The Chavín culture was a civilization that developed in ancient Peru during the formative stage of its history, during the first Cultural Horizon (1200 BC – 200 BC). The name of this culture comes from its most important center, the city of Chavín de Huántar.
This city was located in the upper basin of the Marañón River, in the current Peruvian department of Áncash. During its heyday, Chavín de Huántar was an important ceremonial center and the place from which its culture spread throughout much of the coast and highlands of the Andes of Peru.
The discoverer of this culture was the Peruvian archaeologist Julio César Tello, who classified it as the “mother of the Andean civilizations”, although recent discoveries seem to indicate that the Caral civilization is older than the Chavín. Tello affirmed that the origin of this culture could be Amazonian after studying the decorative motifs of its ceramics and architecture.
During the period of Chavín influence there was a great development of ceramics, textiles, agriculture, livestock and metallurgy. This civilization was governed by a theocratic political system, with priests occupying the main positions of power.
Julio César Tello, considered by many as the father of Peruvian archeology, arrived in the Ancash area as part of an expedition formed by the discovery of a nail head. From that moment he began his studies on the site.
The first reference to Chavín de Huantar was made by Pedro Cieza de León (1520-1554), a Spanish chronicler who described the ruins. During the following centuries, some religious, also Spanish, recorded the impressiveness of the remains.
Already in the 19th century, Antonio Raimondi, an Italian explorer, was in the area and lamented the abandonment of the city, whose stones had been used by the surrounding settlers to build their homes.
Later, the German Ernst W. Middendorf discovered the great staircase that connects the Square Square with the Main Temple.
Julio C. Tello
Tello’s work resulted in the temple’s discovery in 1920. The archaeologist found several dozen heads nailed to its walls. They were sculptures that represented heads of mythological beings, some with human features and others with animal appearance.
These types of representations were typical of the Amazonian tribes, which led Tello to affirm that the Chavín culture came from that area.
The Peruvian archaeologist continued his work on this culture, which he considered the “mother culture” or “mother of the Andean civilizations.”
Origin and history
The Chavín culture developed approximately between 900 and 200 BC. C. It is considered a cultural horizon due to its influence on later cultures.
The Chavín civilization began to develop around what would be its most important center, Chavín del Huantar, around 900 BC. C.
Historically, this culture was the end of the long process that began with the appearance of agriculture and livestock during the Neolithic.
Although their origins prior to their settlement in Chavín de Huántar are not clear, Julio C. Tello maintained that they could come from the jungle regions of the Amazon, since the iconography they used was very similar to that of that area.
Periods of cultural development
The periodization of the Chavín culture is based on the development of its ceramics, but it can give clues about the different phases its civilization went through.
The first of the phases was the Urabarriu period, which ran from 900 to 500 BC. During this time, Chavín de Huántar only had small residential areas where hundreds of people lived. Although hunting was an important activity, the members of this town then began to grow corn and potatoes.
According to studies of ceramics from this period, the production centers were dispersed, suggesting that there was low demand from an equally dispersed population.
The second period is known as Chakinani and comprises between 500 and 400 BC. At this stage there was a migratory movement towards Chavín de Huántar. It was then that the llamas were domesticated and it is estimated that communication with other distant peoples intensified.
The last period, the Janabarriu, lasted between 400 and 250 BC. C. The population increased considerably and the settlements were acquiring the characteristics of authentic cities. In this phase, social differentiation took place and they specialized in work.
The Chavín culture developed in the Callejón de Conchucos, in the eastern part of the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca. It was located on the banks of the Mosna River, in the upper Marañón tributary basin. This territory is located today in the province of Huari, department of Áncash.
Over time, the culture expanded its area of influence until it reached the departments of Lambayeque and Cajamarca, to the north, and those of Ica and Ayacucho, to the south. This extension has caused it to be considered a Pan-Andean culture.
Despite this expansion, experts do not consider it proven that their language was spoken in all these places or that their ethnicity was the same as in Chavín de Huántar.
Political and social organization
The Chavín culture was organized through a theocracy, a form of government in which religion becomes the most important issue when making decisions.
This type of political organization attaches great importance to religious leaders. In the case of the Chavín culture, it is thought that the priests strengthened their power thanks to their knowledge of the climate, astronomy and nature.
There are some differences among experts when it comes to pointing out the existing social classes within the Chavín civilization. While some only speak of two, the priests and the people, others add a third formed by the nobility.
There is a coincidence in placing the priests as the most important class. This caste, as noted, not only conducted religious ceremonies, but also possessed great knowledge of astronomy, arts, and sciences.
The Chavín nobility, meanwhile, was made up of warriors. Its main function was to defend the territory, but it was also in charge of maintaining internal order.
The rest of the population was the dominated class. It was formed, above all, by farmers and ranchers.
Chavín architecture spread from the capital to the entire territory in which they had influence. Their constructions were characterized by their U-shape, although they also built truncated pyramids, rectangular squares or circular wells.
Most of these constructions were made of stone, although mud and adobe were also used on the coast.
Some of the stones that they used for their buildings weighed up to 10 tons, so it is thought that many men and long hours were necessary for their transport and carving.
When it came to building pyramidal buildings, this town did it in stages. Thus, its walls composed of large rocks were raised first. Later, small stones were added to give stability aided by the clay.
These constructions had small windows that connected their rooms with passageways. Its main function was to bring the air from the outside.
The city of Chavín de Huántar gathered in its interior all the characteristics of the architecture of this culture. At its peak, the population numbered between 2,000 and 3,000 and its area was about 400,000 square meters.
The Old Temple was built around 750 BC. It is actually a group of buildings that follow the characteristic U shape. In the middle, there were two staircases that descended towards a sunken circular court. In the center of the network of galleries appeared the Lanzón, the main object of worship.
For its part, the New Temple, also known as the Castle, was much larger and was built with large rectangular stones. Its walls were lined with square or rectangular slabs decorated with images of shamanic creatures in low relief.
To be able to lift it, the chavines had to create a drainage system that allowed the Mosna water to pass under the temple. In addition, this gave it a very special characteristic: a noise was produced due to the waters that was reminiscent of the roar of a feline.
Other important works
In addition to those erected in Chavín de Huántar, the architects of this culture were also authors of other important structures. Among them is Pampa de las Llamas -Moxeque, a set of two pyramids located in the largest plaza in the entire Ancash region.
In the mountains of Peru is Pacopampa, the first place where the Chavines practiced metallurgy.
On the other hand, the second most important ceremonial center was Chongoyape, today a hydroelectric center. Finally, another of the most important places of this civilization was Garagay, full of high-reliefs in clay.
Chavín ceramics were almost always monochrome, although in certain cases the decoration could appear in red or silver black.
Another of its characteristics was the advanced handling of clay demonstrated by the potters of the Chavín culture. Among other aspects, this allowed them to achieve a compact structure despite not using molds.
The pieces made by this town were divided into two classes according to their use: utilitarian pottery, for the town’s daily use; and ceremonial ceramics, intended for rituals.
Over time, the Chavín way of working pottery became a great influence on other nearby and coastal civilizations.
From the point of view of temporal development, Chavín ceramics have been divided into two types:
– Rock period : its main characteristic is the globular shape of the pieces. These had a flat pass and a stirrup handle finished in a peak. In addition, pots and bowls up to 50 centimeters in diameter were made.
– Offerings period : the necks of the pieces became thinner and their shape was campanulate.
The material used by the potters of the Chavin culture was of high quality and compact. The result showed good polished finishes, most in black, brown or red. The walls of the pieces were thin and were decorated with images of mythological beings.
The most common pieces were the vases or pitchers, almost all with a thick tubular handle on the container and with internal channels. The mouth of the upper part was cylinder-shaped, a unique feature of Chavín ceramics.
As with other artistic expressions, Chavín pottery is full of images of animals, from felines to snakes. In some cases, the figures were supernatural, with fierce features and fangs.
A good part of the animal species that appeared in the ceramics were native to the jungle areas of the Amazon, which made Tello think that this town came from there.
The pieces without natural themes, almost always tubular vessels, were inspired by fruits such as custard apple, soursop, and others like it.
The economy of the Chavín culture was based on agriculture and livestock. In addition, it is known that they practiced barter with other peoples.
The great advance is its economy was due to the implementation of modern techniques in agriculture. Thanks to their irrigation systems and the use of certain tools, their crops were increasingly productive. The most important were those of peanuts, chili, cucumber, tomato and corn.
The livestock of this civilization was focused on the breeding of llamas, vicuñas and alpacas.
The religion of the Chavín culture was polytheistic, with multiple gods in its pantheon. Many of them represented natural elements, in addition to feelings and different activities.
As noted, Tello affirmed that the relationship between this culture and the Amazon area could be verified with the artistic manifestations of supernatural beings with features of animals typical of the Peruvian jungle, such as the jaguar, snakes or alligators.
Being a people with a theocratic government system, religion was very present in all areas of life.
The most important ceremonial center of this town was Chavín de Huántar, the central point of religious rituals. Their rituals, in which clothing and music played a fundamental role, were directed by the priestly caste. Although it is not known for sure, it is likely that there was some type of “great priest”, as happened later in the Inca culture .
The gods of the Chavín culture were characterized by their threatening appearance. Among them stood out the “feline god”, also known as the god of the staves. Some experts consider them as an antecedent of Viracocha. One of its best representations is in the Stela of Raimondi.
However, some recent archaeological discoveries have brought to light older similar representations of that deity.
The Chavín priests consumed the San Pedro de Ayahuasca cactus, with hallucinogenic properties, for their ceremonies. With this they sought to enter a trance and contact the gods.
Thanks to these hallucinogens, the people saw them as superior beings, capable of acting as intermediaries with their gods.
On the other hand, the buildings for the ceremonies had underground galleries and catacombs that were used for different rituals. It is thought that they subjected the pilgrims to various tests.
The priests were reflected in the stelae as beings half human and half feline. Thus, they appeared with claws and teeth, while holding the San Pedro cactus.
As previously indicated, agriculture was the main economic activity of this culture. To improve the harvests, they had to implement several very innovative processes for the time, such as the creation of irrigation canals through the first platforms. In addition, they used the chaquitaclla, a type of hand plow.
This culture used the slopes of the Andes to install a system of terraces. With this, they solved the difficulties that the orography represented.
The platforms allowed them to efficiently use these slopes taking advantage of the sun exposure . In addition, these hydraulic systems allowed them to increase infiltration to maintain good drainage.
The main products they obtained from their crops were potatoes and corn. In addition, they also cultivated others such as sweet potato, goose, beans, quinoa, cucumber or tomato.
The Chavín not only grew corn for their food, but it was also one of the most valued products in their bartering activities.
The sculptures were made of stone and had a religious character. The most important are the monoliths, the nailed heads and the stelae. Likewise, columns or drawers were also frequent, such as the one found on the Façade of the Falcónidas.
Although, as has been pointed out, most of the sculptures of this culture were made with stone, examples of pieces created with bone, shells and even ornamental fabrics have also been found. All this made this artistic expression one of the greatest influences for later cultures.
One of the most relevant characteristics of the sculptures was the expression with which they gave the figures’ mouths. It was frequent, for example, the appearance of a feline mouth with sharp fangs and huge teeth.
That same mouth also appeared in human or animal representations. Thus, the representation of birds with feline mouths was common.
The three animal figures that appeared the most were the jaguar, the anaconda and the eagle, although with a greater presence of the first.
Most outstanding sculptures
– Monolithic sandeel : this sculpture, 5 meters high, represented the smiling or fierce god. It was in a small underground room in the center of the old temple of Chavín de Huántar. The sandeel name was given to it for its spearhead shape and it is thought that it could be a sacred stone.