The Handbook of South American Archaeology

pp 681-703

Chavín de Huántar and Its Sphere of Influence

  • Richard L. BurgerAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Yale University

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Chavín de Huántar, an archaeological site in the Peruvian north highlands, has long been recognized as one of the most important centers of the pre-Hispanic Andes. This understanding predates the beginning of scientific archaeology in Peru. In 1553 Pedro Cieza de Leon, a Spanish soldier and keenly observant chronicler, reported that the massive constructions at Chavín de Huántar had been built by a race of giants long before the Inca conquest and that their portraits in stone could still be seen at the site. When the Archbishop of Lima visited the site in 1593 he described Chavin as an ancient fortress. In 1616 the writer Vasquez de Espinoza offered a more astute assessment: “It was a huaca or sanctuary, one of the most famous of the gentiles, like Rome or Jerusalem among us; a place where the Indians came to make offerings and sacrifices, because the demon in this place declared many oracles to them, and so they attended from throughout the kingdom” (Vasquez de Espinoza 1948 [1616]: 458).

The reputation of this long-abandoned archaeological complex as a center of great spiritual power and oracular authority was reiterated in 1619 by a Jesuit mission to Cajatambo when the local residents described Chavín de Huántar’s main construction as “a building that is very feared and greatly venerated and they call it the house of the huacas … and they [the huacas] spoke and answered the men [who were] their children, and [they spoke] to the heads of lineages that exist today among the Indians of this land” (Duviols 1973).