin claim. The archaeologists also noted that the band is divided into several unique groupings, which they called blocks, each of which have different patterns of holes.
After surveying and studying the site, Stanish began to think that their initial hunch that it dated to the period when the Inca had conquered the area was right. They found not only the remains of an Inca road nearby, but also a series of colcas, Inca-period storage houses. Together with the discovery of Inca-period pottery near the band, these finds seem to suggest that the Band of Holes dates to sometime around the fifteenth century, after the Inca Empire conquered the Chincha people, who were native to the region. “It was all circumstantial,” says Stanish, “but it seemed to fit.” They also felt the holes were once used to store something, but just what and why still wasn’t clear
Stanish was impressed, and immediately saw a similarity between the Inkawasi checkerboard and the layout of the Band of Holes. “They had a really good explanation for how these squares would have been used to measure tribute,” says Stanish. “It seemed likely to me that the holes at Monte Sierpe could have been used to measure out tribute as well.”
The rest of the puzzle began to fall into place. Stanish notes that Monte Sierpe is only four miles from Tambo Colorado, a massive fifteenth-century Inca administrative center built above the agriculturally productive Pisco Valley. The Band of Holes is constructed along a road leading from the valley floor to Tambo Colorado. “It’s the perfect place to stop, measure your produce, and make sure you have the proper amount of tribute,” says Stanish. He thinks that each individual block of holes might have belonged to a different extended family, or ayllu, that would have been a distinct tax-paying group. “You may have had each social group come up and fill up their block with squash, maize, or any other produce in front of the state’s accountants, who could have been keeping a tally with khipus. The goods could have then been taken to Tambo Colorado, or wherever else the authorities wanted to take them.”
Stanish points out that as strong as the Inca state was, it was a far-flung empire, and its separate regions retained some autonomy. The fact that no exact parallel to the Band of Holes has yet been found may be because administrators in the Pisco Valley devised a local solution to the problem of measuring tribute. “The farther you get from the big Inca centers and Machu Picchu, the more local influences become apparent,” says Stanish. “Monte Sierpe may have satisfied a very local need.”
Stanish hopes to have a graduate student continue research at the Band of Holes, with excavation of carefully selected sections a priority. If the depressions were indeed used to measure produce, they could still hold pollen or even phytoliths, the telltale bits of silica in plant tissue that can allow archaeologists to detect the presence of particular species. “We need to find some phytoliths of maize, beans, squash, or peppers,” says Stanish. “That could help clinch it.”
Stanish will need to produce hard evidence to convince his fellow scholars. Jean-Pierre Protzen, a specialist in Inca architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, has his own theories about Monte Sierpe. Protzen has spent years working at Tambo Colorado, and feels the Band of Holes is not contemporaneous with the massive Inca center. “There are other, earlier major sites close to Monte Sierpe that could have been associated with it,” says Protzen. He thinks the holes may have been used to store guano, an important fertilizer. “It’s amazing visually,” says Protzen, “but we still don’t know much about it.”
Stanish agrees that his hypothesis needs to be tested. “Sure, it’s speculative,” he says. “But we could be on the cusp of a whole new understanding of Inca accounting.” He points out that other sites in the area with unusual alignments that have traditionally been considered religious might also have had roles in administering the tribute system. “If I’m right, then we’re going to have to think differently about a lot of sites that have been regarded as strictly ritual,” says Stanish. Should his theory about the site be proved, the Band of Holes will stand as a monument to the idea that for the Inca, too, death and taxes were the only certain things in life.
By ERIC A. POWELL
Eric A. Powell is online editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.