Chavín Culture - Widespread Cult Tradition in Early Horizon Peru

Did Chavin de Huantar Control the Spread of a Cult in Ancient Peru?

Chavin de Huantar, Peru
Chavin de Huantar, Peru. Alun Salt

Chavín is the name of a widespread religious cult and (perhaps) political empire, which radiated out of the city of Chavín de Huántar in Andean Peru between about 400-200 calendar years BC (cal BC), during the Early Horizon in Andean culture. Chavín de Huántar drew people from all over the Andean highlands and coastal regions, absorbing artifacts, architecture, iconography and ritual from those cultures and transforming those disparate elements into a cosmopolitan new religion.

Cultural traits recognized as part of the Chavín cult at Chavín de Huántar and elsewhere include fantastic renderings of felines, snakes and raptorial birds; incised pottery in stirrup-jar and other distinctive forms; flat-topped U-shaped adobe-brick pyramids with mud friezes or painted murals; subterranean galleries; and circular plazas.

Chronology at Chavín

The settlement known as Chavín de Huántar was established about 900 cal BC by llama hunters, who grew maize and potatoes and built the first monumental temples during what is called the Ubrabarriu phase. Between 500-400 cal BC (the Chakinani phase), there is evidence for residential clustering near the temples: throughout both of these earlier periods can be seen evidence for liberal contact with populations well outside of the city. By the Janabarriu phase (400-250 cal BC), there was a population explosion, partly driven by in-migration.

The site reached 40 hectares (about 100 acres) in area, and supported a population of between 2,000-3,000 people.

Status differentiation at Chavín de Huántar is well-expressed during the Janabarriu phase. A few elite individuals had restricted access to finely crafted gold jewelry, cinnabar from south central Peru, Spondylus shell from Ecuador, and obsidian, exotic pottery and foods from the coast and elsewhere.

Much of the meat production, lithic raw materials and pottery was brought in from outside the city, and access to the city by pilgrims made Chavín de Huántar a dominant regional center. It was also during this period that expansion of the new religion extended back outside of the city.

Borrow and Transform

Chavín de Huántar borrowed from other cultures such things as flat-topped pyramids from the central Peruvian coast; circular plazas from the north central coasts; columns from northern coast Cupisnique centers such as Huaca Lucia and Huaca de los Reyes; subterranean galleries and fine veneers from Late Preceramic and Initial Period centers like La Galgada. All of these elements pre-date their use at Chavín de Huántar.

Fascinatingly, these borrowed traits were transformed into a new theme, with images and icons developed on tropical forest flora and fauna. That theme was then radiated out from the cosmopolitan center of Chavín de Huántar in new forms and purposes.

How Much Control Did Chavín de Huántar Exercise?

A central debate about Chavín has to do with how much power the elites at Chavín de Huántar had over impacted centers like Cerro Blanco, Huaca Parrtida, Pacopampa, Layzon, Kuntur Wasi, Sechin Alto, and Pallka.

The cult elements are present in these communities, but whether Chavín de Huántar actually had much or any control over these regions is still under discussion.

Current understandings of this religious cult are far different than what archaeologists originally thought of Chavín: in particular, the borrowing aspect of Chavín cult was not recognized until scientific dating and identification of new sites bearing Chavín characteristics was accomplished. That development is a direct outgrowth of the original excavator Julio C. Tello's first work at the capital Chavín de Huántar in the 1930s, and extended by numerous archaeologists since that time.

Sites:  Huaca de los Reyes, Garagay, Cerro Sechín, Huaricoto, and Chavín de Huántar


This article is a part of the guide to the Initial Period and Early Horizons of Andean Cultures, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Chavín Culture - Widespread Cult Tradition in Early Horizon Peru." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2016, Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, April 8). Chavín Culture - Widespread Cult Tradition in Early Horizon Peru. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Chavín Culture - Widespread Cult Tradition in Early Horizon Peru." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 21, 2017).