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Chavin Civilization › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 07 April 2015
Chavin Stirrup-spouted Jar (Walters Art Museum)

The Chavin civilization flourished between 900 and 200 BCE in the northern and central Andes and was one the earliest pre- Inca cultures. The Chavin religious centre Chavin de Huantar became an important Andean pilgrimage site, and Chavin art was equally influential both with contemporary and later cultures from the Paracas to the Incas, helping to spread Chavin imagery and ideas and establish the first universal Andean belief system.


One of the most important Chavin gods was the Staff Deity, who is the most likely subject for the famous central figure on the Gateway of the Sun at Tiwanaku. Forerunner of the Andean creator god Viracocha, the Staff Deity was associated with agricultural fertility and usually holds a staff in each hand but is also represented in a statue from the New Temple at the Chavin cult site of Chavin de Huantar (see below). This half-metre figure represents male and female duality with one hand holding a spondylus shell and the other a strombus shell. Another celebrated representation from the same site is the Raimondi Stela, a two-metre high granite slab with the god incised in low relief as a non-gender specific figure with clawed feet, talons, and fangs in an image which can be read in two directions. A second important Chavin deity was the fanged jaguar god, also a popular subject in Chavin art.


Chavin religious ceremony involved multi-sensory spectacles which included blood-letting and sacrificial rituals which could be performed in public spaces accommodating up to 1,500 people or in the more restricted and exclusive environment of complex temple interiors. An important feature of the cult was a priesthood of shamans who would put themselves in trances via hallucinatory plants, such as coca leaves and certain types of cacti and mushrooms. An added aura of religious mystery was achieved with the burning of incense, priests suddenly appearing atop the temples via secret internal staircases, and a cacophony of musical sounds from singers and shell trumpets.


The most important Chavin religious site was Chavin de Huantar in the Mosna Valley, which was in use for over five centuries and became a pilgrimage site famed throughout the Andean region. The site is significantly placed at the meeting point of two rivers - a typical Andean tradition - the Mosna and Wacheksa. Ancient landslides left fertile terraces, and the proximity of many springs and an ample and varied supply of stone for monumental building projects ensured the growth of the site.
At its peak the centre had a population of 2,000-3,000 and covered around 100 acres. The Old Temple dates from c. 750 BCE and is actually a complex of buildings which together form a U-shape. In the centre, two staircases descend to a circular sunken court. The walls of the buildings are lined with square and rectangular stone slabs which carry images of transformational, shamanic creatures, carved in low relief. The figures mix human features with jaguar fangs and claws and they wear snake headdresses symbolising spiritual vision.
Chavin Civilization Map

Chavin Civilization Map

The 4.5 metre tall Lanzón monolith takes the form of a traditional Andean foot plough and stands deep within the labyrinthine interior of the Old Temple. It shows a supernatural creature with tusks and claws which is decorated with snakes. The creature points down with one hand and up with the other, perhaps indicative of its rulership of the earthly and heavenly realms. It is thought that this monolith was perhaps the site of an ancient oracle which gave answers to the demands of pilgrims who in turn left offerings of gold, obsidian, shells, and ceramics. There are also many stone channels in the temple interior through which water would have run under pressure thus creating an impressive noise in the confined inner chambers and an evocative accompaniment to the oracle's declarations.
The most striking feature of the New Temple (from c. 500 BCE), which was actually an extension of the Old Temple complex, is the 100 surviving stone heads which once protruded from the exterior walls. These form a transformational series and progressively change from human to jaguar form. The temple in its new form measured 100 metres in length and reached a height of 16 metres with three stories. Its Black and White Portal entrance is flanked on either side by a single column ; one carries an image of an eagle, the other a hawk representing the female and male respectively in a typical Chavin example of duality. The New Temple also contains the 2.5 metre tall Tello Obelisk which shows two caymans and snakes and may represent the creation myth. Opposite the temple a large square 50-metre-sided sunken court was constructed for ceremonial purposes, a feature which would become standard in many subsequent Andean religious sites.
Other more modest buildings at Chavin de Huantar, which often use distinctive conical-shaped adobe bricks, indicate that there was a large number of permanent residents, a social hierarchy, and centres of craft specialization. The site and the Chavin culture in general entered into decline sometime in the 3rd century CE for reasons which remain unclear but that are probably related to several years of drought and earthquakes and the inevitable social upheaval caused by such stress. There is no archaeological evidence of a Chavin military force or of specific regional conquests. The political structures of the Chavin, then, unfortunately remain mysterious, but they did create a lasting artistic legacy which would influence almost all subsequent Andean civilizations.
Chavin Stone Tenon Head

Chavin Stone Tenon Head


Chavin art is full of imagery of felines (especially jaguars), snakes, and raptors, as well as supernatural beings, often with ferocious-looking fangs. Creatures are often transformational - presented in two states at once - and designed to both confuse and surprise. Images are also very often anatropic - they may be viewed from different directions. As the art historian RR Stone summarises:
A strong perceptual effect, certainly calculated by Chavin artists, inspires confusion, surprise, fear, and awe through the use of dynamic, shifting images that contain varying readings depending on the direction in which they are approached. (37)
It is also noteworthy that many of the animals in Chavin imagery are from the distant lowland jungles and thus illustrate the far-reaching influence of Chavin culture, a point further confirmed by the presence at Chavin de Huantar of votive offerings from cultures hundreds of kilometres distant. The Staff Deity was another popular subject in Chavin sculpture, ceramics, and textiles. The painted cotton textiles of the Chavin are, in fact, the earliest such examples from any Andean culture and take the form of hangings, belts, and clothes.
Typical Chavin pottery is high quality and thin-walled, usually a polished red, black, or brown. The most common shape is the stirrup-spouted bulbous vessel, often with polished raised designs depicting imagery from Chavin religion. Vessels could also be anthropomorphic, typically of jaguars, seated humans, and fruits and plants. Shells were a popular form of jewellery amongst the Chavin elite and could also be carved into trumpets for use in religious ceremonies. Fine wooden bowls survive which are exquisitely inlaid with spondylus shell and mother-of-pearl, as well as turquoise. Finally, the Chavin were skilled metal workers and created objects - especially cylinder crowns, masks, pectorals, and jewellery - in sheet gold using soldering and repoussé techniques to rival any other Andean culture in their imagination and execution.

Cahuachi › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 08 July 2016
Burial Mound, Cahuachi (Antoine 49)

Cahuachi, located on the southern coast of Peru, was the most important sacred site of the Nazca civilization. The Nazcaflourished between 200 BCE and 600 CE, and Cahuachi covers a similar time period. The site, which was used for harvest festivals, ancestor worship, and burials, is dominated by a series of huge ceremonial mounds and plazas. These have been a rich source of Nazca artefacts ranging from mummies to textiles, all well-preserved in the arid climate.


In a particular spot of the southern Nazca Valley the Nazca River flows underground for a short stretch, and it was at this place, on the south bank, that Cahuachi was built. The water table here would have survived most droughts and so was considered a sacred place or huaca by the Nazca. The water was managed using underground aqueducts and cisterns with terraced entrances to irrigate the surrounding area and ensure a constant supply. The sacred nature of the site is further indicated by the high number of lines or geoglyphs on the surrounding desert floor. In another attempt to incorporate nature into their urban landscape the Nazca built huge mounds on top of a close grouping of around 40 hills. The site was linked to the other important Nazca centre Ventilla by a sacred road which crosses the San José desert.


There is no archaeological evidence of a residential area at Cahuachi (refuse, plain pottery etc.), and pilgrims to the site probably stayed in tents for their brief visit. There are, though, some buildings which were probably used for storage or as workshops connected to the religious activities of the site. The presence of plazas suggests regular gatherings of a large number of people with the largest space measuring 47 x 75 metres. These plazas, in places, have holes and the remains of wooden posts suggesting large canopies were erected over them. The entire sacred area is enclosed by a 40 cm high wall.Cahuachi, then, was a site of pilgrimage, worship, and burial, and it eventually spread to cover over 150 ha.


The 40 burial mounds at Cahuachi were built using earth and adobe bricks. The earliest structures date to before 100 BCE while the latest were constructed c. 550 CE, consistent with the timeframe of the Nazca in general. Mounds were used as a place of burial for family or kin groups, with each mound containing the tombs of specific groups. This is a typical feature of the Nazca: shared cultural practices but carried out on an individual basis without any discernible influence from an integrated political power. In many Andean cultures ancestor worship was prevalent, and so we can imagine that pilgrims visited Cahuachi with that aim, regularly reopening tombs to add new mummies.
Ceremonial Plaza, Cahuachi

Ceremonial Plaza, Cahuachi

The largest mound, known as the 'Great Temple ' consists of six or seven terraces made from earth set on top of a natural hill and contained within adobe brick supporting walls. It reaches a height of 30 metres. Besides tombs in its interior, there are also small chambers in which were placed large numbers of clay panpipes, indicating music was an important part of Nazca ceremonies. The best-preserved tomb is at another mound and is referred to as the Room of Posts. It contains a central altar surrounded by columns supporting a roof. The walls are decorated with inscribed images of panpipes and faces with shining rays.


Although many of the tombs of Cahuachi have been looted, occasional finds of intact burials have revealed mummies wrapped in fine textiles. Some of these mummies - of men, women and children - show signs of being sacrificed. The individuals were Nazca people, not captured enemies for example, and they display such typical features of Andean burials as a perforated skull, removal of the tongue and placing it in a pouch, excrement in the mouth, and eyes and lips sealed using cactus spines.Some tombs contain evidence of animal sacrifice.
Mummy Skulls, Cahuachi

Mummy Skulls, Cahuachi

Other finds at the site include pottery, typically of finer quality than those for daily use, and painted with animals and hybrid human-animal figures, especially felines, monkeys, birds, lizards, and spiders with human faces. Textiles were often buried inside large ceramic jars. The images woven into or sometimes painted on the cloth show similar themes to the pottery decoration, along with scenes of bountiful harvests and agriculture. Many textiles have borders depicting staring human skulls.Two extraordinary finds are a single length of cloth measuring 7 metres by 60 metres and a store of 50 women's wrap dresses.These latter have images of hummingbirds very similar to those depicted in the famous Nazca lines geoglyphs across the nearby desert floor. Finally, in one specific area of Cahuachi, perhaps a workshop for weaving, excavations have found various instruments and tools used to make textiles such as spindles, dyes, cotton threads, and looms.


Cahuachi was abandoned from the mid-6th century CE, perhaps due to climate change as the local environment became more arid. Earthquakes, too, may have been a contributing factor to the centre's decline. It is interesting to note that the number of geoglyphs created at this time increased, perhaps indicating the urgent need for divine help to meet the crisis. The mounds were systematically covered with earth and so the abandonment of Cahuachi was both planned and deliberate. The site did continue to receive votive offerings and burials for centuries after, though, indicating that local peoples continued to ascribe a sacred nature to Cahuachi long after the Nazca culture had disappeared.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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