Chavin de Huantar, Peru
“Of all of the ancient cultures I admire, that of Chavin amazes me the most. Actually, it has been the inspiration behind most of my art.”
You know you’re probably on to a good thing when it gets the (rather abstract) tick of approval from Pablo Picasso. It’s an obscure thing, though, for a painter of the twentieth century to be drawing inspiration from a culture that existed about 3000 years earlier. It’s especially obscure when you consider that almost nobody has heard of the Chavin.
I certainly hadn’t heard of them until I decided to visit their most famous site – Chavin de Huantar. The Incas were not the first civilisation to build an empire in the Andes of Peru. Oh no. The Chavin were doing exactly that more than 2000 years before them. Three thousand metres above sea level, they were making their mark as one of the strangest cultures Peru would ever see.
To get to Chavin de Huantar, I set out from the city of Huaraz, which is about 400 kilometres north of Lima. If a crow was flying to the site, it would be quite a quick journey, but the winding road through the mountains takes about three hours on the bus.
I couldn’t find an easy way to do it independently so I’ve joined a tour for the day, which seems to be the option most people go for. Our guide speaks only Spanish, though, and my ability to ask for the bathroom and for more beer (the two go well together) isn’t helping me understand him.
I’m enjoying just looking at the Chavin de Huantar site, though. Unlike the ruins of Caral on the desert plains near the coast, which I wrote about yesterday, these are surrounded by deep green mountains. The remains of the stone buildings almost blend in with the mountains around them, rising up from the ground, the rough brown and grey sides leading up to small unkempt lawns of grass on top. The structures here have been built at different levels on the landscape so it appears as if they are rising and falling just like the peaks around them.
“You don’t speak Spanish?” a woman in the group asks me, as I’m taking a photo of
She’s Peruvian and has just been having a conversation with another local about my apparent disinterest in the guide. She’s concerned that I’m not getting the most out of the trip and so she starts to translate a bit and tell me about what I’ve missed.
As she tells me about the hallucinogenic drugs, the human sacrifices and the underground tunnels that mimic animal noises when wind blows through them, I’m suddenly a lot more interested in what I’ve been missing out on.
I also start to understand why Pablo Picasso found these people so fascinating.
The guide points to a sculpture protruding from a wall. It looks a bit like the head of a cat but there’s something human about it too. My new translator leans over and tells me that the religious leaders here used to take hallucinogenic drugs and this is a representation of what they thought they became. That’s pretty far out.
In fact, a lot about the Chavin culture was pretty far out. Historians don’t know a lot of the details because there was no form of writing, but they’ve pieced together quite a bit. These leaders – or shamans, would probably be more accurate – got their highs from the San Pedro cactus. They believed they then turned into animals, bringing them spiritually closer to nature. Their main religious totem, a five metre tall stone column called the Lanzon, is carved with images of these animals.
Human blood, poured over the Lanzon, was probably how the Chavin prayed for rain, healthy crops or other good fortune. But the prayers were most likely loud and powerful. Special tunnels had been constructed so that when the wind blew through them, the sound mimicked the roar of a jaguar, for instance. And other gutters and pipes would flow water through the ceremonial areas, possibly at torrential rates.
The Chavin culture survived for about 700 years but it was never a military might. It maintained its power over its neighbours through the strength of its culture – particularly its spirituality. I mean, who is going to argue with a ruling class of half men, half cats who bring forth the roars of the mountains’ predators?!
It’s maybe more understandable then, that centuries later this culture was still having such a strong impact on people. Well, when I say people, I mean at least an artist of great imagination who could imagine in his own mind what these ancient shamans once saw in their visions.