Until the discovery of Sechin Bajo in 2008, Chavin de Huantar was thought to be the oldest civilisation in the Andes. Originating in the Amazon jungles of Peru, their culture dates back to 1200BCE. And they are an interesting bunch!
The Chavin were experts in hallucinogens and considered the land in Huaraz to be the “Centre of the Universe.” This was nothing unusual for ancient Andean cultures, but there is more evidence of it taking place at Chavin de Huantar complex than anywhere else I had explored.
And after two months of intensive research into the ancient cultures of this region, there are some things my guides tell me about Chavin that don´t quite weigh up.
Getting to Huaraz
The drive from Barranca to Huaraz was another crammed mini-van experience. Two hours into the windy mountain journey we hit a torrential downpour. My rucksack strapped to the roof of the van was drenched and had dampened my top-surface clothes. My last pair of clean underwear had an evening to dry.
The bus depot in Huaraz doubles as tourist information office. It couldn’t have been more convenient. I booked a ticket to Chavin for 12 soles (2.50GBP) and went in search of a hostel. I found one just round the corner.
The 3 de Mayo was like a prison – except criminals get better services; there is no internet or hot running water here, contrary to what I was told! The walls were the colour of urine and silver sprayed cage doors provided top-level security. The doors came complete with a serving hatch. The room was clean and spacious enough, but at 25 soles (£5.50) was overpriced in comparison to other, better hostels I had stayed at in Peru.
That night I had a wonderful meal in a Chifa where an old local woman served me chicken soup and a bifsteak dinner with mash potatoes for a total sum of 5 soles (£1.11). A little girl, no older than 5 years-old and presumably the old ladies grand-daughter played on a pink scooter. She looked up at me and with a cheeky smile said, “Hola gringo.” It was the most heart-warming moment I’d had in weeks. As I left, she called after me, “Adios gringo.”
The Chavin Obelisk
The following morning I boarded a bus journey to Chavin. It took around two hours. In the entrance of the museum is an Obelisk used as a solar clock to indicate seasons, the solstice and the equinox so farmers knew when to plant and harvest their crops.
As I examined the hieroglyphs on the obelisk a guide, Estaban came over. He told me he spoke little English, but felt he knew enough to give me a tour so I hired him. He told me the Obelisk represents everything that was important to Chavin culture and pointed out, Ucus, peanuts, Piranha and the hallucinogenic cactus, San Pedro.
“That is the seed of the spiritual world,” Estaban told me.
At the top of the obelisk is a Jaguar, representing the superior God and protector of the Universe. There is also the Andean Cross – by now a very familiar pattern. Other Chavin archetypes are the snake, the jaguar and the eagle.
Estaban tells me the Chavin abandoned the complex here in 1400 AD, possibly because they predicted the landslide that devastated the area that year. Incidentally, the U.S. Geological Survey is still working with other federal agencies in an effort to “understand, plan, and mitigate landslide risks.” Yet man has known about this for centuries apparently.
The Chavin travelled from the jungle into the mountains from the Amazon jungle, 90Km away as the wisdom priests believed this part of land held extraordinary energy fields.
Duality was an important factor to cultures in the Andean region, a principle which remained until the time of the Inca. Duality in fact reflected the principle laws of the universe to ancient cultures all over the world – everything has an opposite.
In the Chavin culture, women were regarded as the principle governors because of their ability to produce children, a living symbol of fertility and the giver of life. This was considered more important than any role a man could offer to society.
Estaban tells me that man was governor of the Under World, ruler of the dead and of the night and thus represented by black throughout the settlement. In contrast, women were represented as white – the duality again.
This is most significantly represented in the steps of the Pyramid Temple which are laid with black and white steps at the bottom. Although, black and white do represent dark and light, the colours refer to consciousness rather than sex. If a person is in the black they have base consciousness and enlightened beings have white light.
In the modern world, most people are black.
There is also evidence the Chavin studied the stars and were experienced astronomers. They used the night sky and the sun as a map and astronomical clock, another feature that would have been passed down from other cultures. There is evidence of this knowledge in Caral culture that thrived around 2500BCE.
In the main plaza of the complex is an area of grass that looks like a modern day crown green bowling lawn. The entrances and exits are marked by four staircases which represent the Andean Cross. The main plaza is where the nobility would host ceremonies for other cultures that had travelled to the region to participate in rituals.
In 2002, excavations found offerings of shells, ceramics, llamas, venado (small rhino like animals) and corn that had been placed into the fire. Drinking vessels were also found, likely to have held Chicha – or possibly San Pedro. Carvings on the wall depict San Pedro and it is almost certain the wisdom priests used the medicine to transcend onto a higher spiritual plane.
In between the main plaza and the Pyramid temple you will find an altar was used for oracles. For the Chavin the altar was dedicated to their creator God, Choque chinchay. In the altar are seven holes cut into the surface, each one Estaban tells me represents a star in the constellation Pleiades. From certain angles the holes form the shape of a jaguar. The altar is in fact cut into the shape of jaguar. The holes were filled with water and the High-Priest would look into them and predict the following year´s harvest.
The jaguar in Andean cultures represents the material world in which we live in and is a reminder of the strength we need to tackle life challenges. Seven is a sacred number in cultures all around the world meaning the completion of creation – hence on the 7th day God rested.
The temple was built on three levels representing the Upper World, the material world and the Under World. Before it was destroyed by the Spanish, the pyramid would have stood 14m high and 14m down. The temple was built with small stones wedged between small stones to support larger rocks and act as anti-seismic devices. The builders polished granite stones to give the temple a smooth surface, which represents nobility. The stones to build the Temple were brought from a quarry 30km away and rolled down the river on wooden rafts. The complex as a whole is thought to have taken 700 years to build.
Underneath the temple pyramid is a dimly lit labyrinth consisting of 26 tunnels. Visitors are free to explore them and is one of the highlights of the tour. Ducts built into the wall allowed the sun to enter inside the Temple. The light was then reflected off anthracite. The doors in the labyrinth are cut into the shape of the Chakana. The priests would have met in these rooms to take San Pedro before conducting the ritual ceremonies – called Wello-Shamanico, meaning to get wings and fly to a higher plane.
Next to the underground labyrinth is another door that leads into the Langon Gallery. A dark and dusty space with low ceilings, there are several meditation chambers and a monolith behind a glass shield. The monolith is encrypted with symbols and codes similar to the one in the front of the museum.
The sacred meaning of seven
The number seven is a recurring theme throughout the Temple complex. Estaban tells me seven is considered a magic number by the Chavin, a feminine number that represented fertility. In one sense this is true as seven represents creation and women because women give birth, are life giver.
But the seven has a deeper meanings than just fertility. In the circular plaza, a sunken pit along the side of the temple is a carving of a Shaman which has seven sides and seven snakes. Shamans are associated with wisdom, not fertility. The seven then also represent manifestation, the completion of a goal once ideas have been out into action.
You will learn more about the meaning of sacred numbers and ancient symbolism throughout this site in future times, and you can read about my journey to the ancient sites of South America in my book: What Modern Man Can Learn From Ancient Civilisations.