Of Ancient Bones and Temples – Pachacamac

As a self-labeled archaeology nerd, I practically jumped up and down when, on only my fourth day in Peru, the group decided to visit Pachacamac.

Located 40km south-east of Lima, Pachacamac is perhaps one of the most interesting and influential religious and ceremonial sites in Peru. Spanning over 1000 years, the site’s occupation from AD 250 – 1534 saw both influence from and expansion by several Peruvian cultures; the Lima, Wari, Ichma, and Inca.

Pachacamac’s main function was as a religious center. It housed an idol to the god Pacha Camac (alternatively Pacha Kamaq) and an oracle to whom supplicants could ask questions to be answered by the god. Initially installed during the first stages of construction around AD 250, the idol (and oracle) commanded respect and reverence from all who occupied the site. Even the powerful Inca, who had their own religion, respected the worship of Pacha Camac at the site, and allowed it to continue during the whole of their occupation. Sadly, the idol was destroyed by conquistador Hernando Pizarro, and as a result the site’s oracle stopped prophesizing and Pachacamac’s influence faded away.

Today, the interested tourist or archaeology buff can take a spin through the site’s small museum, and tour the site by foot or alternatively by car (although I highly suggest the former, for reasons which will be revealed shortly).

The first thing that hit me when I stepped out of our cab and onto the path leading into the site was the extreme variance and beauty of the landscape. Although the site itself sits on a desert landscape, it is located right in between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes.

View from atop the Temple of the Sun. Andes to the left, Pacific to the right.

Due to the fact that the site was occupied by several different Peruvian cultures, many different architectural scales and styles are represented.

An Ichma Temple, with ramped entryway
Women's Temple (Inca construction)
Ania and I in front of the Temple of the Sun. For an idea of scale, the small dot to the left Ania's head is a car!

While I was extremely impressed with the scale, impressive architectural techniques, and views of the site, it was an unexpected discovery that made this trip truly memorable. Having seen the largest and most popular building features in the site, Ania, Stu, and I chose to walk a less traveled path through some of the site’s smaller buildings. Only a few meters down the trail, I kicked something that wasn’t the usual pebble found in the road, and picked it up to discover that it was, in fact, part of a skull.  Who knew my semester of osteology (the study of human bones) would come in handy so quickly!

Holding the first piece of human bone we discovered!

Astounded by our find, we studied it for a few minutes before placing it back in the dirt, only to find more bones further down the path. Every few steps, we would notice a different bone peeking out of the dirt directly on the side of the road. We even saw a femur (leg bone) that must have just been unearthed; attached to each end was rotting skin, dripping off into a pool of black sludge (I kid you not!) There were also ancient textiles, pottery, and portions of woven baskets peeking out of the dust. Finally coming upon a sign indicating the history of the area, we confirmed our suspicions – we were walking through an ancient cemetery!

Human vertebrae, thoracic
Stu and I with one of our finds
Femur, mentioned above

While we initially took pictures of all our finds, we had to give up at a point because there were just too many.

While what we found and photographed was amazing, and perhaps the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen at a site, I couldn’t help but be a little sad. Situations like this make me painfully aware of the fact that there is still a large lack of funding for archaeological excavations at such sites in Peru. Pachacamac’s size makes it impossible for every inch to be explored and excavated by archaeologists, so funding tends to be toward excavating and preserving the larger architectural features, which are more exciting to tourists.

Because I have respect for and appreciation of sites like these and the artifacts that they contain, I know better than to grab a shovel and bucket and go digging to see what I can find (although I assure you I would love to work on a site like this). Only an official archaeological investigation has the proper tools and technology to appropriately uncover, analyze, and preserve all of the interesting items that lie just under the surface at Pachacamac. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way, and looters could easily sneak onto the site and amass a decent quantity of artifacts without much effort.

While the things we found were plentiful and, truthfully, indescribable, I know that if proper investigations do not happen sometime soon, there will not be many of these amazing things left. Looters will have scooped them up, unsuspecting tourists will have unknowingly crushed them underfoot, or they will have succumbed to the elements (such as the leg bone we saw rapidly deteriorating). Now, more than ever, is the time to turn our attention to the exploration and preservation of such important sites. Not for tourism’s sake, but to preserve these examples of Peru’s rich heritage for its future generations.

For more information on Pachacamac, visit its Perupedia page here.

Kate is a volunteer and researcher for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.


I'm a 21-year from Boston, MA who recently graduated with a BA in Anthropology/Archaeology. In an attempt to put off entering the real world as long as possible, I jumped at the chance to spend 9 weeks in Peru as a volunteer/tourist/archaeology nerd. I am currently enjoying touring Peruvian archaeological sites, experiencing Lima like a local, and learning about all things Peruvian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *