Chavin de Huantar lies in a narrow valley in the high Andes, 3,200m (10,500ft) above sea level. You can’t see the temple until you’re in it. The dramatic, vertical landscape was the carefully chosen location for this exquisite example of Chavin architecture. The bottom of the valley, where two rivers meet, dominates the flat land around it and would have attracted visitors from miles around.
The temple, now protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, is thought to have first been occupied around 5,000 years ago, becoming a cultural centre for people living in ancient Peru in about 1,000BC.
“Chavin was built in a risky spot, in a highly flood-prone location,” explains John Rick, associate professor of anthropology, Stanford. “They were aware of the risk of floods and they built towards these risks and not away from them. The monumentality was not only to impress visitors but also to tell them that the creators were capable of challenging nature successfully. And they did very well with it.”
It’s not the biggest site of its kind, but probably contains the most interesting secrets. Structures 25m (82ft) high surround a platform the size of a football pitch. Exposed granite stonework is adorned with art. Someone seeing it for the first time could not fail to be impressed.
The centre of the temple is a world apart. A complex of underground spaces and tunnels transported visitors into a place where their minds would be very susceptible to ritual activity, sound and visual effects. The priests at Chavin seemed able to produce experiences with no rational explanation. To the uninitiated, their powers raised them to a level of demi-god.
Lost in a labyrinth of underground tunnels lit by sunlight, adorned with stone carvings that appear to roar at passers-by, water that rushed up to meet them, visitors would have been completely disoriented by the experience. “It was a convincing system,” says Rick. “And it pushed the innovation of advanced technology. They were using hydraulics, acoustics, mirrors, psychoactive drugs. They made water dance and sing by its motion through canals. The creators of the temple were pushing their scientific understanding forwards. This is a way of showing off but in a very serious – cultic – sense.”
The hallucinogenic drugs came from several indigenous cactus species. “We have representations of the plants with people carrying the cactus. In the same stone art we see the effects. A number of the plants are taken as snuffs – it’s very irritating. We have representation of mucus flow, wide staring eyes and other features like pain which can be matched with drug users still using these drugs in the Amazon basin. And we have paraphernalia; snuffing tubes, tablets, mortars.
“The drugs fit hand in glove with what was going on at Chavin. They were credibility drugs, they’re not the most extreme where you’re completely out of your world – the users weren’t catatonic. You live with them and become more impressionable. They’re ideal for this system.”
So who were these people travelling from far and wide to a remote, inaccessible plateau high in the Andes for the sole purpose of being initiated through a labyrinthine temple by god-like priests? The answer lies in what they brought with them, and what they hoped to take away.