Peru’s mysterious temple in the Andes
  • Lanzón

    Chavín's main sculpture, ca. 1100 BC, in the temple interior, 4m high.
    photo: Yutaka Yoshii

  • Chavín de Huántar

    In the narrow valley of Callejón de Conchucos, behind the snow-covered mountains of the Cordillera Blanca in the Peruvian highlands, lie the ruins of the ceremonial centre of Chavín de Huántar. In Peru everybody knows the three-thousand-year-old building complex; here, very few have ever heard of it.


    At least 2,500 years before the Inca, on a site exposed to the full force of the elements, people erected a monumental temple, a task that would have involved vast expenditure and enormous labour. With great skill, they shaped the hard stone and decorated the buildings with huge reliefs and mysterious sculptures. They diverted mountain torrents, constructed canals and merged two separate streams. By opening and closing sluices on the canals they created a thunderous, mystical, roaring noise in the temple interior, and they diverted sunlight deep into the subterranean chambers and galleries – one has to be close to the gods to undertake such extraordinary feats.

    It seems that the new elite, most probably a priestly caste, used these overwhelming spectacles to win the loyalty of the most powerful figures in different regions, and it is likely that competing centres spurred each other on to impress their people with ever more dramatic performances. Privileged followers probably made pilgrimages to the temple at specific times. In the theatrically conceived and designed ceremonial centre, a new worldview and a new system of meaning were created and communicated – the foundations of the earliest complex form of society in the central Andes.

    From early times, the massive stone buildings attracted the attention of travellers and scholars. As early as the mid 16th century, one chronicler wrote of an imposing fortress with gigantic, strange sculptures, and faces on its walls. At the beginning of the 17th century there were reports of an oracle in the narrow, inhospitable and remote high valley which was comparable to Rome or Jerusalem.

    In the 20th century, the pioneering Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello argued that Chavín de Huántar was the birthplace of the advanced Andean civilisations and the heart of their mother culture.  A central focus of his research was ‘el Lanzón’, a tapering sculpture over 4 metres high, so called because of its lance-like shape. It stands in an extremely dark and narrow chamber in the interior of the temple, and can only be reached via a long, narrow gallery. Like many other Chavín sculptures, it depicts a human-like figure with feline features, fangs and claws. Similar representations can be found in other reliefs, which is why Tello suggested that the deity who was venerated in the temple complex was Wiracocha – the same one who was later venerated by the Inca – in his original shape of a jaguar. He thus proposed a link to the Amazon region, and at the same time showed the great age of the temple complex. His thesis of Chavín as mother culture was strengthened by the Exhibition in Lima of two other key sculptures from Chavín, the Raimondi Stela and the Tello Obelisk.  

    Chavín de Huántar was not the only temple complex of its time but was quite possibly the largest. Other centres existed in the same period, such as Kuntur Wasi, Pacopampa or Kotosh. Their similarities and differences show that although they shared a social system and worldview they competed for influence and followers. Thanks to the fascination it has always exerted, and the long research history, the temple complex of Chavín de Huantar offers a unique window into a world which can shake our western-influenced ideas about culture and progress. Not with force of arms or the written word but with art, music and the stimulation of all the senses, a worldview was established in Chavín which shaped society in the Andean region – and gave Chavín the title of “mother culture”.

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