Chavín de Huántar Is Peru’s Urban Center Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Chavín de Huántar was an important religious and urban center of ancient Peru, noted for its temple complex, stylized stone carvings, and association with a widely diffused art style.

Summary of Event

The ruins of the Chavín de Huántar site lie in a small Andean mountain valley about 10,000 feet (3000 meters) above sea level at the junction of two small tributaries to the Marañon River. Chavín is strategically placed almost midway between the tropical rain-forest region to the east and the arid coastal plains to the west. Moreover, being positioned at an intersection of major north-south routes facilitated connections and interaction with cultures ranging from the current Ecuadorian border to the north to Ica on the southern coast of Peru.

The time line for this site falls within the later part of the archaeological era known as the Formative period (c. 1700-c. 200 b.c.e.), which arose shortly after the rapid dissemination of agriculture. Although there is evidence of some human activity as early as 1300 b.c.e., the major ruins date from about 900 to 200 b.c.e. The period of Chavín’s flourishing and external influence occurred during the last two centuries. The complex of buildings and residences found here served as an important religious or ceremonial center with a relatively small population until after 400 b.c.e., when it grew to an urban settlement of around 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants and consisted of 104 acres (42 hectares).

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Important features of this center include intriguing stone carvings of anthropomorphic deities and also of animals from the tropical Amazon lowlands such as the cayman, anaconda, jaguar, and harpy eagle. Carvings and sculpture are rendered in a distinctive art style also known as Chavín, associated with a Peruvian religious cult and culture that began to appear as early as 1400 b.c.e. In Chavín art, animal fangs and claws also appeared on nonanimal and human representations as indicators of divinity. Furthermore, physical features such as hair were represented by snakes, faces were shown with snarling feline or cayman fangs, and limbs ended in feet with claws. Many experts believe that these features serve as visual metaphors that the indigenous viewers would understand or recognize through comparison or substitution, a process known as kenning.

The building complexes at Chavín are characterized by sunken courts and pyramidal platforms in U-shaped configurations. Most notable are two monumental temples characterized by sunken plazas accessed by stone stairways and containing interior subterranean passages or galleries. The exteriors display cut and polished masonry decorated with stone carvings of animals in the Chavín style. The outer courtyards most likely served as centers for open-air public ceremonies.

The Old Temple, built during the late Initial period (c. 900 b.c.e.), became a great sanctuary of supernatural power and authority. At its center, reached by an interior passageway, is found the Lanzón Gallery. The Lanzón, named for its lancelike form, represents the supreme deity of this site, an anthropomorphic figure 14.5 feet (4.4 meters) tall displaying a feline head with grinning fanged facial features, and a human torso. In the era preceding the Chavín culture and art style, the jaguar image represented the main deity. In this later period, the purely feline symbol had evolved into an anthropomorphic figure. The Old Temple also contains a system of canals channeled from a glacially fed river to run through the temple, an impressive engineering achievement. Water, probably used for ritual purposes, passed through the large temple platform and beneath the sunken circular courtyard. As a result, the galleries reverberated with the roaring sound of rushing water.

The New Temple in most aspects is very similar to the older structure with a few minor variations such as the rendering of its Lanzón. This newer structure, however, did not displace the Old Temple and its plaza, which continued to be used for both spiritual and storage purposes. Numerous artifacts testifying to the inhabitants’ creative and artistic abilities are found at Chavín de Huántar. These items include limestone sculptures; conch-shell trumpets, implements, and utensils; and fine tapestries and textiles usually decorated in the distinctive Chavín art style.

Late in the site’s history, by around 300 b.c.e., evidence of social stratification appears. Excavated burial sites reveal that an elite class received elaborate and impressive interments. These tombs contained many valuable objects such as colorful textiles and jewelry. On the other hand, the great majority of graves representing the humbler or less elevated classes were shallow pits containing remains wrapped in simple cotton-cloth garments and accompanied by only mundane burial objects such as tools.

It should be noted that findings in recent years have revised older interpretations of the site’s role in Peruvian prehistory. Many scholars once regarded Chavín de Huántar as Peru’s “mother culture” and one of the earliest centers of a complex civilization that originated and disseminated the art style that bears its name and the religious cult associated with it. Archaeologists now realize that the site’s monumental architecture, with features such as sunken courtyards and its stylized art forms, originated with earlier cultures from both the coast and highlands. Chavín’s decline and collapse came during the third century b.c.e., a time of turbulence and instability. New construction was suddenly left unfinished, and structures eventually began to fall into ruin, while the land began to be used for agriculture or pasture.

Significance

In its heyday, Chavín was a very important center of interregional trade and a site of religious pilgrimage. In spite of recent discoveries about the important role of earlier urban and cultural centers in Peruvian prehistory, Chavín de Huántar is still regarded as a very important and influential archaeological site. One recently excavated sensational find, the urban center of Caral in the Supe Valley near the coast, precedes Chavín by well over a thousand years and parallels similar developments in the Old World. Yet the latter must still regarded as a focus of one of ancient Peru’s early and most advanced complex societies to develop in the Central Andean region.

In addition, the synthesis of older cultural patterns and styles at Chavín de Huántar produced a distinctive blend now regarded as one of the major artistic achievements of South American prehistory. This style clearly influenced later high cultures such as the Moche, Nazca, Huari, and Inca. Dissemination of the Chavín style during the site’s later phase in the form of stone carvings, metallurgy, textiles, and ceramics indicates that Chavín de Huántar was this region’s most prestigious religious and urban center.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benson, Elizabeth P., ed. Dumbarton Oaks Conference on Chavín. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1971. Collection of articles by specialists in the field from a conference held in October, 1968. Illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Richard L. Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992. Good overview by a noted specialist on prehistoric Peru of the Chavín culture, its origins, development, fall, and influence on the later Nazca, Moche, Huari, and Inca civilizations. Bibliography, index, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Richard L. The Prehistoric Occupation of Chavín de Huántar, Peru. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Presents archaeological evidence on the background and early settlement at Chavín prior to that site’s period of flourishing. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burger, Richard L. “Unity and Heterogeneity Within the Chavín Horizon.” In Peruvian Prehistory, edited by Richard W. Keatinge. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. An excellent synthesis of the archaeological research on Chavín. Maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kano, Chiaki. The Origins of the Chavín Culture. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, 1979. Traces the relationship between early pre-Chavín cultures and Chavín, focusing on changes in the artistic style using the feline motif as a base. Illustrations and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lumbreras, Luis G. The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru. Translated by Betty J. Meggers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974. The section on Peru’s Formative period (c. 1800 b.c.e.-c. 100 c.e.) contains an informative discussion of the Chavín culture, the famous ceremonial site, and its influence on other ancient Peruvian centers. Bibliography, index, and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowe, John H. Chavín Art: An Inquiry into Its Form and Meaning. New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1963. One of the best-known interpretative studies on the Chavín art style. Illustrations, map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. The Cities of the Ancient Andes. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. Uses archaeological evidence to trace the development of the great Andean cities, including Chavín de Huántar. Illustrations, site plans, and photos.

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