NOW I KNOW HOW DARWIN FELT! THE SECRET OF THE EVOLUTION OF BABY VILLAGES!
I feel like Darwin, who cracked the secret of the species just north of here! Lolling in my luxurious leather buttercream-yellow, seriously-reclining, bus couchbed for a six-hour squint at the passing Peruvian countryside, I was treated to a repeating demonstration of the evolutionary phases of a human settlement: from junkyard-squatter shacks to full-fledged towns with pretentious names, such as Ciudad del Dios or “City of God.”
This biology lesson was dosed out to me maybe ten times during the long afternoon ride between Piura, Peru, and Trujillo, Peru, as my glorious bus-cama rolled along the boringly straight miles south, heading halfway to Lima on the Peruvian coast. No view of the water, though; just a few agricultural sections growing rice, corn and cane. Mostly, we were passing through semi-desert where small windblown dunes sprouted only a peachfuzz of green weed.
Ocasionally, there`d be a town, or at least, a squareness of habitation in which squat, mud brick structures lined the highway, sporting only doors and very few windows. These would be attached to each other though they varied in color and style, as well as purpose. Many had signs and little patios offering services and goods for sale; some were graced with plastic tables and chairs suggesting that Mama ran a cafe under that suspended tarp. Large chunks of these one-story mud structures might as well be said to have shared one roof because all of their tin amalgamated tops, by that time, formed a single platform which dogs and kids could walk across as long as they didn’t trip over the old tires and boulders designed to keep those roofs from blowing off.
Between the square blocks of habitat ran very wide dirt passageways. You could look clear down these openings and see how this conglomeration of stuck-together mud buildings was forming the outline of a town, with equally wide cris-crossing passageways, allowing enough space for, someday or other, constructing sidewalks and room for the passing of two cars on a genuine street. Just now, it was rutted mud, but allowance had been made for future prosperity.
Okay, that`s a description of the middle phase of a very juvenile township. That alone wouldn’t have brought out the scientific curiosity in me, but here`s what did:
Almost always, after passing a truly mature township…say, one that could afford plaster and paint and an upscale gas station…our bus would come to the city dump, which was nothing formal; just a spot in the desert covered with hundreds of pointy little mounds left behind by dump trucks. There was plenty of space, so each truck had unloaded upon virgin ground causing tiny pyramids of rubble with a few kids and dogs poking purposefully about. Obviously, a lot of this was building site debris and it seemed to me to be a mother lode of broken bricks.
Well, the same thought must have occurred to a number of independent would-be homemakers as well, because, now and then, there was a square structure among all those knee-high pyramids. It looked as if broken bricks did not a true home make, because the real material of choice always seemed to be blocks of dun-colored sand; no doubt, fashioned from that very desert floor, supplemented generously with walls and fences made of bound-together tree branches. Sometimes, that`s all there was forming everything – walls, roof, and corral, though woven bamboo was widely used for filler.
These junkyard homes were widely scattered about, reflecting the early pioneers`creative individuality and desperate search for privacy and independence. They faced all directions and were surrounded by vast, desert-wide yards, occasionally populated with chickens, donkeys and children. Very likely, it was their own prosperity in the high-birth-rate department which caused the family compound to swell into a conglomerate which would then naturally recycle more of the dump truck pyramids for use in their own newlywed extensions. Pretty soon, the rubble was depleted and somebody began making bricks full time.
Later, a loudmouth would proclaim himself Alcalde (mayor) and design those landing-strip-wide spaces where no one was allowed to build. Then, when that budding city could afford to use real red bricks, or even (gasp!) cement blocks, their own dump trucks would rumble out to a new bit of desert beyond the city limits and rebuild Little Egypt, Land of the Pyramids again.
Oh, it was very exciting to be Darwin-On-The-Bus! Now, what do I do with this information, beyond the scientific paper I have just written???
Update…Later, on a tour of the largest clay city in the world, Chan Chan, I asked our guide what prevented the mud bricks from melting in the rain. The utter lack of rain, is what. Maybe every nine or ten years, there would be a sprinkle. Weird, because I had just experienced twelve hours of heavy downpour the night I arrived in Piura, Peru…..this country that never gets rain. Granted, it did overwhelm the streets and had all sorts of workers out sweeping water every which way, since no one had installed drains.
Update to the update: I have just discovered that rain might be a rarish, but regularly occurring, event in Piura, but not down in the Chan Chan area, several hundred kilometers south. At least, that was the conclusion after a conversation with a native of Huanchaco in that southern region. One thing I´m discovering is how every archaeologist must feel as they try to arrive at a theory with imperfect data. Of course, that simply gives every latitude to be a little bit wrong, if it makes a good story at the time.