Chavín de Huántar
Welcome to Chavín de Huántar: a web project by Michelle Robertson, Todd Luka, and Amie Aragones for Man Before History (ANTH 201) at Tulane University, taught by Dr. T. R. Kidder. Copyright November 19, 1999.

Location, Geography, and Climate

Fig. 1 Map                                           Fig. 2 Valley of Chavín de Huántar

The archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar, which lends its name to the rich Chavín culture said to originate there, is located in the highland region of Peru, about 250 km north of Lima.  Peru itself presents a unique and contrasting set of environments in a small area, bringing with them many impediments to human habitation.  According to archaeologist Richard Burger, today only 2% of the land in Peru is arable.  (Burger, 1992, p. 12)

The country is divided into three vastly different climatic strips: the arid desert of the Pacific coast, the towering Andes mountains of the highland area, and the Amazonian rain forest lowlands.  Burger comments that, "A traveler can move from the shores of the coastal plain through the rugged highlands and down into tropical forest in 200 kim or less, encountering in the transect 20 of the world's 34 life zones."  (Burger, 1992, p. 12)  This  rare combination of landscapes and climate make Peru as a pocket of development of civilizations like Chavín and the Inca very interesting.  The Chavín civilization came to occupy approximately 200 square kilometers, and the center of this civilization was Chavín de Huántar.

While we know the features of Peru today, human occupation and natural phenomena have changed the land and climate since prehistoric times.  In the Pleistocene era the climate was much colder than today, but temperatures had become similar to modern times by about 3000 BC.  Global warming caused glaciers to melt, which uncovered more land for farming and grazing.  Glacial runoff caused sea level to rise, flooding three quarters of the coastal plain, but by 3000 BC the sea level stabilized.  The snow line retreated 600 to 700 m in central Peru and 1000 m in northern Peru.  These changes influenced the patterns of vegetation and animal occupation.

Fig. 3 Map of Climates

More recently, world-wide climate changes have occurred due to solar activity cycles as well as the effects of modern society on global warming.  Human impact on the environment since the development of civilization has altered, displaced, and destroyed native flora and fauna, as well as introducing flora and fauna of the Old World.  The world from which the people of Chavín emerged and built their society was different than the one seen around the ruins that have been excavated.  Even so, much can be discovered about this place of development through the excavations at Chavín de Huántar.  (Burger, 1992, p.24)

Why study and excavate Chavín de Huántar?

“… Chavín de Huántar was among the most famous religious centers of the ‘gentiles’, comparable to Rome or Jerusalem in the Old World.” --- Antonio Vásquez de Expinosa, early 17th century

“Chavín de Huántar was the capital of an early empire which included both the highlands and coast of Peru.” --- Ernst Middendorf, late 19th century

“Since Julio C. Tello’s pioneering work in 1919, the site of Chavín de Huántar has been recognized as a center of major importance in the study of early complex Andean societies. …. The tremendous influence of Tello on later generations of Peruvian archaeologists has been one factor in the continuing preeminence of this site.” --- Richard Burger, late 20th century

How has Chavín de Huántar been studied?
Fig. 4 Ceremonial Plaza
Chavín de Huántar presents several problems to the archaeologists who study and excavate it.  The largest obstacles are the landslides.  In an area whose landscape has changed dramatically over the last 3000 years, part of Chavín, and therefore parts of the culture, have been swept away, although there still exists plenty of evidence of this early Andean civilization.

“For the archaeologist the principle impact of the slides and other downslope movements of material is to obscure the location and patterning of the ancient settlement at Chavín de Huántar.  A second result is to cover the archaeological remains with quantities of overburden which is impractical to remove without tremendous investment of labor and equipment.... A third by-product of these downward movements is the scouring of the original land surface and redepositioin of the surface materials further downslope.  This includes archaeological materials as well as soil and rock.... thus even the surface collections that were found may not derive from or reflect the materials that would be found below the surface in excavation; evidence from surface collections at Chavín must be used cautiously. (Burger, 1984, p.14)

A second hindrance is that Chavín de Huántar is still occupied and as modern construction continues, the archaeologists will find less and less “workable” areas.

Techniques employed in the excavations of the small pits included the use of trowels and screening of all soils, etc.  Also, timely investigation of public works construction of thoroughfares and drainage ditches provided some more evidence.

The Excavations at Chavín de Huántar Julio C. Tello was born in the highland province Huarachirí of Lima, Peru, in 1880. Despite economic problems, his intellectual ability enabled him to receive higher education and pursue the dream he and his family had of becoming a doctor.
Tello originally became interested in archaeology when he did a thesis on syphilis in Ancient Peru using little known historical evidence of the time. This thesis earned him a scholarship to study medicine at Harvard University in the United States. At one point, Tello went to New York and studied anthropological methods with noted anthropologists such as Alex Hrdlicka, Franz Boas, and Frederick Putman, furthering his interest in physical anthropology from his work as a document curator at the National Library in Lima.

Fig. 6 Artistic Rendition of Temple Area

Tello became the main advocate of interest in Ancient Peruvian archaeology. His studies brought him closer to his birthplace near Lima to the site of the ruins of the temples at Chavín de Huántar. Through his excavations, Tello linked many ceramics and sculptures to an origin in the civilization centered at Chavín de Huántar. (Aprodev de Peru, 1999) He proposed that Chavín was the oldest Peruvian civilization to date, and that it provided the basis for all later civilizations that developed in Peru. Most archaeologist came to accept a modified version of this theory, and Chavín became compared to other civilizations such as the Chinese Shang, Sumer in Mesopotamia, and the Olmec of Mesoamerica, from which other great and
well known civilizations emerged. (Burger, 1992, pp. 11)

"Richard L. Burger received his BA in Archaeology from Yale College, and his MA and PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.  AFter several years excavating in Peru, he returned to Yale University in 1981 as a faculty member, and is currently Professor of Antrhopology there and Curator of  South American Archaeology at the Yale Peabody Museum.  Since 1975, he has engaged in and directed excavations at Chavín de Huántar and pre-Chavin sites in the highlands and along the coast of Peru.  He has published several books and many articles on Chavín and on South American prehistory in general."  (Burger, 1992)

Fig. 7 Old Temple Layout

In the summers of 1995 and 1996, John Rick led students from Stanford University to do fieldwork at Chavín de Huántar. Their goal was to use theodolite surveying technology to produce accurate maps of the site. The project also included mapping the galleries, interviewing the site caretaker on video, and creating a web site which includes virtual reality panoramas (Old Temple and New Temple). (Exploring Chavín de Huántar, 1997)

Fig. 8 Gallery Complex

The Three Phases at Chavín de Huántar

Fig. 9 Urabarriu Settlement
Size: Lower barrio- 1 hectare
         Upper barrio- 6 hectares
There are two areas of focus in this early phase: Lower or Northern Barrio and Upper of Southern Barrio.  They are separated by 0.5 km of unoccupied land.
The Upper barrio consists of the Temple Area and a small adjacent area along the northern shore of the Huachecsa.  A bridge connected the two areas.
STONE BRIDGE: Occupation on both sides of the Huachecsa suggests the bridge was built previously.  The importance f the bridge for travelers suggests that the structure was important politically and economically for the Chavín.  (Burger, 1984)
SMALL ADJACENT AREA: Little refuse under later Chavín structures suggests utilization of the areas and little more.  An ancient road passed right by the area and continued to the bridge.
TEMPLE AREA: It is speculated that during this phase of occupation the Temple Area was primarily religious in nature.  There is evidence from the artifacts recovered that the upper and Lower barrios were closely related.  It has been suggested that the lower barrio provided the subsistence needs for the religious center.  (Burger, 1984)
There is no concrete proof or correlation between the Old Temple construction phases and the Chavín phases, but the Temple antedates other Chavín structures and it is widely believed that the Old Temple was the first major construction at Chavín.

There are two distinct areas in the Lower barrio: the Monumental Wall and the area of domestic occupation.  The wall area consists of a long wall, a causeway, a second wall, and a gallery.
WALL:  The wall runs east-west about 110 m.  It is comprised of very large, unworked boulders, some of which are still visible today.  The wall terminates at the east end at a causeway.
CAUSEWAY:  The causeway has the same alignment as the wall and continues another 50 m.  It was constructed of large retaining walls filled with loose gravel and cobbles, and it rises several meters above the current ground level.
SECOND WALL: Parallel and north of the long wall there is a second wall larger in scale but much shorter in length.
GALLERY:  South of the walls and perpendicular to them there is a gallery similar to the ones found in the Temple Area.  Functionally, it could have been associated with the wall.
OCCUPIED AREA: This area is approximately 160m south of the wall area. Excavations of the west side revealed refuse but no structures, while the eastern portion revealed structures on platforms as well as refuse. A large number of projectile points found in this area suggests hunting was a part of their lives. This is backed up by non domesticated animal remains found in the area. Bone tools and ornaments production refuse is found here as well.  (Burger,1984)PLATFORMS: Level platforms on which structures were built was common practice throughout the Chavín occupation. The exact size of the platforms in the lower barrio are not known, only that they were bound on the west by sandstone bedrock. The platforms were probably not serving a religious function.  (Burger,1984)

Fig. 10 Chakinani Settlement
Size: approximately 15 hectares
During the relatively short lived phase, the northern or lower barrio was abandoned. The temple area became the centralized region of occupation. There have been several suggestions for the reason. Perhaps the change was due to increasing centralization under the leadership of the Temple, with a concominant lessening between secular and sacred sectors.  (Burger,1984,p.233-234) Or perhaps it may have been in response to the economic stimulus provided by religious pilgrimages  (Trigger, 1972, p.591)
"The continued appearance of imported pottery and exotic food remains outside the Temple confirms that the community around the Temple was integrated into a network of pan-regional exchange with the coast and highlands. The importation of obsidian from the south-central highlands (Burger and Asaro, 1979, pp.305-306) can be unambiguously demonstrated for the Chakinani phase. The presence of shell and fish from the coast has also been documented for this phase."  (Burger, 1984, p.234)
  Fig. 11 Janabarriu Settlement
Size: approximately 42 hectares at its height
During this long phase, Chavín de Huántar expands to one of the largest settlements of its time in Mesoamerica. The community extends from the Chakinani settlement an additional 660m to the south, and 150m to the north. The area was most likely continuously and densely populated, containing somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people. (Burger,1984) The community also differentiates, an important aspect of urbanization. Structures outside differently than those within the Temple zone. the Temple area were constructed Although most of the building supplies were exotic, as would be expected. (Burger,1984, similar, the Temple area was more p.241)
It is during this phase that much of the construction at Chavín takes place. The terracing and drainage systems of the settlement are constructed. The complexity of the Temple area alone demands a large supporting population.

Sculpture and Art of The Three Phases

The religious ideology of the communities surrounding the temple complex at Chavín de Huántar is richly displayed in the ceramics and sculpture found at the site. (There have been no textiles or metal works of this style found in situ at Chavín de Huántar, though it is likely that these forms were used to spread the ideology outside of the valley in which it originated.
The original temple complex was built in the Urabarriu phase. This consists of what is called the Old Temple, a four-story, U-shaped platform (11 to 16 meters high) which encloses a circular sunken courtyard. In addition to its elaborate drainage system and air duct network, it is within this context that the one finds the vast majority of Urabarriu phase ceramics and sculpture.
Fig. 12 Old Temple

The façade of the Old Temple and courtyard were elaborately decorated. At a height of approximately 10 meters and three meters apart, a series of "anthropomorphic" tenoned heads (Fig. 13) are found, some weighing more than half a ton. (Anthropomorphic will be definates as a transitional state somewhere between man, animal, usually feline, eagle or monkey, and the supernatural.)
One meter above these, there was once a row of decorated ashlars, though none of these were found in its original place. These were decorated by using a simple neolithic technology and only the parts that were to be seen were decorated. They were carved by making "narrow incisions at right angles into the prepared flat surface...surrounded by a plain recessed background and by an undecorated band," (Burger 1992, p.145).

The circular courtyard, discovered by Luis Lumbreas in 1972, sinks below the surface of the surrounding courtyard by two and a half meters and measures 21 meters in diameter (Richardson 1994, p.83). The inside wall of the plaza is made up of carefully cut and highly polished slabs. On either side of the eastern-facing stairway are four sculptures of felines in profile, two on each side. At the other end, 13 similar carvings slabs were recovered, carved in pairs and giving the impression of a procession toward the temple. (There probably were 14 of these because of the pairing, but the last has not been found.) Above these feline, rectangular sculptures are a series of vertical slabs depicting anthropomorphic, elaborately costumed beings, again in pairs forming a procession toward the main stairway. Typical Chavín motifs such as jaguars, strombus shell, fanged faces with clawed hands and hair of snakes, as well as San Pedro, an Andean hallucinogenic plant, are depicted in these sculptures (Burger 1992, p.134-135).

Moving within and beneath the Old Temple, one finds a maze-like network of chambers or galleries connected by narrow, dim passageways. The most important of these is called the "Lanzon Gallery." Its location at the center of the temple marks it as a place of particular importance. It was so-named by J.C. Tello because of the sword-like shape of the carved image. However, it has been called by a number of names such as "The Smiling God," but is usually referred to today as "The Great Image,(Fig. 14) " because of its interpreted significance as the central deity of the Chavín ideology. It is made of granite and is nearly five meters tall and weighs around two tons. Its iconographic qualities include two large fangs, clawed feet, snake hair, round eear spools, and pendant eyes. The image has one hand raised and one at his side. It is mainly anthropomorphic, but its dress suggests a male form. There is also some suggestion that this deity was associated with divination (Richardson 1994, p.83).

Another important gallery, the Gallery of the Offerings, has been the most intensely studied of all those at the site. Nearly 800 broken pots have been found that were probably originally filled with offerings of food and chicha beer. The pottery of this gallery has been divided into four stylistic/regional groups: Chavín, Raku, Wachequsa, and Mosna, each representing a different region (up to 200 to 300 km away) that made pilgrimage to the temple and brought offerings. In addition to the vast array of ceramic remains, 231 human bones have been found - "21 children, juveniles, and adults were identified and the full spectrum of body parts appears to be represented," (Burger 1992, p. 138). Most remains were burn and fragmentary, suggesting some form of ritual cannibalism, as yet unproved.

Other galleries of importance are the Gallery of the Snails, the Field Camp Gallery, the Gallery of the Bats, and the Alacenas Gallery. A few of these galleries show what remains of yellow, white, red, blue, and green plaster and paint used inside the temple (Richardson 1994, p.83).

One other discovery of this period, the Tello Obelisk (Fig. 15), was found in the courtyard of the New Temple, but dates to the Old Temple period. It, too, is granite, but smaller than the Lanzon, two and a half meters by 0.32 meters. Its four flat sides, carved in bas-relief, depict two similar representations of the same cayman-like deity. The mouth is most diagnostic of its cayman origin. The left side seems to depict the cayman deity of the underworld, while the one on the right shows that of the sky. Donald Lahrup states that it "appears to represent the dual aspects of the Great Cayman and its role as bestower of domestic plants to mankind," (Burger 1992, p.151).

In addition to this rich sculptural tradition, there is considerable evidence that ceramic styles were well developed. In the Urabarriu phase, ceramics (Fig. 16) are "characterized by simple forms and a diversity of decorative techniques," (Burger 1984, p.37). The majority of ceramics from this period were found in a trench in the northern section of the occupational area. These include bowls of four different shapes, cups with narrow mouths and vertical walls, utilitarian jars with little decoration, single- and stirrup-spouted bottles, which are the most often decorated, and neckless, undecorated ollas, the most common category. Only the exterior was decorated. Red slip was often used, as were the techniques of incision, rocker-stamping, appliqué, and sometimes sculpting of the exterior (Burger 1984, p.51).


The Chakinani phase marks the transition from the Initial Period into the Early Horizon. It is also a time of considerable growth and stabilization within the Chavín culture. There is no addition to or remodeling of the temple complex during this phase. However, ceramics (Fig. 17) clearly become more refined. The whole of the Chakinani sample makes up only three and a half percent of Burger's excavated sample (1984, p. 82). The shapes and forms of these ceramics are distinct from their predecessors, while many of the techniques used are modifications of the Urabarriu phase. In general, there is more of an emphasis on well-polished, smudge-fired ceramics, with less use of red slip. Bowls, plates, undecorated cups, bottles, jars, and neckless ollas continue to be used. The most elaborate of these are the bottles, which are further divided into three groups based on paste and surface texture. The most common differences between the Chakinani and the Urabarriu are the flanged rim, decorated stirrup-spouts, decoration on both inside and outside surfaces, and less red pigment (Burger 1984, p.81-101).

The last phase of the site is the Janabarriu phase (400 to 200 B.C.). During this phase, many more sculptures and structures are created. An addition was made to the temple complex, called the New Temple (Fig. 18), as illustrated in the above map. In the tradition of the Old Temple, most of the decoration is on the exterior of the platform in the form of cornices, tenons, and ornamental facing. However, there are several new and important pieces. The south side of the Old Temple is doubled and a monumental stairway leads down into the new courtyard area, approximately three times the size of the Old Temple circular plaza (Burger 1992, p.177).

The first of these is called the Black and White (Fig. 19)At the top of a large staircase, a large carved lintel (over 10 meters long) is supported on each end by two circular columns, one of white granite and the other of black limestone, leads into subterranean galleries. The white column is possibly a representation of a hawk that can be interpreted as male, while the black column can likewise be argued to be the representation of a female hawk. Furthermore, the lintel is also carved half black and half white, and depicts a procession of alternating hawks and harpy eagles. This further emphasizes duality schemes found elsewhere in the site (Burger 1992, p.175-176).

One of the most diagnostic features of this period is the intensified use of modular width, as in the Raimondi Stone (Fig. 20), which looks as if it could have been drawn on graph paper. It is carved out of granite and measures almost two meters high by 74 cm wide by 17 cm thick. It depicts a frontal view of the supreme deity holding two complex staffs and wearing a huge, elaborate headdress, which covers two-thirds of the entire ashlar. It appears to be a continuation of the Lanzon deity. Also, its anatropic design is very interesting and complex. That is, it can make sense viewed from top or bottom (Burger 1992, p. 175)

A rectangular plaza (85 meters by 105 meter) and a sunken courtyard (50 meters square) are also added to the complex (Richardson 1994, p.86). Within this courtyard has been found three stone ashlars, which show a front-faced deity, a howler anthropomorphized howler monkey, and either a bat or butterfly (Burger 1992, p.176). In the southwest region of the New Temple plaza, there was found a 10 ton limestone slab with seven circular surface depressions. It is called the Altar of Choque Chinchay and is interpreted as a calendar for planting cycles and a tool in predicting the outcome of the harvest (Burger 1992, p.178).

In addition to the above artifacts, there are numerous interior galleries within the New Temple complex, such as the Gallery of the Columns, the Gallery of the Façade, the Gallery of the Carved Stones, and the Gallery of the Captives.

Finally, the ceramics (Fig. 21) of this period make up the majority of Burger's collection (1984, p.107). There appears to have been a gradual shift from Chakinani style to Janabarriu styles, and many of the characteristics survive into this phase. The most commonly decorated ceramics are bowls, which are further divided into two groups, fine bowls and oversized bowls, with numerous forms and decorative styles. They are highly polished and usually very dark gray. Only 12 plates are identified as belonging to this phase. Cups, also, are a small group with little distinguishing them from the previous style. Again, the bottle samples are of particular importance. Rim and spout differences are emphasized. The rims are thickened near the lip, and the spouts are straight, converging, or barrel-shaped. The diameter of the spout gets smaller during this phase. Additionally, there is a greater emphasis on jars during this last phase. Incision continues to be among the most important decorative techniques. However, a few important stylistic differences are the decoration of all surfaces, the decoration of the lip of ceramics, and an intensified use of texturing techniques such as rocker-stamping (Burger 1984, p.107-156).

In Conclusion, this brief discussion of sculpture and ceramics in each of the three periods of the site at Chavín de Huántar is not nearly broad enough to include all the proper aspects of such a study. Much has been left out in an effort to condense the information. One should consult other sources for a more detailed description of the elements presented here.


Figure 1 from Benson, Elizabeth P., ed., 1971.
Figure 2, 18 from Baird, Philip., 1999.
Figure 3, 9, 10, 11 from Burger, Richard., 1984.
Figure 4 from "Exploring Chavín de Huántar"<> 1997.
Figure 5 from "Julio C. Tello: Reconstructing our Magnificent past" <> 1999.
Figure 6, 13 from Fagan, Brian M., 1998.
Figure 7, 8, 14,15,16, 17, 19, 21 from Burger, Richard., 1992.
Figure 12 from Richardson, James B., 1994.
Figure 20 from Antonio de Lavalle, Jose., 1981.


Antonio de Lavalle, Jose, and Werner Lang.  Arte Y Teseros Del Peru: Culturas Precolombinas- Chavín Formativo.  Banco de Credito del Peru: Lima., 1981.

Baird, Philip.  "". <> 1999.

Benson, Elizabeth P., ed.  Dumbarton Oaks Conference on Chavín: October 26th and 27th, 1968.
 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University:
 Washington D.C., 1971.

Burger, Richard L.  The Prehistoric Occupation of Chavín de Hunter, Peru.  University of California Press: Berkeley, 1984.

Burger, Richard L.  Chavín and the Origins of Andean Civilization.  Thames and Hudson: London, 1992.

"Exploring Chavín de Huantar"<> 1997.

Fagan, Brian M.  People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory (9th ed.). Longman, Inc.:
 New York, 1998.

"Julio C. Tello: Reconstructing our Magnificent past". <> 1999.

Moseley, Michael E.  The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archeology of Peru.  Thames and Hudson Ltd.:
 London, 1992.

Richardson, James B.  Smithsonian, Exploring the Ancient World: People of the Andes.  Smithsonian
 Books, 1994.

Tello, Julius C.  “Discovery of Chavín Culture.” American Antiquity. The Society For American
 Archeology: Menasha, Wisconsin, Vol. IX: 1943-44, p.135-160.

LINKS to other Resources

Stock Photos <>

Exploring Chavín de Huántar <>

Chavín de Huántar: The Conspiracy of the Gods <>

Chavín Tradition and Textiles <>