Chavín culture

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The area of the Chavín, as well as areas the Chavín influenced

The Chavín were a civilization that developed in the northern Andean highlands of Peru from 900 BC to 200 BC.[1][2] The Chavin were located in the Mosna Valley where the Mosna and Huachecsa rivers merge. This area is 3150 meters above sea level and encompasses the quechua, jalca, and puna life zones.[3]

The most well-known archaeological ruin of the Chavín era is Chavín de Huántar, located in the Andean highlands north of Lima. It is believed to have been built around 900 BC and was the religious center of the Chavin people.[4] It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.



Chavin Gold Crown Formative Epoch 1200 B.C. to 1 A.D. Larco Museum Collection

The main example of architecture is the Chavin de Huantar temple. The temple's design would not have usually withstood the highland environments of Peru. It would have been flooded and destroyed during the rainy season; however the Chavin people created a successful drainage system. Several canals were built under the temple to allow for drainage. The Chavin people also had advanced acoustic understanding. During the rainy season water would rush through the canals creating a roaring sound. This would make the temple appear to be roaring like a jaguar. The temple is built of white granite and black limestone, neither of which is found near the Chavin site. These products would have to have been dragged from far away rather than using local rock deposits.

The Chavin civilization was also advanced for their time in several areas including metallurgy, soldering, and temperature control. Chavin used early techniques to develop beautiful, artistic gold. The melting of metal had been discovered at this point and was used as a solder. [5]

The Chavin people were able to domesticate camelids, such as llamas. Camelids were used as pack animals, for fiber, and for meat. The Chavin produced ch'arki, or llamas jerky.[6] This product was commonly traded by camelid herders and was the main economic source of the Chavin people. Chavin people also successfully cultivated several crops including potatoes, maize, and quinoa. An irrigation system was developed to assist to growth of these crops.[7]


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The Raimondi Stela from the Chavín Culture, Ancash, Peru

The Chavín culture represents the first widespread, recognizable artistic style in the Andes. Chavín art can be divided into two phases: The first phase corresponding to the construction of the "Old Temple" at Chavín de Huántar (c. 900–500 BC); and the second phase corresponding to the construction of Chavín de Huantar's "New Temple" (c. 500–200 BC).

A general study of the coastal Chavín pottery with respect to shape reveals two kinds of vessels: a polyhedrous carved type and a globular painted type.[8] Stylistically, Chavín art forms make extensive use of the technique of contour rivalry. The art is intentionally difficult to interpret and understand, since it was intended only to be read by high priests of the Chavín cult who could understand the intricately complex and sacred designs. The Raimondi Stela is one of the major examples of this technique.

Chavin art decorates the walls of the temple and includes carvings, sculptures and pottery. Artists depicted foreign things such as jaguars and eagles rather than local plants and animals. The feline figure is one of the most important motifs seen in Chavin art. It has an important religious meaning and is repeated on many carvings and sculptures. Eagles are also commonly seen throughout Chavin art. There are three important artifacts which are the major examples of Chavin art. These artifacts are the Tello Obelisk, tenon heads, and the Lanzon. Tello Obelisk is a giant sculpted shaft which features images of plants and animals. It includes caymans, birds, crops, and human figures. The illustration on this large artifact may possibly portray a creation story. Tenon heads are found throughout Chavin de Huantar and are one of the most popular images associated with the Chavin civilization. Tenon heads are massive stone carvings of fanged jaguar heads which stick out from the tops of the interior walls. Possibly the most impressive artifact from Chavin de Huantar is the Lanzon. The Lanzon is a 4.53 meter long granite shaft displayed in the temple. The shaft goes extends through an entire floor of the structure and the ceiling. It is carved with an image of a fanged deity and it is the main cult image of the Chavin people.[9]


File:Cabeza Clava Chavin.JPG
A Chavin stone art in the shape of a head.

The nature-based iconography of anthropomorphic figures which utilizes a feline theme is one of the broad and characteristic traits of Chavín culture.[10] There are a few deities that seem to be a part of the Chavín religion, as they appear frequently in the iconography. The main deity is characterized by long fangs and long hair made out of snakes. This is the god that is believed to be responsible for balancing opposing forces. Several other deities have been identified such as: a deity for food represented through flying cayman, the deity of the underworld represented as anacondas, and the deity of the supernatural world in general represented through jaguars. These themes of the deities are present in the ceramics, metal work, textiles, and architectural sculptures.

Chavín de Huántar is clearly a large congregating location for religious purposes of some kind. Religious activity involved elaborate costumes and music. Carvings at Chavin de Huantar show figures wearing elaborate headdresses and blowing a trumpet-like shell instrument. Similar instruments found at other early Peruvian sites suggest they have a religious importance. The Chavin religion was possibly lead by or involved priestly roles. There is a carving showing two identical shaman figures walking in a procession towards stairs. This carving possibly depicts a Chavin ceremony. Chavin religious ceremonies also included ritual burnings. Several rooms in the temple have small fire pits with remains of food, animals, and pottery, suggesting sacrificial offerings.[9]

Chavin religion involved human transformation aided by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. Many sculptures have been recovered showing the transformation from a human head to a jaguar head. There are also carvings depicting similar images. The use of psychotropic drugs for religious purposes can be supported indirectly through the archeological record. San Pedro cacti exist in the area and are known to have hallucinogenic effects. The cactus is also frequently depicted in the iconography, particularly of the staff god, who is shown holding the cactus as a staff. Another indirect sign that psychotropic drugs may have been used is through the anthropomorphic iconography characteristic of Chavín. Small mortars, possibly used to grind vilca (a hallucinogenic snuff), have been uncovered, along with bone tubes and spoons decorated with wild animals may be associated with shamanistic transformations. Artwork at Chavín de Huantar also show figures with mucus streaming from their nostrils (a side effect of vilca use) and holding what is interpreted to be San Pedro. All of these suggest that psychotropic drugs may have been used at Chavín.[1]

Sphere of Influence

The Chavín culture had a fairly large sphere of influence throughout surrounding civilizations. For example, Pacopampa, which is located north (about a 3 week trek) of Chavín de Huántar has renovations on the main temple that are characteristic of Chavín culture. Caballo Muerto, a coastal site in the Moche Valley region, has an adobe structure that was created in the renovation of the main temple which is a consequence of Chavín influence. Garagay, a site in the modern day Lima region, has variations of the iconography that is characteristic of Chavín including a head with mucus coming out of it. Finally the site of Cerro Blanco, in the Nepena valley, has revealed Chavín ceramics during excavations. The idea of a peer polity environment may explain the atmosphere of the time. Several ceremonial centers existed, each one focused around a civilization. Each area was competing with each other in some sense, but exchanging goods at the same time. It appears that the Chavín culture did not partake in warfare; the archaeological evidence does not support the hypothesis that warfare did exist. Interestingly enough, though, warfare is found only in contemporaneous sites that were not influenced by Chavín culture. Almost as if those other civilizations were defending themselves via warfare from the Chavín sphere of influence that was taking place in a cultural sense. [1]

Chavín as a style, and probably as a period, is widespread stretching from Piura on the far north coast to Paracas on the south coast and from Chavín in the north highlands and to Pucara in the south highlands.[11]

Chavín Horizon Development

Some argued and thought that the development of Chavín social complexities coincided with the cultivation of maize. Through an analysis of carbon isotope in the human bones found at Chavín sites it has been proven that diet consisted mainly of C3 foods such as potatoes and quinoa, while maize, a C4 food, was not a part of the main diet. Potato and quinoa are more favorable crops for the Chavin environment. They are more resistant to frost and irregular rain fall associated with high altitude environments. Maize would not be able to thrive in such conditions.[2]

There are three ceramic stages of the Chavín horizon. These three stages were originally identified through stratified ceramics, but have come to encompass three stages of development for the Chavín culture. Urabarriu, the first stage, extends from 900 B.C. to 500 B.C. During this time at Chavín de Huántar two small residential areas, not located directly surrounding the ceremonial center, housed a few hundred people in total. This phase showed the greatest animal diversity. The people hunted mainly cervid and began to hunt and use camelids. Clams and shellfish from the Pacific Ocean were eaten, and animal remains from this period also include birds and guinea pigs. Chavin people grew some maize and potatoes during this phase.[6] The ceramics in the Urabarriu stage are highly influenced by other cultures.[1] During the Urabarriu phase, the archeological evidence suggests dispersed centers of production for ceramics, probably in response to a low demand from the dispersed population.[12]

The Chakinani is the next stage and a short time of transition in Chavín culture taking place from 500 B.C. to 400 B.C. During this time the residences migrated to surround the ceremonial center. During the Chakinani stage is the Chavín began to domesticate the llama and reduced the hunting of deer. Increased communication with outside civilizations is also seen at this time.[1]

The Jarabarriu is the final stage of the Chavín Horizon lasting from about 400 B.C. to 250 B.C. This is the time when Chavín culture explodes through a dramatic increase in population. The settlement pattern changes to a proto-urban pattern consisting of lowland valley peoples and smaller satellite communities in the surrounding higher altitude areas. It is during the Jarabarriu stage that specialization and social differentiation become apparent in Chavín culture. The people that lived in the east at Chavín de Huántar are thought to have lower prestige and be in charge of hide preparation, whereas the people who lived in the west are thought to have higher prestige. Found in the west are gold and spondylus along with exotic pottery which may have had symbolic powerful significance. Through the analysis of the bones, it is evident that the people who resided in the west were eating younger more tender llama meat than those in the east. There is evidence also that during this time llama meat was packaged in the high altitude areas and brought down to the communities around the ceremonial center instead of the llamas coming down themselves.[1] A diverse and intense production of ceramics is suggested during the Jarabarriu phase, when the valley was heavily populated and the ceramic style more defined. It is during this time that you see satellite communities as having centers of production as well as the valley itself.[12]

Presence of Elite

At Chavín power was legitimized through the belief in the few elite having a divine connection; shamans derived power and authority from their claim to a divine connection. This held weight for the community due to the belief in and the desire to connect with the divine. If asymmetrical power existed, one would expect to find evidence of the manipulation of traditions. Strategic manipulation is a vehicle of change that Shamans could use to produce authority. During the Chavín horizon large changes were taking place.[13][14]

Asymmetrical power held by shamans at Chavín de Huántar is a likely explanation evidenced through the archaeological evidence. In this, there would be evidence of reinterpretation of traditions. “The greater degree of elaboration of persuasion evident in the rites, materials, and settings of the belief system, the more likely that, not only were the leaders aware of being self-serving in their actions, but also they were actually conscious of the trajectory change.” [13] There are several examples of reinterpreted tradition that are evident specifically at Chavín de Huántar: invented tradition, use of psychotropic drugs, landscape altering, as well as the construction and planning of stone walled galleries.[13]

The concept of invented tradition refers to a situation in which outside elements are newly brought together to depict a seemingly old tradition. This can be seen generally in the architecture of the features at Chavín de Huántar, which bring together many aspects of outside cultures to create a unique new, yet traditional appearance.[13][14][15]

The use of psychotropic drugs introduces a medium for manipulation. Only indirect evidence supports the use of psychotropic drugs. The existence of San Pedro cactus in the area, the common depiction of the cactus, and the anthropomorphic figures which may suggest hallucinations each point to the utilization of psychotropic drugs. It is unclear, if the San Pedro cactus was ingested, who was actually consuming the cactus: the masses or only the shaman elite. Either way the use of psychotropic drugs can indicate manipulation. If the masses were taking the cactus they would be more susceptible to the influences of the shamans. If the shamans were the only ones consuming the cactus, this could be seen as a status symbol. The shamans would be perceived to have special powers to connect with the nature and the divine through consuming the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus.[13][14]

The vast degree of landscape altering at Chavín de Huántar for temple reconstructions shows that someone or a group of people had the power to plan the reconstructions and influence others to carry out those plans. Therefore the large landscaping that occurred at this site supports the hypothesis of asymmetrical power.[13][14]

Finally, the planning and construction of the stone-walled galleries, in particular, suggest a hierarchical system of sorts. On top of the heavy manpower required for the complex construction, the planning of the galleries is unique. The way the galleries were constructed allows for only one entrance; this is atypical of the time where rooms commonly have multiple entrances and exits. The iconography on the walls of the stone galleries is highly complex. The complexity suggests that only a select few people were able to understand the iconography and these people would serve as translators for the few others that were privileged to view the stone galleries. The limited access, both physically and symbolically, of the stone-walled galleries supports the existence of shaman elite at Chavín de Huántar. All of the aforementioned evidence is indicative that the evolution of authority at Chavín resulted from a well thought out strategy by the shamans and those who planned and constructed the ceremonial center.[13][14]

Popular culture

In Digging for the Truth television series season 2, episode 1 The Real Temple of Doom concentrates on Chavín cultures.

See also

External links



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Burger, Richard L. 2008 Chavin de Huantar and its Sphere of Influence. In Handbook of South American Archeology, edited by H. Silverman and W. Isbell. Springer, NY. Pages 681-706.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Burger, Richard L., and Nikolaas J. Van Der Merwe 1990 Maize and the Origin of Highland Chavín Civilization: An Isotopic Perspective. American Anthropologist 92(1):85-95.
  3. Burger, Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization 1992
  4. Burger, Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization 1992
  5. Lothrop, S. K. 1951 Gold Artifacts of Chavin Style. American Antiquity 16(3):226-240.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Miller and Burger, 1995
  7. Burger and Van Der Merwe, 1990
  8. Tello, Julio C. 1943 Discovery of the Chavín Culture in Peru. American Antiquity 9(1, Countries South of the Rio Grande):135-160.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Burger, Richard L. Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.
  10. Kanåo, Chiaki. 1979 The Origins of the Chavâin Culture. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.
  11. Bennett, Wendell C. 1943 The Position of Chavin in Andean Sequences. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 86(2, Symposium on Recent Advances in American Archæology):323-327.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Druc, Isabelle C. 2004 Ceramic Diversity in Chavín De Huantar, Peru. Latin American Antiquity 15(3):344-363.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 John W. Rick, "The Evolution of Authority and Power at Chavín de Huantar, Peru," review-article, April 15, 2005,
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 Kembel, Silvia Rodriquez and John W. Rick. 2004 Building Authority at Chavin de Huantar: Models of Social Organization and Development in the Initial Period and Early Horizon. In Andean Archaeology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub
  15. Burger, Richard 1992 Sacred Center at Chavin de Huantar. In The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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